As difficult as it is to believe with a team coming off a Super Bowl victory and having reloaded via free agency and trades this offseason, the New England Patriots still have questions on both sides of the ball heading towards the 2017 NFL draft. While new faces have been added at key positions, there have been losses as well.
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The Patriots are still trying to build depth at the defensive end position, there is a potential hole at the cornerback position if Malcolm Butler is traded and the running back depth is still somewhat suspect. The draft may be the answer at defensive end, there remains talk of exploring trading for Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman or signing Darrelle Revis, the team recently re-signed special teams player and depth running back Brandon Bolden.
However there are also three players who were with the team last season who failed to make a major impact but could step up and play a key role in 2017 for the Patriots.
The Patriots may have the answer for these three positions already on the roster; however, they will also be looking to add competition to these positions during cut-downs during training camp and in the 2017 NFL draft later this month.
Let’s examine the three players on the Patriots roster who need to play a key role in 2017 to help the Patriots get back to the Super Bowl.
1. Cornerback Cyrus Jones:
The New England Patriots invested a second round draft pick on Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones in the 2016 NFL draft. The Patriots got little bang for their buck with that high draft pick. Jones was expected to compete for the nickel cornerback role and to handle punt and kickoff returns. Jones had a case of the “dropsies” and fumbling issues which earned him a spot on the bench.
Jones also had a costly 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Cleveland in Week 5 leading to an ejection. That type of behavior does not go over well with head coach Bill Belichick and after his fifth fumble of the season against Baltimore, Jones was basically inactive for the rest of the 2016 season.
With starting cornerback Logan Ryan playing for Tennessee in 2017, there is a spot open for Jones step in and contribute. With Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Malcolm Butler as the top three cornerbacks, Jones should be able to leverage his talent into taking the fourth cornerback spot.
With the Malcolm Butler situation up in the air and signing Revis or trading for Sherman highly unlikely, it is possible that Butler could be moved to the Saints as many have theorized about this offseason. If a draft day trade goes down moving Butler, Jones would be immediately thrust into what is a essentially a starting role in the New England defense.
Jones showed he has the skill to contribute at cornerback in the preseason but like many rookies he was lost on the field. His issues on special teams did nothing to help his confidence. Jones played just 147 snaps on defense (per ESPN.com) and per NESN.com he allowed a team worst 126.9 quarterback rating on passes into his coverage allowing two touchdowns on just nine targets.
2. Defensive end Geneo Grissom:
While Trey Flowers was the young defensive end who carried the Patriots’ defense in the second half of the 2016 season and in the playoffs, there was another defensive end from the 2015 draft on the roster who was taken a round earlier than Flowers in that draft.
Geneo Grissom was taken in the third round–one round ahead of Trey Flowers in the 2015 NFL draft. However, it was Flowers–the fourth round pick–who has been the impact player while Grissom has been relegated to special teams duty.
Grissom is a player more in the mold of Rob Ninkovich than a traditional pass rushing 4-3 defensive end. Ninkovich is in his final year of his contract and will be 33 years old during the 2017 season. With two years of development behind him and already having been demoted to the practice squad, this is a crucial year for Grissom to take a step forward and start taking crucial snaps away from the veteran Ninkovich.
Grissom is not going to have the impact on the pass rush like Flowers has done. With Kony Ealy in New England via the recent trade with the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots have begun rebuilding the depth at defensive end after the offseason losses of Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard.
This is a make-or-break season for Grissom as he played just ten snaps on defense last season and mainly his role has been only special teams. Grissom has to show he can hold the edge in the running game and generate pressure at times coming from the edge.
If Grissom is unable stand out and earn a role in the defensive end rotation this preseason, he may not earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
3.Running back Dion Lewis:
Dion Lewis came back from knee surgery in Week 10 and played 163 snaps over the last seven games. Although with a limited role in the offense, he did flash some of the explosiveness that had made him so dangerous in the first half of the 2015 season. However, by the end of the season and in the playoffs, the third-down running back role belonged to Super Bowl hero James White.
Lewis is a different back compared to White: he is not the complete receiver like White who can split out to the slot or outside the numbers and runs precise routes like a wide receiver. Lewis is most dangerous receiving the ball out of the backfield in space and using his quickness to make defenders miss tackles.
He is also surprisingly effective running between the tackles because of his short size (five-foot-eight) and low center of gravity. Lewis might be short but he is extremely strong for his size.
Lewis stood out in the Patriots’ win over the Denver Broncos last December when LeGarrette Blount was benched due to ineffectiveness running against the strong Denver defensive line and linebackers. Lewis was inserted in the lead running back roll and was extremely effective against the Broncos finding space between the tackles. He piled up 95 yards on the ground on just 18 carries.
Lewis does not have the size and stamina to be a lead back in the NFL–it is debatable if anyone on the roster is capable of being that back. However, Lewis can take the role on a limited basis as matchups dictate and he also is an effective weapon out of the backfield in the passing game.
Lewis was never one hundred percent healthy last season and also injured himself during the Super Bowl missing the second half of the game. Lewis is in the last year of his contract with the Patriots and if he is back to full strength, he is a weapon for Tom Brady in an offense that is already loaded with weapons such as Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola and James White.
It is easy to forget what a potent offense New England had in the beginning of 2015 when Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis were both healthy. That New England offense looked ready to challenge the 2013 Denver Broncos and 2007 New England Patriots’ teams as the most explosive offense in NFL history. Before Lewis went down with his knee injury, he was adding a dimension to the Patriots’ offense that made them almost unstoppable as the offense scored 28, 40, 51, 30, 34 and 36 points while starting 6-0.
With the investment in third-down back DJ Foster last season, the Patriots may have Lewis competing with Foster for a final roster spot on the roster this summer. Foster is younger and cheaper but may not have Lewis’ veteran savvy and jitterbug moves in the open field.
If Lewis is back to full strength and stays healthy, the Patriots’ offense has another dimension. If the nagging injuries continue to pile up, the Patriots can release him with little salary cap ramifications.