Five season-altering Patriots injuries
There's a reason cornerstone left tackles are among the highest-paid players in football. The job is inherently one of the most important on any team, and the Patriots are no exception. When Solder suffered a biceps injury in Week 5 against the Cowboys, it created a domino effect on the offensive line that reverberated for the next four months. Sebastian Vollmer was a solid replacement on the left side, but right tackle became a tough position to fill for a chunk of the season while Marcus Cannon dealt with a toe injury. Even when their top swing tackle was back on the field, the Patriots had trouble protecting Tom Brady. Never was that more evident than the AFC Championship in Denver. Had Solder been available, not only would the play on the left side have been improved, it would have done wonders for the entire group.
The Patriots struck gold with the acquisition of Lewis. Signed to a futures contract before the end of the 2014 season, Lewis was motivated to prove that he belonged in the NFL after two years away from the game due in large part to the fractured leg he suffered in 2013. Though undersized (5-foot-7, 195 pounds), Lewis was a true all-purpose back who made tacklers miss regardless of whether he was taking hand-offs or catching the football out of the backfield. He was a dynamic weapon who created mismatches and frustrated defenses on a weekly basis. After just three games, he earned a two-year extension from the team because the Patriots knew what they had. After he suffered a torn ACL in Week 9, pass-catching back James White had his moments, but he was not the explosive playmaker -- or "Superman," as White called him soon after Lewis' injury -- that Lewis was. The Patriots had no true replacement for Lewis' skill set. Given the injuries the team had on its offensive line, it could have used Lewis and his ability to create yards on his own down the stretch. After both he and LeGarrette Blount suffered season-ending injuries, the Patriots struggled to find any semblance of a running game. In their season-finale, they handed off 14 times for a total of 31 yards.
The Patriots went without their top receiver for their final seven regular season games after losing him early in a Week 10 win over the Giants due to a Jones fracture. It's no coincidence that in that span, the team went 3-4 after having gone undefeated with Edelman in the lineup before that point. Without the versatile target getting open quickly off the line of scrimmage, the Patriots struggled to get the football out of Brady's hands quickly, and their protections were more susceptible to breaking down. With Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola dealing with injuries of their own toward the end of the season, the team was forced to lean on Keshawn Martin, Leonard Hankerson and undrafted rookie Chris Harper at times. Edelman's absence took away one of New England's top punt returners, and it also decimated the Patriots' third-down conversion percentage. With Edelman on the field, they hit on 50 percent of their third-down attempts. Without him, that number dropped to just 31 percent.
Back in 2014, LaFell was key to what the Patriots did offensively. Including the team's three playoff games, he finished the season with 87 catches on 133 targets for 1,072 yards and nine touchdowns, including two scores came in the postseason. Even when he didn't have the football in his hands, he made his mark as a highly-effective down-field blocker. He began 2015 on the physically unable to perform list, and the Patriots were able to go 5-0 without him. It took him a few weeks to get back in the swing, but eventually he hit his stride. He racked up 102 yards against the Redskins in Week 9 and 88 yards in Week 15 against the Titans. It was toward the end of the Titans game, though, that he appeared to injure his foot again. From that point on, in four games, he was targeted just 10 times and caught six for 32 yards. In the AFC title game, he wasn't thrown to once in 30 snaps. With Edelman and Amendola banged up, the Patriots could have used LaFell at full strength to help complement Gronkowski, but it seemed as though he could never get back to the form he showed last season -- especially after popping up on the injury report with a foot issue following the Titans game.
The right-tackle-turned-left-tackle was an iron man of sorts for the Patriots for the majority of the year. While pieces along the line were constantly shifting, Vollmer played 14 of his team's first 15 games before suffering an ankle sprain that forced him to be carted off of the MetLife Stadium turf in Week 16. The Patriots had a difficult time protecting Brady for the remainder of that game and for the duration of the following week's game against the Dolphins, during which Vollmer was forced to sit out. Vollmer was back in action against the Chiefs in the Divisional Round and performed well, but the Broncos pass rush was an insurmountable challenge for Vollmer and the rest of the offensive line in the conference championship. It's no guarantee, but had Vollmer's leg not been rolled up on in New Jersey, the Patriots would have had a better chance at winning either of their final two games of the regular season. A victory either at the Meadowlands or in Miami would have secured homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and that may have been enough to be the difference between winning and losing against the Broncos two weeks ago.
Others receiving votes . . .
Dont'a Hightower: If he hadn't suffered a knee injury in the second quarter of a Week 12 loss to the Broncos, the Patriots would have had a much better shot at slowing down Denver's running attack that night. The knee injury appeared to bother the hard-hitting linebacker at various points throughout the remainder of the season.
Josh Kline: Before injuring his shoulder in a loss to the Eagles in Week 13, Kline performed as perhaps the most consistent offensive lineman on the team, earning a contract extension with his play.
LeGarrette Blount: The Patriots could have used a power running game to slow down the Broncos pass rush in the AFC title game, but Blount went down for the season in Week 14 with a hip injury.