By: Derek Havens
In the last two years the Patriots have made 24 draft selections, more than any other team in the NFL. The inevitable roster turnover for the veteran laden team of the previous decade is seen as a long time coming from analysts, management, and fans alike. In terms of the upcoming season, the Patriots are dependant on these 24 draft selections stepping into starting and contributing roles. Unlike the dynasty era, there are starting jobs to be won on both sides of the ball and with the injection of youth into the current roster, some of these players will see immediate action on Sundays. These five players are listed below and keep in mind they’re are in no particular order:
1) Patrick Chung, S, Oregon
The first pick made by the Patriots in the 2009 NFL draft was Patrick Chung at 34th overall. Chung registered 37 tackles, 2 sacks, and 1 interception in his first season. While his play was inconsistent at times throughout the season’s entirety, he made strides as the season progressed. Last year, Chung was one of three players that split time next to Brandon Meriweather at the free safety position. Having a set starter next to Meriweather should let the two players build a chemistry that could possibly translate to better team communication and should add stability to the secondary. Poor defensive communication was definitely illustrated by the defenses play at times during last season. If all goes well, Chung will be a 16 game starter for the Patriots at the free safety position in the coming season.
2) Jermaine Cunningham, LB, Florida
Perhaps the player most under the microscope in the coming year is none other than Jermaine Cunningham. Drafted 53rd overall in the 2010 NFL draft, the defensive lineman turned outside linebacker had a productive college career registering 19.5 sacks as well as 34 tackles for a loss during his tenure at Florida. At the teams’ biggest area of need on the defense last season, outside linebacker, playing time should come early and often for Cunningham. If he can play the position at a solid level while generating a pass rush opposite of Tully Banta-Cain, the team could be in great shape. Although asking a rookie who has never played the position, coming from college to one of the NFL’s more intricate defenses is asking a lot. However, Bill seems confident in Jermaine’s abilities and potential; which is apparent, as he has given Cunningham an exuberant amount of first team repetitions at training camp to date. If he continues to make strides in training camp and makes plays in the pre season, Cunningham could be looking at one of the starting outside linebacker spots this season.
3) Aaron Hernandez, TE / H – Back, Florida
One of the more intriguing selections of the recent draft, Aaron Hernandez, is an athletic versatile player who offensively will be utilized in a countless number of ways this year by the patriots. The impact Hernandez has made in training camp as a fourth round pick (113th overall) has created a buzz in Foxboro. Tom Brady and Hernandez seem to be developing a rapport as they are seen spening time together and discussing the offense after each series in practice. Aaron will most likely be lined up in several different spots taking a Hybrid back type role with the team and should have an immediate impact in the passing game.
4) Rob Gronkowski, TE, Arizona
Patriot Nation, meet Brady’s new favorite red zone target, Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski could have as much potential as anyone drafted last April. At 6’6” and 265 lbs, he is a quarterback’s dream. With his size, strength, and production, he could be a force as well as a match up nightmare for defenses, if his health permits. The rookie had a herniated disc and minor nerve damage in his back, which was repaired in California back on September 24th of last year. Healthy and eager, Gronkowski runs very fluidly for his size and his run after the catch is remarkable. His hands, blocking, catch in traffic, and overall football IQ could potentially make him one of the leagues best tight ends in a few years. Gronkowski should be the starting tight end by week 1.
5) Devin McCourty, CB, Rutgers
The 27th overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft, is widely considered one of the top rookie cornerbacks. When commissioner Roger Goodell announced the Patriots had selected him, fans were left scratching their heads. Even though McCourty was a first round talent, many considered the position a lower priority. Despite Darius Butler’s solid rookie campaign, expectations for McCourty compelled me to place him on the list over Butler, and I think McCourty has all the tools to compete on an NFL field and could be a star. Needless to say, expectations are high for this young man. Veteran Leigh Bodden, along with Butler and McCourty, could be a strong trio for years to come. McCourty will slide into the nickel spot at corner right away if not the starting role across Bodden, and will also contribute on special teams as he did so well at Rutgers.
*Honorable Mention: Darius Butler, Brandon Spikes, Taylor Price, Tyrone McKenzie, and Sebastian Vollmer.
These five players will have the biggest impact on the team this season and their play could decide if the team returns to the postseason. As important to the teams success as these five players are, all 53 Patriots players along with the coaching staff, will have to put the team ahead of their individual selves in order to make a legitimate run deep into the postseason. With the potential of these young stars and Bill Belichick at the helm, there should optimism amongst fans as well as in the organization that a fourth Lombardi trophy could be in the teams near future.
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