Under-the-Radar New England Patriots Ready to Break Out in 2012
The New England Patriots are a team that, when most think of them, they picture marquee players like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but there are many more key cogs behind the scenes that make this team successful. Plenty of these lesser-known players will make an impact in Foxborough this season.
Here is a look at a few of those under-the-radar players that could emerge into household names throughout the 2012 season.
Justin Francis, DL
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Justin Francis is a player I have been high on since the Patriots signed him as an undrafted rookie following April’s draft. He is a versatile defensive lineman that played everything from defensive tackle to linebacker during his time at Rutgers.
Francis has been a favorite of Bill Belichick’s, getting reps with the first-team defensive line alongside Vince Wilfork ever since the team first took the field for OTAs this May.
His reps with the first team have continued into this summer, where he has been a constant active presence along the defensive line so far in training camp, as Andy Hart of Patriots Football Weekly reports.
Every year Belichick is sure to keep at least one undrafted rookie on his 53-man roster and Francis is making an early run at grabbing one of those spots and perhaps carving out a niche on this 2012 Patriots defense.
Shane Vereen, RB
It is difficult to say that a player who was a second-round selection just a year ago is an under-the-radar player, but after the almost nonexistent presence of Shane Vereen in his rookie season, he qualifies.
Vereen is one name that I really expect to blow up this season. He is the favorite right now to unseat Danny Woodhead as the team’s back on third down and in spread formations, and he adds burst and explosiveness out of those sets that Woodhead does not have.
Pass blocking was widely thought to be something he needed to work on last year, which may have been a reason they were not comfortable throwing him in there as a rookie. But after a year under running backs coach Ivan Fears, he should be at least somewhat improved, one would hope.
Vereen and fellow second-year back Stevan Ridley should combine this season to make the backfield in New England much more dynamic than it has been in a long time.
Dane Fletcher, LB
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Dane Fletcher, like Francis, joined the team as an undrafted free agent and he has become a shining example of what a developmental prospect can turn out to be.
A defensive lineman at Montana State University of the FCS, Fletcher was a player that joined the Patriots without anyone expecting much of him. Two years later he has become a competent linebacker who Bill Belichick will likely have no qualms about playing in the frequent absences of middle linebacker Brandon Spikes.
With Spikes dinged up and off the field, as I noticed he was after a skirmish with tackle Nate Solder at Wednesday night’s practice, Fletcher steps in and gets a chance to show off his athleticism and how much he has grown at the position.
He has already made plays in his limited opportunities, including a late sack, which may have single-handedly won them a game over Green Bay during his rookie season in 2010.
With Spikes always a question mark to stay in the lineup, this could be Fletcher’s year to take a big step forward in showing he can be a larger factor on a defense in the National Football League than he has been given the opportunity to show thus far in his career.