With only the Super Bowl left to be played this season and the pre-draft process already in full swing down at the Senior Bowl, 30 of the NFL’s 32 teams are in full-on offseason mode. The New England Patriots are among them, which gives us the perfect opportunity to take a look at what might be lying ahead for the team this year.
How about finding the candidate to become the team’s breakout player in 2022, for example? That idea itself comes after a story over at Pro Football Focus recently crowned its candidates for each of the teams. The Patriots’ representative on the list was defensive tackle Christian Barmore, with the reasoning behind his selection explained as follows:
Barmore had one of the best second-halves by any interior pass-rusher in 2021, much less rookies at the position.
The Alabama product was the 12th-ranked player on PFF’s big board but slid to Round 2. With his build, flexibility, explosiveness and hand usage, Barmore looked like a surefire impact NFL interior defensive lineman. So far, he’s proving that to be the true and has the chance to establish himself as a top-tier player at the position.
Barmore certainly is a worthy candidate for consideration after bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2021. In fact, an argument can be made that the second-round draft choice already broke out last year: he ranked second among all Patriots defensive tackles in playing time, and registered more quarterback pressures than all but one player on the team (Matthew Judon).
In fat, if not for the Dallas Cowboys’ Micah Parsons having one of the better rookie seasons in recent memory, Barmore might have been a candidate for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year” honor. Yes, he was that good.
While it remains to be seen what the future holds for him, and whether or not he will make the famous second-year jump, one could make the argument that Barmore is already past the “breakout candidate” stage even after just one season. Let’s therefore focus on other players on New England’s roster who very much still have plenty of room for growth.
We will look specifically at comparatively little used role or backup players who could become major pieces for the Patriots at their respective positions in 2022. With that said, let’s take a look at six candidates (plus some honorable mentions) who could fit that definition.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
2021 season: 24.6% offensive snaps; 141 carries, 614 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns
Why he could break out: Even though he was one of the most productive rookie running backs in the NFL last season, Stevenson still has room for growth. The fourth-round draft pick, after all, saw only irregular action early on and continued to play second fiddle to Damien Harris down the stretch. Harris is still around, but Stevenson still has potential to expand his role and become more of a versatile member of New England’s backfield in the mold of a Rex Burkhead.
TE Jonnu Smith
2021 season: 46.8% offensive snaps; 28 receptions, 294 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
Why he could break out: How can a player who signed a four-year, $50 million contract just a year ago be a breakout candidate? If he had a relatively quiet first season with his new team, which is exactly what happened with Jonnu Smith. The high-priced free agency acquisition saw most of his action as a blocker in 2021 and as a result put up rather pedestrian receiving numbers. The hope is that the Patriots’ new offensive coordinator, whoever it will be, will open up the passing game a bit more and find ways to get Smith involved.
LB Josh Uche
2021 season: 21.3% defensive snaps; 12 tackles, 17 quarterback disruptions
Why he could break out: Uche did show some progress from his 2020 rookie season to 2021. However, he was still only used in a relatively marginalized role: playing one fifth of defensive snaps, he was employed predominately as a pass-rush specialist. With New England’s defensive edge group possible facing some turnover — neither Kyle Van Noy nor Chase Winovich are locks to return — the door might open up for Uche to expand his role.
LB Raekwon McMillan
2021 season: N/A
Why he could break out: McMillan is entering his sixth year in the NFL, yet he is still a player waiting to truly break out. He might get his best chance yet with the Patriots: the former second-round draft pick looked good last summer and appeared to be on his way to earn a regular spot as an off-the-ball linebacker. A torn ACL suffered in training camp changed his trajectory, but the team still signed him to a contract extension to keep working with him in 2022. McMillan will get every chance to repay the organization’s faith in him.
LB Cameron McGrone
2021 season: N/A
Why he could break out: Speaking of torn ACLs: Cameron McGrone missed half of his final season at Michigan plus his entire rookie campaign as a Patriot due to a knee injury. Just like Raekwon McMillan, he might benefit from New England’s current outlook at the linebacker spot. With Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins all headed for unrestricted free agency and the team in need of some younger playmakers at the position, McGrone might see a lot of action in his first true NFL season. The key word, of course, is “might.”
CB Shaun Wade
2021 season: 1% defensive snaps; 1 tackle
Why he could break out: The Patriots thought highly enough of Wade to invest a draft pick in him last year. They did not draft him, but they acquired him via trade from the Baltimore Ravens after they surprisingly were planning to move on. Wade saw only minimal action during his rookie campaign, but he has some potential. Add the fact that New England needs better cornerback depth, and that he will be in a better position with a full offseason, and Wade might just enter breakout territory in 2022.
With those six out of the way, let’s also take a look at some honorable mentions.
Defensive back Joshuah Bledsoe certainly deserves a mention as well. While not in as promising a position to see an increase in playing time as Shaun Wade, for example, his versatility could allow him to carve out a role on the roster in 2022. The same goes for a pair of practice squad players: defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale and wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson; both looked good in limited action last season.
With all that being said, who would be your choice as the Patriots’ 2022 breakout candidate? Let us know below!