New England Patriots: 5 Young Defensive Players Ready to Make an Impact
Six years have passed since the New England Patriots last hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy in 2004. Much of the veteran defensive core of the Super Bowl era have since departed.
Players like Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and Ty Law are names of the past and their departures have given rise to much discussion concerning the age and experience of the Patriots' defense.
Bill Belichick and his staff have made a concerted and noticeable effort in recent years to replace these players despite their seemingly irreplaceable roles.
Vince Wilfork was brought in to fill the role of Ted Washington, Jerod Mayo was selected to take over for Bruschi, and Devin McCourty was drafted following Asante Samuel's departure.
Slowly yet surely New England has reconstructed its defensive core with strategic drafting techniques and while many of their recent picks have progressed into starters with some entering prominent leadership roles there remains yet another crop of youngsters ready to join them.
Here's a look at five young defensive players ready to step up and make an impact with the Patriots in 2011.
Jermaine Cunningham- Outside Linebacker- 23-Years Old
Jermaine Cunningham was one of three Florida Gators to be selected by New England in the 2010 NFL Draft. The Patriots took Cunningham 53rd overall in hopes of developing the 6'3", 266-pounder into an pass rushing outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive scheme.
In his sophomore season in 2007 Cunningham started at defensive end for the majority of the season. He recorded 64 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 12 tackles for a loss in his first season with extended time on the field.
Cunningham started 13 games in 2008, finishing second on the team with six sacks. He also notched 10 tackles for a loss and added in three forced fumbles.
During his senior season in 2009, Cunningham compiled 34 tackles and seven sacks, good enough to rank second on the team. He again made his presence known in the backfield finishing fifth in the conference with 12 tackles for a loss.
Cunningham was a second-team All-Southeastern Conference selection in 2008 and 2009 and he completed his college career with 19.5 sacks—tied for tenth on the Gators' career sacks record list. He also notched five forced fumbles in his time at Florida.
Cunningham saw the field in 15 games as a rookie for the Patriots earning 11 starts at outside linebacker. He wasn't a prolific pass rusher in his first season, but he was able to get one sack and added 34 tackles, two forced fumbles and a pass defense.
Cunningham is in an intriguing situation for the upcoming season. He will be entering his second season with tempered expectations due to a lack of production as a rookie. He's also only 23 and has a well documented history of getting to the quarterback successfully.
The Patriots thought enough of him last year to make him a second round selection and with a very real need still present at outside linebacker, this former Gator will be given every possible opportunity to make the job his own.
Cunningham made 11 starts at the position last season as an inexperienced rookie and the Patriots have only made one addition at OLB—sixth round pick Markell Carter.
With no additional competition currently on the roster, Cunningham has a clear and legitimate chance to start in 2011 and display what he can do given a full 16-game season.
Look for New England to increase his pass rushing reps this season in order to determine the real value of this second rounder.
Myron Pryor- Defensive Linemen- 24-Years-Old
A sixth-round draft pick in 2009, Myron Pryor has been gaining more and more attention as a possible long-term solution on the Patriots defensive line.
Active for 13 games in 2009, Pryor recorded 20 tackles while adding a pass defense and forced fumble. Injuries kept the young lineman out of multiple games, but his performances while active allowed for an increase role in 2010.
Pryor made the best of his time on the field last season playing in nine games while even drawing two starts. He finished the season with only 12 tackles and was also credited with a half sack. He was forced to miss seven of the final eight games due to a back injury.
Pryor is listed at 6'1" and 310 lbs and has shown flashes of competence on the defensive line in small samples and may be a fit at defensive end going forward. There's something to be said for this sixth-round pick, seeing the field as often as he has to this point and he can be expected to continue seeing increased snaps.
The team added to the defensive line depth with the Marcus Stroud signing and veteran Ty Warren will be returning from a hip injury which kept him out the entire 2010 season. Still we should expect to see Pryor given even more opportunities to carve out a more defined role this season, as hes already proven his ceiling is a lot higher than previously expected.
Brandon Spikes- Inside Linebacker- 23-Years-Old
Brandon Spikes' rookie season was one of the most successful campaigns by a young defender in recent memory. The 23-year-old was a staple for New England's run defense for the majority of the season compiling 61 tackles through the first 12 games while drawing eight starts.
The middle linebacker finished the season with an interception and three passes defended as well, showing his ability to assist in more than just run support. His season ended prematurely when he was suspended following the detection of an illegal substance.
"The substance was a medication that I should have gotten clarification on before taking. It was not a performance enhancer or an illegal drug", explained Spikes.
He went on, "The integrity of the game is very important to me. I understand the league’s ruling and apologize to my teammates, the fans and the Patriots organization for this mistake."
Spikes is one of the few young up-and-comers with a very clear path to playing time in 2011. After drawing eight starts in 2010 expect to see Spikes lining up alongside Jerod Mayo full time. The MLB duo is instantly one of the most imposing combinations New England has put on the field in quite some time.
Spikes can be expected to further secure his hold in one of the most important positions on the Patriots defense in 2011. While his off-the-field issues have held him back in the past, I wouldn't think such a talented player could let such an amazing opportunity go to waste.
Look for him to smarten up and really produce next season.
Ras-I Dowling- Cornerback- 23-Years-Old
Ras-I Dowling, the Patriots' second-round selection last April, was a massive surprise to most fans and analysts. The cornerback was a first round prospect entering his senior season, but fell to New England at 33rd overall after playing through multiple injuries in 2010 and failing to live up to expectations.
Dowling's collegiate career was marked by yearly accomplishments and distinctions.
He was was a second-team All-ACC selection in 2008 and 2009, a first-team All-ACC and a second-team All-American selection in 2010.
His measurables make him all the more impressive. At 6'1" and 198lbs this is a big, physical cornerback and he's got speed too. Dowling ran the 40-yard dash at a blazing 4.40.
With the emergence of Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington and the impending return of Leigh Bodden one might think Dowling would have difficulty reaching the field in 2011, but that may not be the case.
Dowling has been pegged by Belichick himself as someone ready and willing to assist in all facets of the game. He'll most likely be given the opportunity to carve out a role for himself while playing on special teams early on and his size will absolutely earn him time in certain defensive sub packages.
The Patriots secondary has been burned countless times over the last few years by large and lanky receivers (See: Plaxico Burress, 2007). The addition of a tall, strong, and physical corner is a direct response to this weakness and Dowling should receive opportunities this season to develop into a real defensive weapon for the Patriots.
Pat Chung- Safety- 25-Years-Old
Arguably one of the most successful youngsters on the defense most recently has been safety Pat Chung. The Patriots' first selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, Chung played in all 16 games of his rookie season, making one start.
He notched 37 tackles and two sacks and an interception, while proving valuable on special teams.
Chung progressed incredibly after his rookie season. He started 13 games in 2010 and was among the team leaders in tackles with 96 total stops. The young safety also nabbed three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Many consider Chung to be the Patriots' best safety with ESPN's Mike Reiss going as far to say he could be a "top safety" in the NFL someday.
Tedy Bruschi has made comparisons between Chung and former Patriot Lawyer Milloy, a comparison hard to scoff at.
2011 will likely be Chung's real breakout season as he missed three starts in 2010 and was still learning the defensive system. His potential as a dynamic pass defender, big hitter, run supporter, and special teams ace is undeniable.
He has shown flashes of being an absolute stud in all of these categories and I fully expect him to continue in his development in the upcoming season.
We may be using the term All-Pro to describe more than a few defensive players on this roster quite soon.
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