When analyzing rookie players, the development between their first and second seasons in the league is noteworthy. If they can show a proper second-year jump in terms of performance and role, a team can certainly feel good about their development. If not, those players may take a little longer to develop or are possibly not a fit.
Rookies are not the only players subject to a second-year jump, though. Despite their superior experience in the NFL, veteran additions can also show some considerable progress between Years 1 and 2.
With that in mind, let’s try to find out who is falling into this category for the New England Patriots: Which veterans first acquired at one point in 2019 have shown a leap during the 2020 season?
Players who were added in 2019 but did not make it through the 2020 season — wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is a good example — are obviously excluded from this list. The same goes for the five players whose rights did remain in New England’s control for all of last year but who have since departed the club:
WR Quincy Adeboyejo, S Terrence Brooks, LB Shilique Calhoun, OT Jermaine Eluemunor, OL Najee Toran
While Adeboyejo and Toran spent the entire 2020 season on the injured reserve and Covid-19 opt-out list, respectively, the others did see some action. Eluemunor was a part-time starter along the offensive line; Brooks served as a rotational safety and special teamer; Calhoun was employed as a situational pass rusher. However, neither of them is currently under contract with the club and thus excluded from this analysis.
This leaves us with eight players, so let’s find out how they fared in their de fact sophomore campaigns as Patriots (while being listed in alphabetical order):
S Justin Bethel: Bethel was a late October pickup by the Patriots in 2019 but already received regular action as a special teamer in his first half-season with the club. In 2020, he built on this performance: Bethel finished the season as New England’s leader in kicking game snaps (334), tackles (14) and blocked kicks (1). He earned himself a three-year contract extension due to his play in Year 2.
RB Brandon Bolden*: The asterisk next to Bolden’s name is there for two reasons. Not only did he simply return to New England after a one-year stint in Miami — he was a Patriot already between 2012 and 2017 — he also opted out of the 2020 season. Even if he had played, though, a second-year jump would likely not have occurred simply due to his prior experience in the system.
LB Tashawn Bower: Bower saw no in-game action during the 2019 season after being picked up via the practice squad in late November. He was more active during his 2020 campaign. Either as a practice squad elevatee or active roster addition he appeared in seven total games before being placed on injured reserve in late December. Despite such an end to his season, it was a successful one from an individual perspective.
OT Korey Cunningham: The 2019 and 2020 seasons looked pretty similar for Cunningham. The trade acquisition saw only marginal playing time. While his in-game appearances jumped from just one to eleven, his combined offensive and special teams snaps increased from 67 to just 88. Cunningham remained an emergency option first and foremost.
K Nick Folk: When New England added Folk to replace Mike Nugent who himself had replaced Stephen Gostkowski, expectations were limited. However, Folk not only looked good in Year 1 as a Patriot, he was actually even better in Year 2: he was ranked ninth in the league in combined accuracy on field goal and extra point attempts — 91.8 percent (56 of 61) — and made two game-winners from 50+ yards out. The veteran was pretty good.
TE Matt LaCosse*: Coming off an injury-riddled first year with the Patriots, LaCosse did not show any development in 2020 for one simple reason: he, like Bolden, decided to opt out of the season. LaCosse will get another chance to prove himself this summer, but it will not be easy after the team added Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in free agency.
WR Devin Ross: Ross is in the same basic boat as Korey Cunningham: his 2019 and 2020 seasons looked very much alike. He spent parts of both years on the practice squad, and did not get any in-game opportunities. After his release last October he was re-signed last month after a successful minicamp tryout.
DT Nick Thurman: After spending the entire 2019 season on New England’s practice squad, Thurman spent his 2020 campaign moving between the developmental and active rosters. In total, he appeared in seven games and played 120 defensive snaps — the first in-game action of his career. The season was therefore a success for Thurman, and he showed some development compared to his first year with the Patriots.
The Patriots’ offseason or in-season acquisitions in 2019 were not necessarily sexy, at least when judged by those names who are still with the team to this day. That being said, some members of the group did show some solid development in Year 2, with Justin Bethel and Nick Folk in particular standing out.
While most of the players listed above played only marginal roles, those two have developed into key members of New England’s special teams unit — arguably the best in football last year, thanks in large part to their contributions.