Five biggest Patriots leaps forward
Five biggest Patriots leaps forward
Patriots coach Bill Belichick often notes that when a player makes the transition from his rookie season to his second professional season, that player has the potential to make a Year 2 "leap." The theory is that, as rookies, players are still getting accustomed to a new league and a new lifestyle. But going into their sophomore seasons, they have an opportunity to better absorb the system, and they can follow the team's offseason training regimen, setting them up to better reach their potential. While one of the five Patriots players whose game made the biggest jump this season fits that bill, not all leaps are built the same way. Sometimes it requires a new opportunity, sometimes it requires a change of scenery, and sometimes the leap comes sooner than expected.
If there was a poster child for the Year 2 leap, Butler would be the choice. For some perspective, consider this: His jersey wasn't available at the Patriots Pro Shop immediately after he made the Super Bowl-winning interception last year, but when this season came to close, his No. 21 was in the store's front window, hanging right next to Tom Brady's No. 12. The Division 2 West Alabama product went from an undrafted, unheralded one-play wonder to one of the game's most respected corners by season's end. Jets coach Todd Bowles called him one of the best in the league, and by season's end he was named a Pro Bowler. He played in 99 percent of New England's defensive snaps this season, more than 1,000 more than the 220 he played during his rookie campaign. According to Pro Football Focus, Butler ranked as the 11th best corner in the NFL in terms of his coverage grade, placing him ahead of Denver's Aqib Talib as well as Jets corner Darrelle Revis. Butler was asked to match up with players like Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and Steelers playmaker Antonio Brown, and he was charted to have 14 passes defensed, which was more than all but three corners in the NFL. Even for someone who finished last season as he did, Butler's Year 2 rise was remarkable.
The Patriots knew they'd be without Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington in 2015. And they knew they'd need someone beyond Butler to step up. In his third season out of Rutgers, Ryan was that guy. Given his effectiveness both in defending the run and in coverage, Ryan was rated as having the 12th best season of any corner in the league, according to PFF. That was more than a slight uptick from the ranking he earned in 2014 (69th). He also placed in the top 25 at his position in terms of his number of passes defensed, his coverage grade and his quarterback rating allowed. With what Belichick consistently refers to as good "playing strength" and a healthy appetite for film study, Ryan was trusted to check some of the most physically-imposing targets in the league. He didn't flinch, putting together his best performances against Denver's Demaryius Thomas and Houston's DeAndre Hopkins. He finished the season with a team-high four picks and 10 passes defensed. Ryan played in 91 percent of defensive snaps this season after actually seeing his playing time go down from his rookie season to his second year due to the arrival of Revis and Browner. Ryan's leap came in Year 3, and when it did, it had a ripple effect on the entire Patriots defense.
Coming from the Browns, where he was used as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 sets, it was hard to gauge exactly what Sheard would be able to dofor the Patriots after he signed with the club as a free agent. He had a reputation as a tough player, an edge defender who could get after the quarterback and also defend the run. But Sheard opened eyes by contributing as consistently and in as many ways as he did. Used to spell Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, Sheard played fewer snaps than his two fellow defensive ends, but an argument could be made that he was the team's most disruptive player at that position this season. He didn't rack up as many sacks (8) as Jones (12.5), but he saw more than 300 fewer snaps. Sheard also proved to be one of the team's best interior pass-rushers in obvious passing situations, which Belichick admitted was a surprise to the New England coaching staff. It was something he simply hadn't done in Cleveland. Per PFF's pass-rush productivity measurement -- which takes into account sacks, hits and hurries as well as the number of passing snaps a defensive player sees -- Sheard was the top 4-3 defensive end in the league. In a new system, and under new direction, Sheard's leap this season helped give the Patriots one of the stingiest defenses in the league.
The Patriots third-down back role was up for grabs in training camp. James White had an edge given he'd had a year in the Patriots season. Brandon Bolden was also a front-runner though he was also still viewed as a core special teamer. Travaris Cadet had a shot in his first year with the Patriots as well. And then there was Dion Lewis. The 5-foot-7, 193 pounder dealt with some physical issues in the spring that made him a bit of an enigma, but once he was on the field, the former Browns and Eagles running back made his presence known. His quickness and uncommon burst were readily apparent in preseason games, as was his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He had an eyebrow-raising knack for making tacklers miss, which he did on a consistent basis through seven games. In that span, according to PFF, he forced 6.14 missed tackles per contest. After just three games, Lewis had made such an impression on his new team that he came to a two-year contract extension with the team. Though Lewis suffered an ACL tear in Week 9 against the Redskins, he had already proved that he could be an electric all-purpose back in the NFL when given the chance. That was something he hadn't been able to do in his previous four seasons in the league. He was either buried on the depth chart in Philly, or injured (he suffered a broken leg before the 2013 season) in Cleveland. Luckily for the Patriots, he had his breakout season in New England. The question now is how will Lewis recover from mid-season ACL surgery?
Something happened to the Patriots' first-round pick right around the time the bye week hit. After three games in the NFL, Brown was still getting accustomed to the relatively new techniques he was taught in New England. The two-gapping system the team liked to use was significantly different when compared to what he did at the University of Texas. As opposed to shooting up the field and getting into opposing backfields from snap-to-snap, the Patriots were asking their young defensive tackle to remain disciplined in his assignments, take on blocks, shed linemen and make tackles. It was a change, but he caught on quickly. From the middle of the season through the stretch run, he was perhaps the team's most consistent interior defensive lineman. By the end of the year, the 6-foot-3, 308-pounder had somehow completely bypassed the "rookie wall" and played more snaps than any of the team's defensive tackles. When Brown was drafted with the No. 32 overall pick last spring, many saw his selection as the team's way of replacing Vince Wilfork. The expectation was that it may take a few years before Brown could give the Patriots anything close to what Wilfork gave them in 2014. They were, after all, big shoes to fill. But given what Brown showed as a rookie, and given how far he came between Week 1 and the AFC Championship Game, he seems to be well ahead of schedule.
Others receiving votes: David Andrews, Alan Branch, Duron Harmon, Akiem Hicks, Brandon King, Josh Kline.