10 Questions: Who leads youth movement?

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Part 10 in a 10-part series examining key storylines leading into Patriots’ training camp…

The question: How many rookies and second-year players make the team, and in what roles?

Three factors:
Committment to youth movement; Whether Patriots remain pass-friendly offense; New look for the defense

Finding the answer:
Nearly 40 of the 82 players currently on the Patriots’ roster are either rookies, first- or second-year players, so obviously a good chunk of that number will be on the 53-man roster come September. Some will play a larger role than others, particularly on defense, where the retirements and trades of recent years have left New England little choice but to rely on a bevy of young players, especially in the linebacking corps and secondary.

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Clearly, at this point, with training camp still about two weeks away, making projections is tough, but let’s try to make a guess as to which of these players will be on the roster, and how much of an impact they might have by breaking them into one of four groups: starters, potential starters, reserves and bubble/practice squad guys.

STARTERS
Second-year players: CB Darius Butler, OL Sebastian Vollmer

Right now, Butler and Vollmer, two of the Patriots’ four second-round picks last year, are the only likely starters. The hyper-athletic Butler will be on the left side of the field opposite Leigh Bodden, and also could find himself as one of the team’s return men. Though Vollmer will start the season at right tackle, he is almost surely New England’s left tackle of the future: starting in place of Matt Light against the Colts last November, he neutralized sack-master Dwight Freeney (though with some help), whom Light historically has struggled to contain. He was recently tabbed as a player on the verge by one NFL observer.

POTENTIAL STARTERS

Second-year players: DL Ron Brace, S Patrick Chung, WR Julian Edelman, LB Tyrone McKenzie, WR Brandon Tate
Rookies: TE Rob Gronkowski, TE Aaron Hernandez, CB Devin McCourty, LB Brandon Spikes

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Though his rookie season was a disappointment, Brace recommitted himself and will be in line for snaps at defensive end. As detailed a couple of days ago, Chung will likely battle James Sanders for the chance to start opposite Brandon Meriweather at safety; he and Butler were cited by Nick Caserio at the close of mini-camp as second-year players who impressed during the team’s offseason work and camps. The converted quarterback Edelman was a revelation last year, standing in capably for Wes Welker last year when Welker couldn’t be on the field, and while he may be asked to start until Welker can return from his knee injury, he certainly will have a role in the offense. Robert Kraft and Tom Brady have sung Tate’s praises in recent months, and he also may be counted on to return kicks and punts.

Both Gronkowski and Hernandez could find themselves starters or reserves on a  week-to-week basis depending on the offensive game plan; each seems to have the tools to be able to contribute, particularly Hernandez, who has that most treasured of assets: versatility. Veteran Alge Crumpler will served primarily as a blocker, leaving Gronkowski and Hernandez to line up as receivers or in the backfield, in Hernandez’s case.

McCourty’s chances as a starter would most likely come as a nickel corner, as h
e and Jonathan Wilhite will be battling for the top spot there. Spikes was already being asked to call signals in the huddle with the second unit during spring camps, and could well challenge incumbent Gary Guyton; McKenzie has received quite a bit of buzz for his potential as well.

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RESERVES
Second-year players: CB Kyle Arrington, QB Brian Hoyer, LS Jake Ingram, DB Bret Lockett, DL Myron Pryor, C/G Ryan Wendell
Rookies: DE/LB Jermaine Cunningham, DL Brandon Deaderick, G/C Ted Larsen, P Zoltan Mesko, WR Taylor Price

Arrington
earns a spot on the team simply for being an absolute beast on special
teams; in just eight regular-season games, he tallied 17 tackles,
second most on the team. Lockett has worked out with Brady and Welker
in Los Angeles, and also would be a special-teamer if he sticks.
Wendell and Larsen may offer interior line depth, particularly if (as
expected) Logan Mankins isn’t with the Pats.

Pryor was a
surprise last year, and Deaderick may be challenging him for those
snaps at defensive tackle/nose tackle. Mesko and Ingram are reserves by
nature though Mesk seems to have won the job as New England’s punter,
but some wonder if Ingram’s spot might be in jeopardy.

Hoyer is
highly thought of among the coaching staff and gives the impression
that he is as studious as they come. But with Brady over a year removed
from his knee injury and with the ribs and finger which hampered him
last year healed, Hoyer may not see the field very much.

PRACTICE SQUADDERS
Second-year players: OL George Bussey, DL Adrian Grady, WR Darnell Jenkins, TE Rob Myers, DL Darryl Richard, LB Thomas Williams
Rookies:
S Sergio Brown, WR Buddy Farnham, DE Dane Fletcher, DB Terrence
Johnson, DL Kyle Love, QB Zac Robinson, DB Ross Ventrone, DL Kade
Weston, OL John Wise

Yes, technically, not all of these players
can be on the Pats’ practice squad, but they need to be grouped
somehow. Williams could earn a spot on the 53-man because of his
willingness to try his hand at fullback, which he did in spring camps.
A Massachusetts native who was offered a contract after trying out,
during rookie mini-camp, Farnham faces long odds; Ventrone may be a
senimental favorite for some thanks to big brother Ray, a special
teamer and all-around good guy during his time with the Patriots.

Robinson
showed quick improvement through the offseason, but New England has
recently kept just two QBs on the active roster – if the team is
interested in developing him, he may be a candidate to come down with
“Foxborough flu,” a quasi-injury that allows the Pats to stash him on
injured reserve for a year and give him a redshirt season. Wise is
aiming to be another Stephen Neal, a former wrestler with minimal
college football experience who makes an NFL roster.

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