Last year the New England Patriots had one of the best draft classes of all time, bringing in rookies such as Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes and Zoltan Mesko. In addition to the fresh faces, the Patriots also received contributions from other younger players who made impacts in all three phases of the game.
New England has transformed as a team; gone are the days where the locker room was dominated by players like Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Troy Brown and Rodney Harrison. Now there is more youth on the team than I can remember, and you know what? They are producing.
Given that the Patriots are stuffed with young and relatively undeveloped (yet limitless) talent, it raises the question of who will be the next player to experience a breakout season. Well, we're one step ahead of you; here are five New England Patriots who could potentially have their breakout year during the upcoming 2011 season.
2010 stats: 16 GS, 1 Sack Allowed
Sebastian Vollmer broke onto the scene in Week 6 of the 2009 season, starting at left tackle after Matt Light was unable to play due to an injury. He played in 14 games, starting eight of them, and allowing just one-and-a-half sacks.
In his sophomore season, Vollmer started all 16 games at right tackle, and allowed just one sack en route to an All-Pro selection. Although it seems like Vollmer has peaked, I believe this is just the beginning. He will be entering his third year in the league (his second as a regular) and has a chance to become one of the top offensive tackles in the NFL. He has demonstrated the ability to protect the pocket from both the right and blind-side, and will continue to elevate his game.
2010 stats: 61 Tackles, 1 INT
A second-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, Brandon Spikes made an instant impact his rookie year. He played in 12 games, recording 61 tackles with an interception and three passes defended.
When the former Florida Gator was drafted, many people envisioned him pairing with All-Pro middle linebacker Jerod Mayo to form one of the most formidable inside-linebacker duos in the NFL. His best performance came Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens where he recorded 16 tackles. Spikes had a solid rookie campaign, starting eight games but was suspended the last four of the regular season after he violated the league's substance abuse policy.
With a full year in the NFL under his belt, Spikes will resume the starting job next to Jerod Mayo and will look to build on his solid rookie numbers.
2010 stats: 34 Tackles, 1 Sack, 2 FF
Once a standout at the University of Florida, Jermaine Cunningham had high hopes for making an impact his rookie season. Unfortunately, he had a relatively disappointing rookie year. New England had hoped Cunningham could re-invigorate the Patriots pass rush after the departures of players like Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour and (the extremely disappointing) Adalius Thomas.
However in a recent interview on WEEI.com, former University of Florida football head coach Urban Meyer boldly predicted his former college defensive end would be a major force of the Patriots pass rush in 2011.
If anyone knows Cunningham's ability, it would be his former college head coach. For that reason, there is reason to believe Cunningham is much more capable than what he demonstrated last year.
2010 stats: 96 Tackles, 3 INT
It could be argued 2010 was Pat Chung's breakout year. However, the defensive back out of Oregon showed he is much more capable than being a nickelback, special teamer, and a complimentary piece to Brandon Meriweather.
He played in 14 games last year, recording 96 tackles and returning three interceptions for 96 yards (one pick-six). He had an explosive opening day, recording 16 tackles (12 solo) in a 38-24 win over the Bengals.
On November 4, the Patriots were in Miami for Monday Night Football. Chung had a monstrous game, arguably the best of his young career. He recorded 5 tackles, blocked a punt, blocked a field goal (returned for a touchdown by Kyle Arrington) and returned an interception 51 yards for a touchdown in the 41-14 win.
He has the makings of an All-Pro defensive back and could soon become an elite player in the NFL. A playmaker and hard-hitter, Chung reminds me a little of Rodney Harrison because of his physicality and dynamic style of play. I would expect him to compete for the starting job with Brandon Meriweather in 2011.
2010 stats: 45 Receptions, 563 Yards, 6 TD
Okay, first of all, yes, 2010 could very well be considered Aaron Hernandez' breakout season. He made an instant impact with fellow rookie tight end, Rob Gronkowski. Together the two created mismatches for opposing defenses while becoming household names in New England.
Although he caught many eyes for his flashy style of play, and rare ability to rack up yards after catch despite his size, he dropped off a little in the second half of the season. Hampered by an illness, as well as hip soreness stemming from a procedure he had the previous offseason, Hernandez' production dropped from Week 9 onwards. After averaging 54.5 yards per game during the first half of the season, he averaged just a little over 21 over his last six.
Despite experiencing such a significant drop-off, Hernandez established himself as one of the premier rookie tight ends in the NFL. He had 45 receptions for 563 yards and 6 touchdowns—not too shabby for a rookie (or anybody for that matter). However I believe he has more potential, and will continue to grow as a player.
Just 21 years of age, he was the youngest player in the NFL last year. If he can stay healthy and play consistently throughout the 2011 season, he will surpass his 2010 numbers and flirt with the 1,000-yard mark, a rarity for most tight ends in the game today.
Hernandez has the tools to follow in the footsteps of some of the great contemporary tight ends such as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Again, many would argue Hernandez experienced a breakout in 2010, but I believe he will eclipse last year's numbers, potentially earning him a spot on the Pro Bowl roster. Either way, Aaron Hernandez is one hell of a player, and will one day become a superstar in the NFL.