What impact will the Patriots’ second-year players have this season?
A quick look at Sony Michel, J.C Jackson, and other sophomores as they move beyond their rookie years.
Nine years ago this past April, Bill Belichick sat down with Mike Mayock for an NFL Network interview that focused at one point on the topic of team building. At the time, Belichick and his Patriots’ staff were preparing for the 2010 NFL draft — though that didn’t necessarily mean they were looking to plug holes for the upcoming 2010 season, as the coach explained.
“I think a lot of the draft process is not where the player is right now,” Belichick said, “but where the player will be a year from now, or where he’ll be two calendar years from now.”
Later that month, Belichick spent a first-round pick on Devin McCourty. Seconds on Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Spikes. A fourth on Aaron Hernandez. And a seventh on Brandon Deaderick. A year from then, each was looking like a contributor. Within two calendar years, those five all started in the Super Bowl that spurred a run of five AFC championships in eight years.
Philosophically, the importance of a player’s leap from year one to year two as a pro has always been a talking point for Belichick — and, really, a tenet of what the Patriots have built over the two decades of their dynasty. The growth and importance of that 2010 class is a good example, though there’s no better evidence than the franchise’s foundation pieces themselves.
In his first year as the head coach in Foxborough, Belichick led his team to a record of 5-11. The next year, presumably learning from his experiences, he flipped that to 11-5 and won a championship. His quarterback also arrived in 2000, and threw all of three passes during a rookie season spent on the bottom of the depth chart, but behind the scenes Tom Brady did the work required to be sure he was ready if his opportunity came in year two. It did. And he was.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player improve as much as Tom did,” Belichick told Mayock. “That’s certainly a big credit to his work ethic and his determination.”
Eighteen years after Brady took the leap, the quarterback is still at the center of everything for the Patriots, and around him is a relatively veteran roster. Ten days before the first scheduled practice of the 2019 season, the Pats employed 31 players with at least four years of NFL experience. Of those, nine were poised to enter training camp for at least the 10th time.
But, still, New England’s roster is constructed in such a manner that a number of those players elevating from year one to year two should have an opportunity to make a major impact before the end of their second calendar year in the system — and, in some cases, whether they seize that opportunity could help make or break this season at Gillette Stadium. As of Monday morning there were 10 Patriots who entered the league in 2018, and as many as nine could carve out a meaningful role on Sundays this season. (Sorry, third- or fourth-string QB Danny Etling.) What follows is the outlook for each of those 10 as they enter that crucial second season.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
Although he entered the league as a fifth-round pick, Bentley parlayed a strong first preseason into an immediate role with the Pats, starting two of his first three games as a rookie while compiling 14 tackles and an interception. His season was cut short there thanks to a torn bicep, but it will be intriguing to see how the 22-year-old rejoins the experienced linebacker group of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins, and how No. 51 might benefit from the formal tutelage of another player to wear that same jersey: Jerod Mayo. Don’t dismiss the idea that Bentley could play his way into the regular rotation.
CB Duke Dawson
An all-SEC cornerback during his senior season at Florida, Dawson was selected by the Patriots with the 56th overall pick in the 2018 draft. Then, after a hamstring injury relegated him to injured reserve at the start of the season, New England used one of its eligible-to-return designations to add him to the roster in mid-November. Yet Dawson still hasn’t appeared in a game for the Pats, so it’s difficult to really say where he fits. He is projected to defend the slot, and the Patriots have an opening in that role, but it remains to be seen if Dawson is up to the task; if he’s not, he could get buried with so much other talent in the secondary and quickly begin to look like another second-round bust.
CB J.C. Jackson
Jackson wasn’t a member of New England’s nine-man draft class last season, but his ball skills won him a roster spot after the preseason, and by the end of the year he was a key piece defensively. He played at least 79 percent of the defensive snaps in the Pats’ final five regular-season games, broke up two passes in the divisional round, broke up two passes in the AFC title game, then played 29 snaps in the Super Bowl. Stephon Gilmore will be on one side, but going into the year it looks as though Jackson could compete with Jason McCourty for the other starting cornerback spot. Matchups will dictate those decisions to some extent, but if Jackson’s game takes a jump, he could find his career on a Malcolm Butler-esque trajectory.
RB Sony Michel
As a rookie, he missed three games entirely while also being limited to 13 snaps in his debut and six snaps before incurring an injury at Chicago. In total, he played less than 29 percent of New England’s regular-season offensive snaps. Yet by the end of the year he’d gained 931 rushing yards, picking up 4.5 yards per try, and in three postseason contests he compiled 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns. That’s fantastic production from a first-year back, but the durability concerns that dogged him out of Georgia came up a few times in the course of that campaign, and there was reportedly another knee surgery that explained his absence from organized team activities this summer. The Patriots will need to manage Michel’s usage, but his rookie year suggests doing so successfully could pay big dividends.
OT Isaiah Wynn
New England has an opening at left tackle with the departure of Trent Brown and, given that he was the 23rd overall pick in 2018, ideally it will be Wynn who takes over at that premium position. However, Wynn lost his rookie season after tearing his Achilles during the preseason and was still rehabbing the injury during this spring’s OTAs, leaving left guard Joe Thuney to shift over a spot. If that remains the configuration into the season, the hope would then be that Wynn was healthy (and good) enough to fill the gap left by Thuney at guard — so, either way, it figures to be critical that the pick the Pats acquired by trading Brandin Cooks begins to help them in 2019.
COULD CARVE A NICHE
WR Braxton Berrios
The former sixth-round pick who scored nine touchdowns during his senior season at Miami was seen as a potential option to fill the void left by Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension at the start of last season, though Berrios didn’t splash in the preseason, and wound up redshirting the year on injured reserve. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Berrios reported early to camp after a strong spring and could contribute as a punt returner as well as a pass catcher. He’ll need to prove himself in both roles, but, especially given Edelman’s age (33), the 5-foot-9 Berrios makes sense at least as an insurance policy.
CB Keion Crossen
The corner played in 14 of New England’s 19 games last season, though he was on the field for only 12 defensive snaps before the final two regular-season tilts. It’s hard to see him securing more playing time this season, given the depth of the defensive secondary, but Crossen could stick as a special teamer who presents the ability to be physical (sometimes overly so) in pass coverage.
TE Ryan Izzo
Like Dawson, Izzo was placed on IR last season and hasn’t yet seen the field. In the wake of Gronkowski’s retirement, and factoring in Ben Watson’s four-game suspension, the Patriots need tight ends, so Izzo could well get a chance to show what prompted the team to take him with a sixth-round pick in 2018. If he can block the way he did at Florida State, he could potentially settle in to a Dwayne Allen-type role.
LB Christian Sam
As part of the pre-draft process, Sam said the team acquiring him would be adding a player ready to contribute on special teams right away — and that could be his path to sticking with the Patriots this season. He showed at times as a linebacker last preseason, but was not consistent, and ultimately wound up with an undisclosed injury that cost him the season. The chances of him leaping over those ahead of him at a deep position appear limited, but expect him to get enough playing time in the preseason for Patriots brass to make an evaluation on him.