Ranking New England Patriots' 10 Most Important Players in 2015

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IIJuly 23, 2015

Ranking New England Patriots' 10 Most Important Players in 2015

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    No shockers at the top, but what about the rest of this list?
    No shockers at the top, but what about the rest of this list?Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    No matter the sport, MVP voters face a universal dilemma: Is the "best" player the same thing as the "most valuable" player? In the NFL, we know the voters almost always lean toward the latter definition, hence the reason quarterbacks win the award virtually every season while J.J. Watt settles for impassioned support from a vocal minority.

    Similarly, in creating this list, it's important to note that the criteria is primarily based on which players are most indispensable to the 2015 New England Patriots. The best players on the roster happen to overlap with that definition a few times—you won't be surprised to see the top two names at the end—but others on this list might raise a few eyebrows if you don't keep that criteria in mind.

    Not all of these players are even guaranteed to contribute significantly to the Patriots season, but in some ways, that's what makes them important. For each of these selections, we'll also look at reasons why he may have ranked higher or lower on the list. So prepare your snide remarks as we look at the 10 players who will bear the greatest responsibility in whether or not the Patriots defend their Super Bowl title.

T-10: Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan

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    Why Butler and Ryan Should Be Higher

    We'll cheat a bit here by listing two players in the 10th slot—cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. Indisputably, neither is among the 10 best players on the Patriots roster at the moment. And while New England doesn't necessarily need that kind of leap from either player, Butler and Ryan represent the brightest long-term hopes at the thinnest position on the roster.

    However, it seems unlikely that both will thrive, and that's not just law of averages. Butler and Ryan are similarly sized (the former is 5'11" and 190 lbs, while the latter is 5'11" and 195 lbs) but play vastly different styles. Whereas Butler's length makes him better suited for press coverage, Ryan's instincts and agility allow him to succeed when he can anticipate routes and break on them from off coverage.

    Although it's not inconceivable that both could live in the same system, that doesn't seem like the likeliest outcome. In that sense, Butler and Ryan are two young corners with potential who also represent divergent paths the Patriots coverage schemes might take.

    Why Butler and Ryan Should Be Lower

    There's no guarantee that either even starts, so Butler and/or Ryan may very well end up mired in a situational role of middling importance. And given the inexperience of the cornerback spot as a whole, head coach Bill Belichick may very well craft his defense around minimizing the individual importance of that position.  

    New England has won without elite cornerback play before, but life was exponentially easier with the likes of Ty Law and Darrelle Revis around. The cornerback spot is certainly a crucial area of the roster—it's just unclear if Butler or Ryan will end up fulfilling one of those vital roles.

9. Jabaal Sheard

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    Why Sheard Should Be Higher

    A team's third edge defender is rarely a primary focal point of the defense, but that's the roster-building route the Patriots have taken this year. New England will likely live and die by its front seven, which means that it will need Sheard to supplement a pass rush that has lacked depth for years.

    Since 2012, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have accrued at least six sacks every season. Unfortunately, the Patriots haven't had anyone else crack that six-sack threshold over the past three seasons. Among Patriots edge-rushers, Akeem Ayers' 4.5 sacks in last year's abbreviated half-season were the highest total for anyone apart from Jones and Ninkovich.

    The Patriots have finally rectified that head-shaking reality this offseason, which should allow the duo to play more palatable snap totals. Sheard is the most talented edge-rusher the Patriots have employed since Jones and Ninkovich have been the starters, and his presence could reduce the stress on those two to create a positive domino effect for the pass rush as a whole.

    Why Sheard Should Be Lower

    In Cleveland, Sheard showed flashes of promise as a 4-3 defensive end, accumulating 15.5 sacks over his first two seasons. However, while playing in 3-4 schemes under head coaches Rob Chudzinski and Mike Pettine, Sheard saw his sack total dip precipitously, culminating in a two-sack disappointment last year.

    While he figures to play more of his natural one-gapping spot, the Patriots employ a hybrid defense that calls for its edge defenders to also two-gap and drop into coverage as outside linebackers. Perhaps his 3-4 experience helps him with that transition, but the woeful results don't suggest that Sheard will be able to thrive when the Patriots ask him to do anything besides rush straight ahead.

    Moreover, he's not alone in the cadre of edge defenders, as the likes of Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, Dominique Easley and Zach Moore could all conceivably receive snaps on the edge. Sheard is more proven than any of those players, but significant playing time is not guaranteed.

8. Bryan Stork

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    Why Stork Should Be Higher

    If the center is the offensive line's cerebral leader, then second-year pro Bryan Stork will need to grow up quickly. Throughout the Belichick era, New England has traditionally employed a veteran interior line filled with intelligent overachievers. Stork may eventually fall into that category, but for now, he'll lead an interior that has been in flux over the past year.

    The Patriots never truly replaced Logan Mankins last season, and with Dan Connolly retiring, the Patriots are staring squarely at a minimum of one new starting guard with virtually no experience. Fourth-round rookie Tre' Jackson, who took Connolly's No. 63 jersey, comes with 42 starts worth of experience from Florida State but was exclusively a right guard in Tallahassee. If Jackson displaces incumbent right guard Ryan Wendell, someone like Josh Kline or Jordan Devey, both of whom struggled in limited snaps last year, could ascend to the starting lineup.

    Stork manning the middle is the only certainty along the interior. As such, a second-year leap might be paramount to sustaining some semblance of stability between the tackles.

    Why Stork Should Be Lower

    The Patriots have rarely had a star-level center and haven't been worse for the wear. Stork simply doesn't play a particularly crucial position; moreover, given the emphasis the Patriots place on pass protection from their running backs, the center typically combo blocks with a guard in pass blocking. 

    Thus, it's not as though Stork is dealing with AFC East behemoths like Ndamukong Suh, Muhammad Wilkerson and Marcell Dareus on his own. So although the Patriots would surely love to see Stork solidify the center spot for years to come, it might be more accurate to suggest that the interior line as a whole is one of the most important units on the roster.

7. Nate Solder

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    Why Solder Should Be Higher

    Unlike the last player on this list, Nate Solder does play a glamour position. It's hard to think of a team on which the left tackle isn't one of the 10 most important players, and after New England exercised its fifth-year option on the former first-round pick, Solder will make $7.4 million this season. That gives him the third-highest cap hit on the roster, via Spotrac, so the Patriots are certainly paying him as though he's a premium left tackle.

    And while Solder struggled mightily during the team's September swoon, I've previously cited his significant improvement over the final three months of the season. Considering that Solder played through the season following unexpected surgery for testicular cancer, his presumably normal 2015 offseason might enable him to start the season on more stable ground.

    The Pats will face edge-rushers like Von Miller, Mario Williams, Cameron Wake and Greg Hardy this season. As always, Solder will be a primary focal point in keeping Tom Brady upright against those All-Pro-level defenders.

    Why Solder Should Be Lower

    The Patriots do have excellent tackle depth, and if Solder goes through another month-long slump, the Patriots don't necessarily need to stick with him. Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon both have starting experience, while Cameron Fleming was impressive as a tackle-eligible blocker in "Jumbo" sets last season.

    And truthfully, we have yet to see Solder play at a level that justifies a franchise left tackle kind of commitment. CBS Sports' Pete Prisco labeled Solder New England's most overrated player earlier this offseason, a sentiment his current contract rate only strengthens.

    If Solder hits the market next spring, he seems likely to garner a Russell Okung or Branden Albert type of contract. Until Solder proves he can anchor a line like those two for an entire season, though, there will always be an air of uncertainty about his future in New England.

6. Chandler Jones

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    Why Jones Should Be Higher

    I had a tough time grappling with the next three players on this list, which I'll discuss over the subsequent two slides. As the team's most explosive edge-rusher, Chandler Jones is a logical candidate to become the foundation of the 2015 defense. Jones' star potential has been more of a tease than anything over his first three seasons, but given New England's roster construction, now would be an opportune time to cash in on that talent.

    In fairness, Jones has certainly justified Belichick's first-round investment, as his value goes beyond his pass-rushing ability. Two years ago, Jones shouldered a backbreaking workload, playing a league-high 1,125 defensive snaps, per Football Outsiders. Including Jones, just six defensive linemen have played over 1,000 snaps the past two seasons (incidentally, teammate Rob Ninkovich is the only player to crack that threshold two years in a row).

    Jones is not only New England's best pass-rusher, but he's also one of its most reliable run defenders. The Patriots figure to cut back his snaps in 2015, and perhaps the opportunity to actually breathe between snaps will allow him to maximize that talent.

    Why Jones Should Be Lower

    The Patriots certainly don't lack in edge defenders this season, as the unit is the deepest one on the roster. When Jones went down for six games with a hip injury last year, it forced Belichick into concocting a trade for Akeem Ayers to replace his snaps. If Jones suffers another long-term injury this season, the Pats are much better equipped to deal with that possibility.

    And by the way, durability does count for something here. Jones also suffered twin ankle injuries his rookie season, and although he missed only three games, he was clearly debilitated by season's end. It's tough to place significant responsibility on a player who develops an injury-prone label, which Jones is teetering toward.

    Still, it feels like a true breakout is imminent with Jones. Until that manifests itself, though, there's at least one other player in the front seven who probably holds greater importance to the team's success.

5. Jamie Collins

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    Why Collins Should Be Higher

    I've made the case that Jamie Collins will be the Patriots defensive MVP next season, a claim that might have seemed unfathomable when he was a raw bundle of athleticism coming out of Southern Miss two years ago. But entering his third season, Collins is the most versatile player on a defense that prides itself on adaptability, making him absolutely indispensable.

    Like Lavonte David in Tampa Bay or DeAndre Levy in Detroit, Collins is able to change a game by moving in all four directions. His speed and agility give him sideline-to-sideline range against the run and the ability to cover tight ends down the seam, and he also became the team's most effective blitzer last year en route to four sacks and four forced fumbles in limited pass-rushing duty.

    With the football IQ and understated demeanor that make him a perfect program fit, Collins looks set to become a leader of the next generation of New England defenders. His off-field value is arguably greater than any of the preceding players on this list and places him in the same class as the next four players.

    Why Collins Should Be Lower

    As with Chandler Jones, Collins plays at a stacked position on the roster. Though Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo didn't make this list in large part because of Collins' presence, both would be strong candidates if this simply ranked the 10 best players on the roster. Hightower, in particular, wears a similar number of hats as Collins, though his efficacy remains to be seen after major offseason shoulder surgery.

    Apart from that, moving Collins lower would really rest on the assumption that Jones turns into a three-down behemoth, which isn't totally out of the question. An elite edge defender is probably more valuable than an elite off-ball linebacker, at least based on the going salary rates. Until Jones reaches that level, though, Collins likely belongs ahead.

4. Julian Edelman

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    Why Edelman Should Be Higher

    There's a perception that Julian Edelman is simply the most recent model of successful Patriots slot receivers. On the heels of Troy Brown and Wes Welker, Edelman might look like the latest update from the product assembly line, an opinion reinforced by his humble pedigree as a seventh-round pick.

    However, that's not really fair to Edelman, who possesses a far more multifaceted skill set than many of the diminutive top targets Brady has thrown to. For one, it's not completely accurate to call him a slot receiver anymore. Based on Pro Football Focus' charting, Edelman lined up in the slot on just 40 percent of his snaps last season. So while his quickness is certainly advantageous from the "two-way release" point of the slot, he's also proved deadly as a flanker capable of dissecting coverages from outside the numbers.

    Most importantly, Edelman has overcome the early-career injury bug to become New England's most dependable receiver the past two seasons. After failing to complete a 16-game season each of his first four years in the league, he's missed just two games the past two years (one of which was last year's Week 17 contest against Buffalo, when numerous starters sat out for rest). On a unit that has undergone tons of turnover the past two years, Edelman has been the one constant in that time.

    Why Edelman Should Be Lower

    I ultimately put Edelman above Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, but that trio could be arranged in any order. Edelman probably doesn't threaten the opponent in as many different ways as Collins or Jones, especially given his lack of vertical targets.

    According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Edelman caught just six of 18 targets on passes labeled as deep (i.e. over 15 yards in the air). That reception total represents a minuscule 6.5 percent of his catches from 2014, and among players with at least 18 deep targets, his 33.3 percent catch rate ranked better than only 12 receivers.

    Granted, Edelman has found a way to be effective without using the entire route tree. However, since few consider Edelman a true No. 1 receiver because of those limitations, it's fair to ask if he belongs above a budding All-Pro-caliber linebacker like Collins.

3. Devin McCourty

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    Why McCourty Should Be Higher

    While it's hard to argue placing Devin McCourty above the final two names on this list, it's not difficult to pinpoint him as the most valuable defender on the 2015 roster. As the only returning starter in the secondary, it's up to the Pro Bowl safety to lead a secondary spackled together with misfit pieces.

    Though McCourty has thrived primarily as a center fielder in New England's man-free coverage schemes the past two years, it's a virtual certainty the Pats will ask him to occupy a more diverse role this season. Whether it's dropping down to the slot or playing pattern-match coverage in two-high safety schemes, it'll be up to McCourty to compensate for much of the personnel attrition the unit suffered this offseason.

    There's been media-generated buzz about New England potentially moving McCourty back to cornerback this season, but the fifth-year pro himself has expressed a preference to stay at safety. McCourty deserves to get his wish—for all the uncertainty the secondary faces, messing with the one certainty seems like an imprudent idea.

    Why McCourty Should Be Lower

    If New England is no longer building its defense around the secondary, why should a defensive back earn the label of most valuable defender? As reliable as McCourty has been since moving to free safety, he's also unlikely to play the exact same role he has since 2012, making him more of an uncertainty than a couple of the players below him on this list.

    That's more of a conjecture than any hard argument against McCourty's placement, though. Even if there's an on-field argument to be had, the value of McCourty's leadership should be magnified after the loss of numerous veterans on defense this year. Along with Jerod Mayo, McCourty figures to be a defensive captain and leading voice for the entire unit.

2. Rob Gronkowski

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    Why Gronkowski Should Be Higher

    There's rarely ever been a question about Tom Brady's status as the Patriots' MVP over the past decade, but Rob Gronkowski is also quite possibly the second-best offensive player New England has had in the Brady era. And while it's hard to top a true franchise quarterback, Gronk is among the small handful of players who could reasonably present an argument as the most valuable non-quarterback in the league.

    Gronk's production not only towers above his tight end peers, but it also outpaces nearly every wide receiver. Gronkowski has accumulated 54 touchdowns over his first five seasons, a mark eclipsed by just three players in NFL history: Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Dez Bryant. And having garnered those numbers in just 65 career games, Gronk's 0.83 touchdowns-per-game rate is second only to AFL legend Lance Alworth.

    On a team-specific level, Gronkowski is New England's only real field-stretcher among a possession-based receiving corps. With the ability to draw double-teams from safeties and linebackers in the middle of the field, the tight end's presence opens up large swaths of real estate underneath for his teammates.

    Why Gronkowski Should Be Lower

    The only argument for moving Gronk down on this list would have to center around his availability. It's easy to forget, but after his ACL injury at the end of 2013, there were serious doubts as to whether the Patriots would keep him on the roster when his $10 million option came due in 2016.

    Although it's impossible to imagine New England going down that route now, it's important to remember the fragility that lies underneath Gronk's superhero impression. The Patriots moving on after this season would be the longest of long shots, but Gronkowski's stock has also been rather volatile in spite of his historic productivity.

1. Tom Brady

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    Why Brady Should Be First

    Is any explanation really necessary here? Tom Brady's production might not be the same sans Gronkowski, but given how he's elevated lesser talent throughout his career, the tight end might not be on the fast track to Canton, Ohio, if he hadn't landed in Foxborough. 

    Brady's importance likely kicks up an extra notch this season after the defections on defense plus the losses of complementary offensive players Shane Vereen and Dan Connolly. Last season may have represented the strongest supporting 52 the Pats have put around Brady since the early 2000s, and the help propelled the quarterback to that elusive fourth ring.

    Much of that buffer is gone, though, which will leave Brady with a familiar burden as he enters his age-38 season. The Patriots front office has received criticism in the past for failing to maximize Brady's championship window, though that kind of "all-in" mentality rarely seems to pay off. Regardless, the 2015 roster has the feel of the squads from 2010 or 2011, when Brady needed to perform at historic levels to keep an otherwise transitioning squad in Super Bowl contention.

    Why Brady Should Be Lower

    Whether they want to find out or not, we might get to see this theory tested out if Brady does serve some or all of his four-game suspension. Commissioner Roger Goodell's appeal ruling might be in by the time you read this, but as media folks have laid out, that ruling would only be another step in this interminable Deflategate process.

    Everyone points out the 11-5 season New England posted with Matt Cassel at the helm in 2008, but truthfully, that bottom line overstates the quality of that team. The 2008 Patriots faced the fifth-easiest schedule in the league, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, and garnered just three wins all year against teams that finished with a winning record.

    Moving Brady lower on this list would just be clickbait for now. However, if that argument becomes stronger at this time next year, it might mean good things for how the Patriots fared under Jimmy Garoppolo.


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