A player’s leap between their rookie season and second year gets mentioned as the most important. They have been entrenched in the team’s system, in season and off season programs, training camps, and inside the locker room. A draft full of diaper dandies last season makes 2011 (if the owners and players get their heads out of their asses) to be teed up as one of the most interesting in regards to player development. The Patriots inserted some massive widgets into the offensive and defensive engines in 2010 with both sides having marquee playmakers. Here we will dissect some of the integral players who could see a major jump in not only playing time, but in the highlight reel presence as well.
WR – Taylor Price
Taylor got some playing time in at the tail end of the season when home field and the first round bye were sewed up. I am confident that missing OTA’s, due to Ohio University being the only school on the planet graduating so late, seriously hurt his rookie development. Taylor is a big, physical wide receiver who I think will replace Brandon Tate this year on the depth chart. He could be that missing piece to stretch the field and (I hate this term more than anything) take the top off the defense. However, I do see the Patriots addressing a ‘go-route’ type veteran WR to help mentor him. Let’s just hope they don’t turn out to be Joey Galloway and Torey Holt.
TE – Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez
Emerging as two of the best young TE’s in the NFL during their rookie campaign speaks for itself. Gronk, with probably the worst training camp hair cut butchering of all time, played at a Pro Bowl level in both the running game and passing game. He was an absolute beast in the Red Zone and made some big, TOUGH, catches in games on the road. I think of the laser that came out of Giselle’s Lady Boy’s hand in Pittsburgh. Hernandez, a late round pick due to smoking some ganja in college, made teams pay for passing on him. I’ll never forget being at the Meadowlands when he faked a safety out of his jock strap for a massive gain. Right then and there I knew this kid was going to be good. Both of these guys are only going to improve and make opposing defensive coordinators lose sleep on Saturday nights planning for them.
LB – Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes
Thank God Shaq beat out Cunningham for the longest lingering calf injury of all time this year. Cunningham, for the most part, underachieved in 2010. He showed some glimmer of promise in back to back games late in the year, but was never a player you noticed or heard mentioned during the broadcast. Cunningham has great awareness and field vision at the LB position. I won’t compare him to Tedy Bruschi, but he has that type of nose for the ball. Brandon Spikes has a same nose for the ball as well, but doesn’t have the speed of a top flight LB. With a few off the field issues in 2010, you can’t argue it derailed his development as a player and a professional. Let’s not forget Dane Fletcher too. He made some significant contributions in 2010. I feel out of the rookies on the defensive side of the ball in this column, Cunningham will make the biggest push in 2011.
DL – Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick
Following Kyle Love on Twitter, I see that he is working out like an animal during this ridiculous lockout. Love played a great role with Mike Wright and Ron Brace both going down to injury this year. Brother Love was tough against the run, but a bit weak in the pass rush. Then again, the entire Patriots pass rush was horrid except when Buffalo or Miami was on the schedule. Deaderick, as we were told during the season, had some attitude issues that effected his play time. He had a few games that I sat there saying, this kid could be good. Those games were few and far between though. Also that flat top? Come on man …. (insert all time Patriot Hater Chris Carter voice)
CB – Devin McCourty
There really is nothing else to say about this guy. He took a few lumps early in the season, but was learning from covering the best WR and best QB possibly of all time every day in practice. McCourty was a second team All-Pro in just his rookie season, and the sky is the limit for this kid. With lighting fast closing speed, better than average tackling skills, and an eagle’s eye for the ball, I think he is a year away from being a true “shut-down” corner.
Some predictions for 2011 for our 2010 Rookies..
Devin McCourty – 2nd Team All Pro (Pro Bowler)
Jermaine Cunningham – Leads Patriots in Sacks with 8.5
Brandon Spikes – 3 INTs , 2 FF, 1 TD
Rob Gronkowski – 55 Receptions – 780 Yards – 9 TD (Pro Bowl alternate)
Aaron Hernandez – 46 Receptions – 610 Yards – 6 TD
Kyle Love – 4 Sacks – 34 Tackles
Brandon Deaderick – Cut in Training Camp
Taylor Price – 36 Receptions – 452 Yards – 3 TDs