|The Patriots should expect bigger things from Malcolm Brown this coming season (photo source: bleacherreport.com)|
It's conventional wisdom in the league that the performance level for NFL players makes a quantum leap between their first and second years. This is due to the player's familiarity with the team's system, his comfort level playing at the professional level, his adaptation to the demands of the long season, and a variety of other factors. There are 15 second year players on the 90 man roster right now, including players from last year's practice squad and injured reserve. We will take a look at 5 players we expect to ramp up production in their sophomore seasons.
1. DT Malcolm Brown: This was a no brainer. We already saw flashes of brilliance from Brown in his rookie season in both his run defense and his pash rushing ability. In fact, we probably haven't seen a DT with this type of power and athleticism since Richard Seymour (before he moved to DE). The only thing the big DT lacked last year was consistency. As the season wore on last year, Brown indeed improved his play . . . especially against the run, where he struggled in the first few weeks of the campaign. A play that stood out was when they visited The Meadowlands to play the Giants on November 15th and Eli Manning was threatening to put his team ahead with a go ahead score with less than 2 minutes to go (again). On a designed roll out to the right side at the 5 yard line, while the pass coverage was solid, it was Brown's athletic pursuit of Manning to the sideline forced the latter to take a 6 yard sack on a key 3rd and 5. The Giants were forced to kick a field goal and went up by 2 before the Patriots drove down the field and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 54 yarder to win the game 27-26. If the Patriots didn't collapse down the stretch last year and lose home field advantage, the importance of this play probably would've been amplified in the analysis of the season as a key play in their championship season (yup, that's right, because there's no way Denver would've won at Foxborough).
2. G Shaq Mason: Like Brown, Mason showed flashes of potential, except his were on a much smaller scale. Expect the Patriots to highlight his athleticism this season in the running game by running more traps and counters. While Mason has a long way to go to reach The Hannahsphere, there's no doubt the team realizes its achilles heel last season was the offensive line. And one of the best ways the team can better protect the quarterback is to establish the run in order to force the opposing front seven to honor it. This should open up the play action game better, which is where Tom Brady often kills opposing defenses. It is in the power running game where we see Mason's best attribute . . . pulling to the opposite side and absolutely pancaking an unsuspecting linebacker, thereby opening up a nice hole. Mason has the power and agility to pull very effectively. Where Mason needs to improve is in his pass blocking. With the return of healthy tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer to their natural left and right positions respectively, Mason should have the veteran presence on his side regardless of which side he plays.
3. DE Geneo Grissom: The obvious choice would have been to predict center David Andrews as a second year candidate to elevate his game, but I'm going to go deeper and select Grissom. While Andrews had 11 starts last season largely due to injury to fellow snapper Bryan Stork, competition from the latter will likely limit Andrews' development this season. In contrast, Grissom played sparingly last season as the team's 4th defensive end behind Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and Jabaal Sheard. Since Jones was traded to the Cardinals and the team signed aging veteran Chris Long, look for Grissom to get more chances in a regular rotation. Long has battled injuries in the past two seasons and it would be overly optimistic to believe he will play all 16 games this season. Unlike some teams in the NFL, the primary job of the DE in the Patriots defense is to set the edge in order to funnel the running game inside and to prevent running quarterbacks from fleeing the pocket and making plays downfield with their feet or arm. All you have to do is look at the Patriots divisional opponents and realize that opposing QB's Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tannehill, and Tyrod Taylor fit the mold of the quarterback that excels outside of the pocket. So its imperative that Patriot DE's set the edge. As good as Jones was as a pass rusher, let's be honest . . . there were too many times he would either get sucked into the wash or he'd pursue the quarterback behind the play, which opened a running lane in his vacated spot (look for at least one 3rd down draw to his side in the opener in Glendale). When his number was called, Grissom was competitive last year on the line of scrimmage. While he only totaled one sack in his limited time, expect him to increase production this coming season.
Noteworthy candidates: Andrews, G Tre Jackson, and DE Trey Flowers.