Early Predictions for New England Patriots' Most Valuable Players
With the New England Patriots in the midst of OTAs, it is finally time to start thinking about actual football games, not just building a roster. Pads will be put on, plays will be called, players will collide, tackles will be made and touchdowns scored.
The Patriots need big performances from each phase of the game if they want to overcome the Denver Broncos and the rest of the AFC. Reaching the AFC Championship Game won't cut it; Super Bowl is the word in New England.
Here are my early—and somewhat bold—predictions for the five players (offensive, defensive, special teams, rookie and MVP) who will win awards for New England this season.
Offensive Player of the Year
Tom Brady runs the show. The running game chews up yards and softens up the defense. Julian Edelman keeps the chains moving. The heart of the New England Patriots offense, however, lies in the suddenly fragile frame of Rob Gronkowski.
A healthy Gronkowski makes everyone around him better. He gives receivers bigger windows in the secondary by keeping the safeties in the middle of the field. He gives Brady a huge target with a forgiving catch radius. His blocking opens up bigger holes for the running backs and keeps the defense from substituting freely.
You can't replace Gronkowski with just one—or perhaps even three—players. His rare skill set will lead him to another season to remember for Patriots fans.
Defensive Player of the Year
Statistically speaking, Chandler Jones' 11.5 sacks and 79 tackles measured up well against elite defensive linemen like J.J. Watt, who tallied 10.5 and 80 in 2014. While Jones didn't have the same disruptive presence on the field as Watt, he is poised to have a breakout season in 2014.
Jones has been able to get pressure from a variety of spots—end and tackle—with little help behind him or beside him. The additions of Darrelle Revis—more on him later—and Brandon Browner will give him an extra beat to get to the quarterback, while Dominique Easley's presence will give the opposing quarterback a messier pocket to try to navigate.
Expect Jones' numbers to portend a more exciting future for New England's defense.
Special Teams Player of the Year
Jeremy Gallon might not even make the team. As a seventh-round pick, he could be as far down as eighth on the receiver depth chart. However, his vision in the open field will help him make the roster.
Danny Amendola and Edelman are too important, expensive and fragile to risk on the punt return team, no matter how talented they may be. Gallon spent time returning punts, kicks or both each of his four years at Michigan.
While he may be Amendola's successor in the slot down the road, he will have to win his roster spot on fourth down in 2014.
Rookie of the Year
Easley and Jimmy Garoppolo might get all of the press, but a fourth-round pick could easily have the biggest rookie impact on the team. If Ryan Wendell doesn't improve on his dismal 2013 performance in training camp, Bryan Stork is waiting in the wings to take over.
At 6'4" and 315 pounds—compared to Wendell at 6'2" and 300—Stork is better suited to handle the massive defensive linemen the AFC East has to offer. Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson take a lot of mass and strength to move.
While Easley or a sleeper like defensive back Jemea Thomas might get more recognition, the contributions on the offensive line can mean life or death for Brady and, consequently, the whole Patriots team.
Most Valuable Player
An AFC East team isn't going to reach the Super Bowl without beating Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the playoffs. No matter how many points you score, you're not going to beat Manning without superb play out of your cornerbacks.
Aqib Talib's presence—or lack thereof—in the last two AFC Championship Games can't be overstated. His faulty hip couldn't be counted on, so the New England Patriots chose to pursue another cornerback—one Darrelle Revis—this offseason.
Revis' presence can take away the best receiver on the opposing team. This helps the defense immensely. Safeties can now help out with the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, blitz schemes can be more exotic and Jones and the defensive line will get an extra half-second to get home against the quarterback.
While Jones and others might end up with the numbers, it all starts with Revis.