Patriots players with something to prove
SOMETHING TO PROVE
No matter who a player is, no matter what he's done or failed to do in his career, Bill Belichick expects everyone to "establish a level" every season. How will a player perform THIS year? What a player can do at his best or worst matters less than what he does most of the time. That's why every player on the New England Patriots has something to prove. Which ones will be doing that while under the most scrutiny? We'll break down a few players each day through Wednesday - here are the first three.
The rap on Danny Amendola coming to New England was that he was injury prone. By halftime of the Patriots first game, he’d torn his groin on one side. By the end of the game, he’d torn it on the other side as well. He’d also torn it up on the field, catching 10 passes (on 14 targets) for 104 yards and been an absolute monster on third down. He then missed the next three games, played against Cincy with the still-injured groin then got concussed against the Saints. Every ounce of production after that was overshadowed by the “yeah, but…” that pointed out his fragility. Deservedly so.
Even though he wound up with 54 catches, by the end of the season, Amendola was an offensive afterthought, unable to get separation and seemingly losing the confidence of Tom Brady. While the Patriots’ first preference was keeping Wes Welker in the 2013 offseason, Amendola was a consolation prize they scooped up quickly when Welker hit the market. So the comparisons of their seasons weren’t unfair. While Brady found his new Welker in Julian Edelman, the Patriots signed Amendola for that role. He couldn’t do it. Amendola is heading to the second year of his five-year deal and if he can’t stay healthy, he won’t see the end of it.
It’s a huge year for the 24-year-old Hightower who wound up in the spotlight in 2013 and flubbed every line until it all came together in the closing scenes. Hightower, a third-year linebacker from Alabama had the luxury of playing behind Vince Wilfork and alongside Jerod Mayo until Week 5 of 2013. But when both their seasons ended due to injury, Hightower found himself the lead man on the defense. He struggled mightily in coverage, was often a couple steps slow in the running game and played like a man defeated in several games. But by the end of the season, Hightower – who absolutely heard the criticism – seemed to say “Screw it…”, stopped worrying and started playing. He was the Patriots best defender in the final games of the season and, having gained so much hard-earned knowledge is primed for a big 2014. If the Patriots scheme it up the way their personnel seems to indicate – on attack mode – look for Hightower to have a massive impact.
Ryan Wendell went from being one of the great Patriots finds in 2012 to a guy who looked lost in 2013. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008, he beat out Dan Koppen in 2012 and had a very effective season in the middle of the Patriots offensive line. He played more snaps than anyone in the league that year. In 2013, his game inexplicably slipped. Whether it was the pressure of pending free agency, a temporary regression or simply that Wendell just caught lightning in a bottle in 2012 isn’t really that good, he’s got to be better in 2014. Especially after being re-signed in the offseason to a two-year, $8 million deal that the Patriots can pull the plug on with little damage if Wendell doesn’t perform. Having drafted Florida State center Bryan Stork, the successor is in the building.
The arrow was pointing straight up after Stevan Ridley ran for 1,253 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012. And then he fumbled on the third play of the season. He was ruled down but he kept at it, fumbling again in the second quarter against the Bills. That one was real and it was returned for a touchdown. He didn’t fumble again until November 3 against Pittsburgh and that was an unavoidable, hit-as-he-caught-it miscue. But that little leak turned into a deluge. The following week on Monday Night Football, Ridley fumbled against the Panthers on the Carolina 13. And then came the Sunday Night Football fumble against Denver six days later, returned 60 yards for a touchdown. He had 47 carries over the final seven games as LeGarrette Blount emerged as a productive and safer option. But Blount’s gone. The opportunity to render 2013 an ugly memory is upon him. And it would be good for business. Ridley is now 25 and entering the final season of his rookie contract. Running back dough has dried up on the free agent market but Ridley’s potential is high enough so that he’d be among the best options out there. If he proves he won’t drop the ball.
The Patriots best defender in 2012 was Vince Wilfork. And it wasn’t even close. He was used at nose, 4-3 defensive tackle, 3-4 end and on all three downs. And the attention he got on every snap was a testament to the respect opposing offensive coordinators had for him. He was an All Pro. Last season, after a slow start, he blew his Achilles. The question with Wilfork is very simple: can he get back to the level he was playing at in 2012 or is the party over for a very large man on the wrong side of 30 with an ankle tendon that popped like a guitar string?
Entering 2014, Jamie Collins is the Patriot saddled with the heaviest expectations relative to what he’s done. Was he very good in the playoffs? Yes he was. He played every snap in the win over the Colts and all but three in the loss to Denver. And he closed the regular season playing well, opening eyes against the Ravens with an outstanding downfield pass breakup that one just doesn’t see linebackers make. But he still played just 25 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps in the regular season according to the lead chronicler of playing time, ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss.
And when Collins got all that late-season action, a chunk of it was tied to the fact the Patriots put Brandon Spikes on ice. Some brake-tapping needs to be done on expectations Collins will be a full-time outside linebacker with Swiss Army knife coverage/run stopping/pass rushing abilities. But the expectations are coming anyway and it will be up to Collins to prove whether or not they’re well founded.
Eyeballs and a brain. That’s all anyone needed to forecast Tom Brady’s statistical dip in 2013. Of the 402 completions Brady had in 2012, 362 of them went to players who were either gone forever or – in Rob Gronkowski’s case – for the first two months of the year. The statute of limitations on common sense has expired, though. The damning stats of 2013 – despite 25 touchdowns and 11 picks and another run to the AFC Championship – are being used to label Brady as a player in steep decline. He hears it.
Darrelle Revis is on the books for $12M this year and – if the Patriots want to keep him around - $20M next year. That’s their option. Consider this: Richard Sherman’s gaudy, five-year contract extension signed with Seattle doesn’t have a single salary of $12M. The market for elite corners not named Revis still hasn’t caught up with deals Darrelle signed in 2010 and 2012. Is he still that much better than everyone else? He’s got seven picks in the past four seasons. He hasn’t played in a playoff game the past three seasons. Victim of circumstance being with the Jets and Bucs? We’ll see this season now that he’s part of the most consistently excellent team in the league and married up with a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback. What’s he got?
Brandon Browner’s played 20 games the past two seasons and he won’t play his first game for the Patriots until Week 5 thanks to a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The suspension – initially a one-year hitch – was reduced on appeal because it’s one of the most convoluted cases you could find. It revolves around the fact Browner didn’t make his NFL debut until 2011 when he was 27. Cut by the Broncos in 2006, Browner went to the CFL. And he didn’t keep up with the NFL’s drug testing program, claiming he didn’t know he was supposed to. So the league advanced him to Stage 3 for failure to comply.
Let’s get off the suspension stuff though, and consider Browner has just one NFL season – 2011 – in which he played 16 games and excelled, being named to the Pro Bowl. He’s 6-foot-4, 221 pounds and could be a revolutionary addition to the Patriots secondary previously stocked with sawed-off waterbugs at the corner position. But between the suspension, the adjustment to a new defense, a new coaching staff, a new franchise and a different coast (he’s from California and went to Oregon State before going to the CFL and playing three seasons in Seattle), there are a lot of variables to weigh when projecting how Browner will do.
Logan Mankins went to another Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro last season but there were lapses. The most notable came in the AFC Championship when Broncos defensive lineman Terrence Knighton turnstiled Mankins on a fourth-and-3 late in the third quarter and spilled Tom Brady for a knife-twisting sack. At 32, Mankins is nearing the end of his brilliant career. Coming to the Patriots in 2005, he’s been damn close to championships but hasn’t won one. It won’t surprise me at all when he says he’s done and I expect his announcement will be delivered just like that. “I’m done.”
Jerod Mayo isn’t one of the first names to pop up when talking about the best inside linebackers in the game. But the two-time Pro Bowl selection's importance to the Patriots was underscored last season when he tore his pectoral and wound up on IR. He is the on-field brains of the defense and has been almost since he arrived. After this season, though, Mayo’s contract almost doubles. He’s scheduled to make $6.25M, $7.25M and $8.75M in base salary from 2015 through 2017. With Devin McCourty, Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower and – conceivably – Darrelle Revis on the docket for extension talks, scrutiny for every big salary is coming. The 28-year-old Mayo is a true “glue guy” but health and continued production are necessary from him in 2014.
Brittle or unlucky. Which one is Gronk? Probably a little of both. Bottom line, it'd be nice for the big kid to catch a break in 2014. Think about how much time he lost as a result of simple blocking on an extra point. How many surgeries he went through. And then to come back and get his knee destroyed? You don’t think much about Gronk as an introspective individual but he had to have a fleeting haze of “Why me?” enter his mind at some point over the last 20 months. The first question that will need answering is how well he’ll play coming back from his ACL and when he’ll begin doing so. The next question has to be answered over a longer period. Great as he is, can he be trusted to stay healthy?