New England Patriots: 5 Players Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2014
While championship contenders usually have rosters that consist of older players, recent trends in the NFL have seen younger teams contend for the Super Bowl. Despite their reputation as an experienced team due to their annual success, the New England Patriots certainly fit in the latter category.
According to data compiled by Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz, the Patriots were the 10th-youngest team in 2013 based on weighted snap average. So while over-30 starters like Tom Brady and Logan Mankins played a considerable number of snaps, the Pats actually gave the majority of their snaps to younger players. This trend played out especially on defense, where New England was the fourth-youngest team in the league.
Thus, there are plenty of breakout candidates that we could pinpoint for 2014. The Pats will expect further development from players like Chandler Jones and Nate Solder, though those players have already established themselves as worthy starters and are simply trying to reach another level.
Instead, the most crucial X-factors are players who have not yet emerged as a reliable starter but have the talent to mature into a crucial cog in the Patriots machine. Not all of the players on this list will necessarily develop into a Pro Bowler, but they should all fulfill an important role next season.
In identifying players expected to take a big step forward, here are five names to keep an eye on throughout the summer and fall.
5. Michael Buchanan
The Patriots have placed a clear emphasis on bolstering their pass rush in recent seasons. And while most fans know about top draft pick Dominique Easley and free-agent signing Will Smith, second-year defensive end Michael Buchanan has enough upside to become a sub-package fixture.
Buchanan only played 122 snaps during his rookie season, with just 15 of them coming after Week 9. The dip in playing time largely resulted from undisciplined edge containment, which allowed mobile quarterbacks such as Geno Smith and Ryan Tannehill to exploit the rookie's vacated gap.
However, even in that limited time, Buchanan showed promise as a pass-rusher. He finished with a pair of sacks and 10 total pressures on the year, which was good for a pass-rushing productivity rating of 7.7. For reference, that mark exceeded the likes of Jared Allen, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Of course, Buchanan had a much more limited sample size than those guys, and he is unlikely to ever turn into a true three-down starter. However, considering that the Pats had almost no depth behind starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich last year, it would help if Buchanan could prove reliable enough to play on passing downs.
The Pats do have more options than they did in 2013, so even if Buchanan takes a step forward he might only see around 300 snaps. However, if he can provide consistent pressure and a handful of sacks, Buchanan would layer the sub-package personnel with sorely needed depth.
4. Marcus Cannon
Offensive line play usually goes unappreciated, so perhaps not everyone realizes how integral Marcus Cannon was to New England's success last season. After starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer broke his leg in Week 8, Cannon stepped in and started eight of the team's final 10 games, stabilizing a potentially troubling area.
Cannon was a Day 2 prospect coming out of TCU in 2011, but the Pats snatched him up in the fifth round when a non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis sent his stock plummeting. Last season represented Cannon's first real opportunity at an extended showcase, and apart from a rough Week 16 matchup against Terrell Suggs, he excelled in exhibiting a rare blend of size and movement skills.
In the passing game, Cannon conceded just 13 hurries in his eight starts, good for a 96.0 percent pass-blocking efficiency that ranked ninth among all offensive tackles in the league. And apart from the Baltimore contest, Cannon was a mostly neutral run-blocker, as the Pats felt comfortable having him execute pull, combo, second-level and hinge blocks in their versatile running scheme.
With a meaningful regular-season sample size under his belt, Cannon could earn a starting spot if he distinguishes himself this summer. Though he played tackle last year and during his time in college, Cannon was originally drafted as a guard. Given the uncertain roster status of interior starters Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly, Cannon could very well kick inside and start at right guard this season.
Regardless, it's clear he deserves an extended full-season look. The Patriots return all 11 offensive starters from last season as well as most of their key reserves, so there isn't much room for new breakthroughs on this side of the ball. However, based on last season's showing, Cannon appears likeliest to force his way into more playing time.
3. Logan Ryan
I recently broke down Ryan's rookie season here, so I won't re-hash too much of the analysis from that article. However, among the team's abundance of young defensive backs, Ryan's combination of ranginess, ball skills and instincts makes him the best candidate to emerge as a contributor on the majority of the team's defensive snaps in 2014.
Last year, Ryan played 608 total defensive snaps, which were the sixth-most on the team. And yet, Ryan still led the team with five picks, holding opposing quarterbacks to a paltry 53.3 quarterback rating. Among cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps, only Seattle's Richard Sherman bested that mark.
Considering how much promise he demonstrated, the Pats must find a way to integrate Ryan into their lineup. The most obvious openings look like safety and slot corner, currently patrolled by Duron Harmon and Kyle Arrington, respectively. Indeed, according to NESN.com's Doug Kyed, Bill Belichick revealed that Ryan would take reps at both safety and corner during offseason workouts.
In comparing the respective slot performances of Ryan and Arrington last season, the veteran actually holds the upper hand in most categories. Arrington allowed receptions less frequently (9.3 to 8.0 coverage snaps per reception) and conceded a slightly better opposing quarterback rating (95.6 to 100.8).
Arrington did allow four touchdowns to Ryan's two, and his propensity to concede big plays (as well as his contract) has earned him the ire of many Pats fans. Still, Ryan has some catching up to do to fully usurp Arrington from his role.
But that's expected from a rookie, and he largely fared well while playing a variety of roles last season. Barring injury, there is not a clear-cut position for Ryan to entrench himself into. However, with another step forward in his development, the Pats will have little choice but to displace someone else in favor of the second-year corner.
2. Aaron Dobson
Aaron Dobson was a lightning rod during his rookie season, as his early-season drops embodied the frustrating stagnation surrounding the Patriots passing game. However, much like the offense as a whole, Dobson took a big step forward in the middle of the season, accruing 18 receptions for 287 yards and three touchdowns between Weeks 6-9.
Unfortunately, a broken foot suffered in Week 11 against Carolina limited Dobson to just 129 snaps over the final four games of the season, stunting his promising growth. Now entering his second season, the Marshall product looks entrenched as the starting "X" receiver after the Pats did little to address the position this offseason besides signing veteran Brandon LaFell.
Those four games are too small of a sample size to derive decisive long-term extrapolations, but they did show tangible improvement on some of the timing routes that flummoxed Dobson in the season's first quarter. He still had five dropped passes over that stretch, but Nick Underhill of MassLive.com examined each drop and found that they largely stemmed from either concentration lapses or back-shoulder throws.
Still, even without a full season of health, Dobson's season was one of the best by any rookie wide receiver in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Per Pro-Football-Reference, only Deion Branch had more receptions in his first year, and no one had more yards or touchdowns.
The one hitch in Dobson's projection is that he underwent offseason foot surgery. Underhill reported that Dobson will not participate in OTAs, though he should be ready for training camp. If he can stay healthy and refine his chemistry with Brady, Dobson adds a big perimeter target the Pats have not had since trading away Randy Moss in 2010.
Apart from Dobson, it appears that only one other Patriot could truly emerge as a featured focal point of his respective unit.
1. Jamie Collins
Despite playing just 302 defensive snaps in 2013, there is ample reason to believe that Jamie Collins could become one of the Patriots' most explosive defensive players as soon as this season.
Pro Football Focus highlighted Collins in their "Secret Superstar" series, noting the rookie's exemplary all-around contributions in the second-half of the regular season and the playoffs. Indeed, after Jerod Mayo's season-ending injury in Week 6 left the Pats without a true coverage linebacker, Collins stepped in and ably shut down the likes of Dennis Pitta and Coby Fleener.
However, he is far more than a coverage linebacker, as versatility was the buzzword surrounding Collins when he was drafted. Collins rushed the passer just 34 times last year, but he still produced nine hurries, the second most of any linebacker on the team. Indeed, according to Kyed, Collins proclaimed that he prefers pass-rushing over coverage.
Based on the glimpses he showed in 2013, the Pats would be wise to see what kind of impact Collins could make off the edge, or perhaps even as a defensive end. According to data compiled by PFF's Nathan Jahnke, New England blitzed on just 26.14 percent of passing downs in 2013, 25th in the NFL. But with the Pats more likely to employ press-man coverage with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in tow, it makes sense that we might see more blitzes dialed up.
Collins could consequently blossom if allowed to exhibit his well-rounded skill set. With offenses eager to play in space, Collins is the new linebacker prototype: the strong, fluid mover who is capable of stymieing big, athletic tight ends. If he can translate his encouraging start last year to the larger role he'll play this year, Collins could emerge as an indispensable every-down player and a core defensive piece.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).