As rookie minicamps rev up around the NFL, the 2017 season inches ever closer. The New England Patriots, coming off their fifth super bowl title, move forward into the season with some fresh faces to go along with the grizzled veterans of the group. Several young players are in position to have breakout seasons in 2017. Here are just three that stand out.
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Defensive End Kony Ealy
Ealy is a newcomer to the Patriots, joining the champs after being acquired in a trade with the Carolina Panthers as the free agency period was just beginning. The former second-round pick has totaled 14 sacks in his three-year career, including five in each of the last two seasons. With Julius Peppers returning to the Panthers this year, Ealy would have been relegated to more of a reserve role in Carolina. Now he gets the chance to be the starter opposite of Trey Flowers this year.
Ealy’s size makes him a great fit in New England. He stands at six-foot-four, weighing in at 275 pounds, giving him the ability to rush on the outside and the inside. Ealy will be a big part of the rotation on the defensive line for the Patriots, and could make an impact right away.
Linebacker Elandon Roberts
The second-year player from Houston played in 13 games for the Patriots last season, totaling 45 combined-tackles. Roberts showed flashes early in the year, but saw his playing time diminish as the season wore on. The emergence of Shea McClellan as the main linebacker opposite of Dont’a Hightower really hurt Roberts as well.
That being said, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia loves to rotate players in-and-out of the lineup on a regular basis, and a second year in the system will serve Roberts well this year. He has decent enough speed to be a factor in coverage on passing downs, something McClellan does not excel at. Look for Roberts to compete hard for the second inside linebacker spot.
Running back James White
A stellar performance in Super Bowl 51 puts the spotlight on White coming into 2017. He came away with 14 receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown in the air. He added 29 rushing yards on six carries with two scores, including the game-winner in overtime.
The addition of Mike Gillislee and an already crowded backfield won’t make things easy for White. He will likely be the main receiving back for the Patriots this year, getting a lot of time on passing downs. Gillislee is a capable receiver out of the backfield, but not on the level that White showed last season. This should keep White high in the rotation. His chemistry with Tom Brady continues to grow, making him a prime candidate for a bigger year.