Roughly 30 million viewers tuned in to watch the Patriots play the Cowboys last Sunday evening, which earned TV ratings as high as any regular-season game aired by Fox since 1996. This coming Sunday the Pats will likely do huge numbers again, taking the national stage for their fifth prime-time contest of the campaign. Appearances in four of five Super Bowls, among 14 only-show-in-town playoff games along the way, tend to expand a team’s public profile, too.
Add to all that exposure a brand of team-building that emphasizes roster depth while celebrating specialists and it’s not easy to exist too far under the radar as a member of football’s most-envied franchise. But along the path to the 10-1 record that has stationed the Patriots atop the AFC (again), the contributions of some haven’t received as much individual attention from observers who’ve focused more acutely on the defense’s dominance, the offense’s inconsistency, or Tom Brady’s smile rate.
And, given that it’s come to be so closely associated with gratitude and football, there’s no time like the fourth week of November to recognize their efforts. Here are 10 underappreciated players Patriots fans should be thankful for:
The 31-year-old was singled out by an effervescent Bill Belichick after gutting his way through illness to take 62 snaps at right tackle. Cannon missed one game early in the year with injury, but last week’s effort is just the latest example of toughness from a player who overcame cancer, then struggled in his transition to the pros, but has fought his way to becoming a valuable veteran presence along the offensive line.
According to Pro Football Focus, no guard across the league has played more snaps than Thuney — and yet he’s been blamed for just one sack, despite playing alongside journeyman fill-in Marshall Newhouse for most of the season. He was excellent last year, too, and so he’s set to reap his reward with a new contract before next season. That’s perhaps even more reason for Pats fans to appreciate him now, while he’s here.
Here’s a fantastic example of a player who earned his jersey on special teams, then took advantage of the opportunity to become a big factor on the first three downs, too. As an undrafted rookie in 2016, 307 of the 371 snaps he played were in the kicking game. In 2019 he’s the starting slot corner for the best defense in football, playing 65 percent of the snaps in the first season of a three-year, $21 million re-commitment.
He’s missing is the signature, Super Bowl-saving play. Otherwise, Jackson is pretty much Malcolm Butler 2.0. He worked hard and stood out enough in the preseason to make the team out of training camp as an undrafted rookie, then by the end of that year was on the field in the big moments, and by the start of the second year he was regularly relied upon in coverage. The load is a little bit lighter on Jackson because he’s surrounded by Jones, Jason McCourty, and Stephon Gilmore — but it says something that even with such talent in the cornerbacking corps, he’s still trusted on more than half (58 percent) of the opponents’ offensive plays.
In part due to Patrick Chung’s collection of injuries, Brooks has played 220 defensive snaps this season. That’s only nine fewer than he’s played in the past four years combined. With the Jets he served as an excellent special teams contributor, but against the Eagles he registered a couple hits on the quarterback, made seven tackles, and that was representative of the way he’s acquitted himself when called upon as a safety all season. His was an under-the-radar signing last spring, but one that has surely paid dividends.
His production has slowed some since the start of the season, when it seemed as though he was good for an impact play each week, but he remains a steady part on the edge of the front seven. After playing for the Ravens, Texans, and Colts between 2013-17, he’s found a fit in Foxborough — and for short money, making just $4 million between this year and next.
He fits the Patriots prototype so well, it’s still surprising that Belichick cut him before last season, and let him play a year in Miami. In his second act he’s blocked a punt, served as the primary kick returner, run the ball effectively when asked to do so, created matchup trouble as a receiver, and most recently he’s taken on a lead-blocking roll as a quasi-fullback. He’s a do-it-all asset in multiple phases.
Speaking of fullbacks, Roberts showed improvement against the Cowboys compared to his play at that position against the Eagles, and he also played 30 percent of the defensive snaps, plus 26 percent of the special teams snaps in that Dallas contest. Roberts was named a team captain at the end of the preseason, then didn’t see any action at linebacker in the opener Pittsburgh — but has validated his teammates’ belief in his leadership with the way he’s reacted ever since. He’s a pro.
In each of his three training camps it has seemed as though Butler was on the roster bubble. Yet, even after not being drafted, he’s never missed a game in his three-year career. This year he’s taken his play to another level, notching seven QB hits and 5.5 sacks through 11 contests, and also got his mitts on four passes in addition to making six tackles for loss. He’s got a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and has become increasingly noticeable.
Butler and Danny Shelton have enjoyed good seasons on the interior of the defensive line — but if Pro Bowl voters are wise enough to acknowledge performance beyond the numbers, Guy deserves consideration. One sack and 40 tackles don’t jump off the page, but the 29-year-old has been consistently disruptive from his tackle spot, and the reward has been a near-doubling in his playing time since September. He’s just one cog in a high-functioning engine, but Guy has been more than just, well, a guy.