The Patriots have doled out their annual awards for hard work and improvement in the offseason. Here's a look at each recipient, who will each receive a prime parking space at Gillette Stadium for their efforts.
The former Rams receiver has huge expectations for the season as the team's replacement for departed Pro Bowler Wes Welker. While Amendola is under a lot of pressure, he can also look at the situation as an opportunity to succeed with a Hall of Fame quarterback delivering him the ball. Early observations at camp have noted that Amendola has already developed some chemistry with Tom Brady (more on him in a second); its likely this is the result of lots of offseason work between the two (only some of which was joined by Terrell Owens).
The legendary quarterback was a mainstay on this list from 2001-2007, but hasn't appeared since as fatherhood and other, ahem, obligations have taken up more of his time during the offseason. Brady's reappearance on this list goes to show how much of a burden is being put on him this offseason. The departures of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead have forced the team to, in Coach Belichick's words, redo the team's receiving corps. The return of a (hopefully) healthy Gronk will help things, but in the meantime Brady is depending on a bunch of unfamiliar faces in the passing game. In addition to developing chemistry with veterans like Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins, Brady is also tasked in aiding the development of rookie receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins. The fact that Brady returns to this list shows his awareness of how much responsibility he has for this team.
Perhaps the most interesting name on the list. Dowling has been consistently injured since being drafted with the 33rd pick of the 2011 draft. This, especially when combined with Dowling's extensive injury history in college and high school, has led many to write off Dowling going into this season. However, it's important to remember that Dowling has flashed his potential in the small spurts he's been healthy. Not many rookies are trusted by Belichick enough to cover Brandon Marshall on an island in the red zone, let alone a rookie making his first NFL appearance (This was also a matchup Dowling won, batting away a Chad Henne pass intended for Marshall in the end zone during New England's 2011 season opening 38-24 win over Miami). The Patriots could really use another cornerback to step up and solidify the teams depth; a healthy Dowling has the potential to be that guy. Who knows if he will finally get some better injury luck this season (he certainly deserves it), but it seems like lack of work won't be the reason if Dowling doesn't succeed this year.
Fletcher's hard work has mostly been in rehab, as he has been recovering from a torn ACL in the 2012 preseason. The DE-turned-linebacker has been cleared for all contact and claims to have no lingering limitations from his 2012 surgery. Fletcher has been overshadowed a bit by some of his more heralded teammates, but his versatility could help the team's defense, especially on third down. Fletcher also brings additional value via his ability on special teams.
Not much to say here. Mayo has been a mainstay on this list ever since being drafted in 2008. Mayo has been singled out for his leadership by Bill Belichick on multiple occasions. Mayo is also widely cited by his younger teammates (Donta' Hightower and Chandler Jones particularly) as an important leader in the locker room. Once again, the lead-by-example captain seems to have set the tempo for his teammates in the offseason.
Another unsurprising name on this list. Ninkovich's role on and off the field has increased every year since his 2009 arrival as a relatively unheralded free agent. Much like the former #50 Mike Vrabel, Ninko was miscast early in his career as purely a special teamer but has excelled with the opportunities he's recieved in New England.
Yet another guy well-known for his lead-by-example presence in the locker room. Coach Belichick recently praised Slater for his leadership, describing him as:
"A person that can perform his job effectively and puts the interests of the team ahead of his own personal interest"
Sounds like that leadership was evident once again this offseason.
I previously mentioned the amount of responsibility Tom Brady is facing. Solder is facing the responsibility of keeping the franchise quarterback upright. The 2011 first-round pick turned in a solid season last year, his first as the team's starting left tackle, but has the potential to be even better. Another step up in his game could make him one of the premier left tackles in the league.
Another interesting name on the list. Last year's midseason acquisition of Talib went a long way towards shoring up the team's atrocious pass defense; one merely needs to watch the tape after Talib went down in the AFC Championship Game to see his impact. However, he was one of many players to take a one year "prove it" type of deal after being unimpressed with this year's uncharacteristically dry free agent market. A big year on a high-profile team like New England could bring Talib a big payday in 2014 and he knows it. Look for Talib to have a big year.
What more can you say about Big Vince? Like Mayo, the big defensive tackle is widely cited by both his peers and Coach Belichick as one of the team's leaders. Like Mayo, he apparently has walked the walk with his work this offseason. It's good to see captains like Wilfork, Mayo, Slater and Brady setting the tone for their younger teammates early in the offseason, just like its good to see younger players like Solder and Dowling following their example.