If a fan were to follow New England’s football team merely through headlines and those hollering through their radio, it’s conceivable they could’ve heard the names of only five Patriots over the past five months: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Rob Gronkowski, Malcolm Butler, and Julian Edelman. Maybe Robert Kraft, too.
It’s certainly been an offseason dripping with drama and endless speculation, but as of this week it’s back to work in Foxborough, where training camp begins Friday. Rookies have already arrived, while veterans are due by Wednesday, and among those reporting to Gillette Stadium will be a few who have been through this before, and who haven’t been a major part of the conversation through the spring and summer, but whose performance could make them a major focus at some point this fall.
Here are five potentially pivotal Patriots who were afterthoughts this offseason, but return to the field with something to prove:
There was shedding a block to drop Marshawn Lynch just shy of the goal line a play before Malcolm Butler made his legendary interception. Then there was the strip sack of Matt Ryan that fueled the greatest comeback in football history. In each of the Patriots’ past two Super Bowl victories, Hightower has delivered a decision-altering play at the heart of the New England defense.
Even putting aside how sorely they were lacking such a play in February against the Eagles, those moments are reminders of what type of player Hightower is, and the playmaker he is capable of being. The question as 2018 begins, however, is centered around what the Pats can reasonably expect to get from the linebacker who tore his pectoral five games into last season — but also what tolls injury may have taken on a player who has now missed 22 games over the past four seasons.
In June he admitted to taking an approach to rehab that aimed to prevent future injuries, and the team is expected to ramp him up to full speed when training camp begins. His workload was limited during minicamp. After sporting the league’s second-worst run defense a year ago, per Football Outsiders, the Patriots not only need Hightower back on the field for the sake of continuity and communication at the central linebacker level, but as a unit that got pushed around at times they also need him to be the powerful tackler and forceful defender he has proven to be when healthy. If he can contribute as a pass rusher off the edge, in a role he was being cast more regularly into a year ago, even better.
There’s a chance that the biggest addition the Patriots defense made in the offseason could simply be getting Hightower back. But there isn’t much buzz about it — perhaps because people have become somewhat accustomed to adjusting to life without him.
Most of the chatter about the Pats’ offensive line this offseason has focused on the departure of left tackle Nate Solder or the decision to spend a first-round pick on Isaiah Wynn, who has a shot to open the year at left guard. Accordingly, not much attention has been paid to the fact on the other side of the line the Patriots are set to return a player who in 2016 was named a second-team All-Pro.
Cannon injured his ankle last October, eventually winding up on injured reserve after appearing in just seven games. It spoiled the first year of the five-year, $32.5 million extension in the middle of his breakout campaign, and thus it also leaves some lingering questions about what type of impact Cannon can make. That 2016 season marked the only time he started more than eight contests, and it also featured significantly better and more consistent performance than he had throughout his first five pro slates. If he truly is an All-Pro, and if the first-round choices of Wynn and running back Sony Michel are indicators that the Pats intend to use the ground game more this season, Cannon has the skills to play a big part as a paver. However, if there are residual affects from the ankle injury, or if 2016 was a peak, New England could find itself further weakened up front, where there are already two critical spots in question.
Since bringing him back to the Patriots in 2014, Belichick has better utilized Chung’s skill set, and in doing so the former second-round pick has played an important role with his ability to cover tight ends and the occasional slot receiver while also helping against the run. He’s still listed as a safety, but Chung spends so much time near the line of scrimmage he’s more of a hybrid between a defensive back and a linebacker — and given the way the Pats are constructed going into this season, they’ll be counting on him to succeed in that role again. Unofficially, the depth chart projects the Patriots’ base defense to be a nickel look, with just two linebackers and Chung starting as one of three safeties on the field. He got a salary bump over the offseason, too, with the team more than doubling his 2018 salary in the process of extending their commitment through 2020.
Chung earned that contract by matching career-highs with nine pass breakups and 67 tackles a season ago, when he led an effort that Football Outsiders ranked the Patriots as the NFL’s eighth-best defenders of tight ends. Yet there were points in the postseason at which he appeared to struggle — he was too late to stop the Jaguars’ Marcedes Lewis from a touchdown catch in the AFC title game, then he surrendered 56 yards trying to cover the quicker Nelson Agholor before leaving the Super Bowl with a head injury — and next month the 10th-year veteran will turn 31. He has played 75 of 76 possible games since returning to Foxborough, and all of them with a rugged welcoming of physicality.
The Patriots are already pressed with the task of replacing cornerback Malcolm Butler, who has departed for Tennessee. But they had time to plan for that. Should Chung wear down, or should those playoff breakdowns foretell some slippage, it’s difficult to see a backup plan anywhere else on this roster.
A case could be made that Flowers was the Patriots’ best defensive player last season. Not bad, considering he was paid a base salary of $615,000 for his efforts, and is in line to play this season under the rookie contract that promised him a bit more than $2.8 million for four years of work. His tax bracket is set to change by next spring, of course, and before then it’ll be up to New England’s brass to determine whether he is worthy of the massive money being slung at edge rushers across football — or if Flowers is another quality defender the Pats let go when the price goes up.
Flowers is 24, and ranks favorably league-wide according to the graders at Pro Football Focus. Giving him a “high quality” rating, they credited him with 59 pressures last season, 19th among edge rushers, and placed him at No. 75 on their list of the NFL’s best players in 2017. That was four spots ahead of Chandler Jones, who led the league in sacks two years after being traded by the Pats. And it was well ahead of the Vikings’ Danielle Hunter, who didn’t make PFF’s top 101, but nevertheless received a $72 million extension ($40 million guaranteed) from Minnesota this summer, after notching seven sacks last season.
Flowers, meanwhile, had 6.5 sacks in 2016. He has 13.5 over the past two regular seasons, which is nice, but which also might put him on something of a fence regarding his future in Foxborough. The Patriots have had little hesitance in separating from more productive players, so if Flowers’ numbers stay in that range this season, or if he isn’t commanding special attention from opponents, New England might be content to let someone else pay him. However, if the additions of Adrian Clayborn and Danny Shelton help Flowers bloom into an edge presence that produces double-digit sacks, it will be that much more difficult for the Pats to treat him like just another cog in a revolving cast, particularly with his prime still ahead of him.
Officially he’s still the team’s linebackers coach, but, with Matt Patricia having taken the head coaching job in Detroit, it’ll be Flores leading the defense on gameday. He’s been a part of Belichick’s staff long enough that he should have the institutional knowledge desired, and by not giving Flores the official title of defensive coordinator there’s a reasonable supposition that Belichick will be attentive to preparations and playcalling on that side of the ball, so there doesn’t appear to be much anxiety over the transition. But it’s worth noting that these circumstances have not gone particularly well for the Pats in the Belichick era.
In the seasons when coaches reared under Belichick have taken over his defense, with or without the title of coordinator, the unit’s play has initially slipped. When Patricia and Pepper Johnson (both Belichick disciples) took the reins in 2010, the defense’s rankings dropped from fifth to eighth in points allowed, and 11th to 25th in yards allowed. The duo shared duties in 2011, too, when the drop continued — to 15th in points and 31st in yards yielded. The other example came in 2005, when Eric Mangini took over for Romeo Crennel. The Pats slid from second to 17th in points, and ninth to 26th in yards. The only transition that went well was the move from Mangini to Dean Pees, who was internally promoted from linebackers coach, but had previously been a defensive coordinator and head coach at the college level.
The others hadn’t, and neither has Flores, who was worked for the Pats since playing at Boston College. He was seemingly groomed for this opportunity in recent seasons, and his appointment was no surprise. His players speak highly of him, and expect he will succeed, especially factoring in the wisdom of Belichick. However, as with a number of things surrounding this New England team, the reality remains to be seen.