New England Patriots: 5 Players to Watch Next Season

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIMay 29, 2011

New England Patriots: 5 Players to Watch Next Season

0 of 5

    DETROIT - NOVEMBER 25:  Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots celebrates his interception with teammates Brandon Meriweather #31 and Jermaine Cunningham #96 during the fourth quarter of the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on November
    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Even in a lockout, the 2011 NFL season looms large.

    Obviously, all teams have playoff aspirations in May. But few teams are in the New England Patriots' position, a team that came close to doing postseason damage a year ago and should be improved this year.

    In other words, as good as the 14-2 season of a year ago was, the Patriots should have their sights set on being better.

    To improve as a team and spend more than 60 minutes in the playoffs, the Patriots are going to need some players to contribute the way they have been, some to contribute more, and some to contribute at all. Here's a look at a few of those players.

1. Brandon Tate

1 of 5

    FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 02:  Brandon Tate #19 of the New England Patriots carries the ball as Reshad Jones #20 of the Miami Dolphins chases after him on January 2, 2011 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    The 2010 season was feast or famine for the second-year receiver.

    There were the kickoff returns for touchdowns in the opener against Cincinnati and in Week 4 against Miami, but also the dropped passes that plagued him throughout the year. There were the long touchdown catches against Minnesota and Miami, but also the nine games in which he was held under 20 yards receiving, one coming in the playoff game against New York in which he didn't catch a pass.

    Simply put, Tate wasn't a game-breaker last year in the way the first four games of the season made it seem he would be. His first year as a starter was marked with inconsistency, and he didn't establish himself as a go-to receiver for Tom Brady.

    It was wondered if his value to the team was just as a returner, and if the potential order ruling out kickoffs would render him useless.

    The jury's out, and 2011 is Tate's time to improve as a receiving option. If he does, he could become a dangerous weapon in the Foxboro offense.

2. Jermaine Cunningham

2 of 5

    CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 12: Jermaine Cunningham #96 of the New England Patriots rushes past J'Marcus Webb #73 of the Chicago Bears towards Jay Cutler #6 at Soldier Field on December 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Patriots defeated the Bears 36-7. (Phot
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    For the Patriots pass rush to improve, Cunningham will have to make some strides.

    The second-year linebacker didn't have a great year in 2010, but should be further along for this season with the first year under his belt.

    Bill Belichick and the Patriots didn't draft a rusher this year. Barring an upgrade via free agency, Belichick is happy with the group he has. Whether or not he has reason to be may depend largely on the development of the former Florida Gator.

3. Ras-I Dowling

3 of 5

    JACKSONVILLE, FL - JANUARY 01:  Danny Amendola #20 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders is tackled by  Ras-I Dowling #19 of the Virginia Cavaliers during the Gator Bowl at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on January 1, 2008 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam
    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    It worked once, why not again?

    Last year, Belichick surprised most fans and analysts by taking cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round of the NFL Draft. Belichick was the one laughing in the end when McCourty's sensational first season ended in his being named a runner-up for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

    This season, fans again wanted New England to take a rusher. Again, Belichick opted to fix the secondary, taking Dowling out of the University of Virginia.

    It's never fair to expect runners-up to the Defensive Rookie of the Year every year, but if Dowling can take to the NFL as quickly as McCourty did, then the Patriots could own a dangerous pass defense very quickly.

    Corners can be a tricky business in the draft. For every McCourty, there's a Darius Butler. Which one Dowling more closely shadows will be a big storyline in 2011.

4. Logan Mankins

4 of 5

    CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 12: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots calls out signals as Dan Koppen #67 and Logan Mankins #70 awaits the snap against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Patriots defeated the
    Scott Boehm/Getty Images

    Will he play? Will he play, but be angry? Will he hold out? Will he demand to be traded? Will he be traded? If so, for what?

    The Mankins situation is already an ugly one in Foxboro, and there's no reason tempers will die down as the season approaches (unless the two sides come to a miracle agreement). Mankins is clearly a proven talent, and wants his due compensation. The Patriots have their immovable way of doing business. Something has to, but might not, give.

    The Patriots have been through this song and dance before. Mankins held out last year, only to return and play at an All-Pro level. New England appears willing to try it again.

    If Mankins returns, it'll be interesting to see how the conflict was resolved, and what kind of an attitude he brings to the field and the team. If he doesn't, then it'll be telling to see how the Patriots adjust without their best offensive lineman.

5. Tom Brady

5 of 5

    FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots throws a pass during their 2011 AFC divisional playoff game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Al Bello/G
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Even in a year with so many rookies and young players to watch, all eyes will be turned—as usual—to No. 12.

    After putting together one of the league's greatest seasons of all time in the pocket last year, Brady will face new expectations as he turns 34. The question of what kind of season we'll see from him will be a major one as the year gets under way.

    Will we see 2010 Part II, another masterpiece of precision? Will it be closer to his high-20s in touchdowns, mid-teens in interceptions level from the Super Bowl seasons? Will we see another 2007, in which he lights up the scoreboard for 16 games?

    That's not even addressing his sudden playoff woes. How does he recover from another postseason flop, the latest of several that have started to spoil his recent seasons? The Patriots should be back in the playoffs this year. Will this be the season that Brady finds that trademark clutch magic from early in the decade?

    The Patriots have their younger players, but in the end, it all comes back to the man leading the huddle. And when that man is Tom Brady, it's no surprise.