5 New England Patriots Players Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2015
One man steps down, another man steps up.
That idiom will be tested by the New England Patriots this season, who are more along the lines of "three men step down, three men better step up." With Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington out of the Patriots secondary, the spotlight shines brightly on the other cornerbacks on the depth chart.
Of course, the cornerback position isn't the only one where the Patriots need someone to step up and make an impact. With continued changes on the offensive line, the Patriots are also in the precarious position of potentially going through the same growing pains they experienced up front at the beginning of the 2014 season, when quarterback Tom Brady was under fire nearly every time he dropped back.
Whether it's a rookie who's joining the team at a position of need or a veteran who is being asked to step into a bigger role, at least a handful of players will need to make strides in order for the Patriots to maintain their stranglehold on the AFC East.
When Logan Ryan first showed his potential as a rookie, the Patriots were running a mix of man and zone coverage. His role was centered on his ability in zone coverage, and the Patriots reaped the benefits with five interceptions by Ryan, the most by a rookie that year.
His performance took a step back in 2014 when he was forced to play more man coverage than he's accustomed to. Now that the Patriots appear to be headed for more zone coverage in 2015, Ryan should slot right back in as one of the starting cornerbacks.
In his first two seasons, Ryan has yielded 77 completions on 139 targets (55.4 percent) for 1,047 yards, six touchdowns, seven interceptions, 14 passes defensed and a passer rating of just a shade over 73. Those are impressive numbers for almost any cornerback, and while he may not be a pure-bred shutdown corner, he is capable of holding his own when the coaching staff uses him appropriately.
Last summer in training camp, Patrick Chung beat Duron Harmon in a battle for the starting duties at strong safety. Part of Chung's victory could be attributed to the Patriots' man coverage scheme, which favors Chung's ability. Now that the Patriots appear to be headed for a more zone-heavy look, the spotlight could shine brighter on Harmon this year than it did last year.
The Patriots made Harmon a surprising second-round choice in the 2013 draft, and although he has played a small role in his time in the NFL, he has been effective when called upon. In fact, although he lost the starting job last summer, he was still used heavily in passing situations for his ability to read and react to plays in the deep half and to close on passes in a hurry.
Harmon made a game-saving interception against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs by racing downfield and getting in front of wide receiver Torrey Smith. That's an example of the kind of ground he can cover in a short period of time, especially when he gets a good read on the play.
If the Patriots are going to run a zone-heavy scheme, they will need a good read-and-react safety like Harmon patrolling the deep half of the field next to Devin McCourty. The Patriots drafted Stanford safety Jordan Richards in the second round, but the team should ease him into his role in the defense until he gets acclimated to the NFL.
One interception does not a breakout performance make. Yes, undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler is the man who saved the Super Bowl for the Patriots, but as big a play as it was for him to nab an interception on the 1-yard line to keep the Seattle Seahawks out of the end zone, he's going to have to make plays over an extended period of time before anyone calls him a breakout.
Fortunately for Butler, it appears he will have the opportunity to make those plays for the Patriots this year. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner both gone, the Patriots are in need of two new starting cornerbacks (and you could argue it's three with the release of Kyle Arrington). At 5'11" and 190 pounds, Butler is not as big as some other boundary cornerbacks, but he has all the tools to play anywhere on the field.
His long speed is good enough to keep up with receivers downfield. He also has the quickness to undercut short routes and the skills to make plays on the ball in either of these situations. He can be a handsy cornerback and stay in a receiver's hip pocket in man coverage, and he can use his eyes and feet to break on passes in zone coverage.
Butler's versatility will be valuable in a Patriots defense that will likely substitute the pure talent of yesteryear with an exotic concoction of different looks in 2015.
The Patriots offense was kept out of rhythm by a revolving door on the offensive line that gave everyone a chance to play but no one a chance to get in sync with his teammates. They may not have all the same problems this year, with four of the five starters returning for the 2015 season, but the loss of veteran Dan Connolly threatens to leave a chasm at the left guard spot.
That's where rookie Tre' Jackson comes into play. At 6'4" and 330 pounds, he has all the tools to be a mauling guard in the running game from the beginning. No one will confuse him for an uber-athlete, but while NFL.com's Lance Zierlein painted Jackson as having "limited effectiveness in space" and as someone who "struggles to get feet into winning position when blocking laterally," Zierlein also categorized him as someone with an "aggressive play demeanor" who "can take a stand when being bull-rushed."
Former Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was a draft consultant for the Patriots this year, helping his former team to scout prospects up front. The fact that the Patriots drafted Jackson indicates that he earned Scarnecchia's stamp of approval, and Connolly's absence from the roster suggests that Jackson could earn a starting gig right away.
Why use a draft pick to develop a player when you can sign that player as a free agent after he's already developed the skills he will need to be successful in the NFL? That's probably not what the Patriots had in mind when they passed on Jabaal Sheard in the 2011 NFL draft, only to sign him four years later. But that just happens to be how it worked out.
At 6'3" and 264 pounds, Sheard is the perfect size to play the defensive end spot in the 4-3 or the outside linebacker spot in the 3-4. He has been far more successful in the 4-3, where he notched 15.5 sacks in his first two seasons. His production has slipped off since being slotted into the outside linebacker spot in the 3-4, and he has compiled only 7.5 sacks in the past two seasons.
The Patriots will employ a mix of both fronts, and Sheard may not be considered a workhorse in the sense that he won't be playing every snap, but he will be a huge part of the rotation up front in relief duty of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich regardless of the scheme.
With a bit of a downgrade in the secondary, the Patriots needed upgrades up front. Sheard doesn't necessarily upgrade the top of the depth chart, but he does upgrade the second tier.
Unless otherwise noted, all advanced statistics obtained via Pro Football Focus.