The Patriots finished the 2022 season at 8-9 and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years, yet young players continued to emerge, players who should form a new core in New England that will one day lead the team back to postseason success. With three-straight drafts filled with immediate contributors, the once-heavily-veteran squad has slowly tipped the scales toward a youth movement whose development will be a critical part of 2023.
Here's one rookie, two second-years and two third-years that put together outstanding seasons and should be reasons for optimism moving forward and long-term building blocks, some of whom could be extended as soon as this offseason.
PFF Grade: 81.3 (2nd on Patriots offense, 15th in NFL Rushing)
Key Stats: 17 games played, 1,461 all-purpose yardage (15th in NFL)
Partly due to injuries that struck every running back but him while two rookies developed, Stevenson broke out with his all-around game in 2022, doubling his total yardage output from 729 to 1,461. With Ty Montgomery going down after one game and Damien Harris in and out of the lineup, Stevenson's reliability turning in a full 17-game season can't be understated, he was the offense's most consistent feature and often made plays when not much was there.
Stevenson's two best games on the ground were Detroit (25 carries, 161 yards) and Las Vegas (19 carries for 172 yards and a touchdown, just forget about the end-of-game sequence), while his seven catches for 72 yards against the Jets and nine catches for 76 yards against the Vikings were high water marks in receiving. He was also sixth in the league in broken tackles by running backs as Stevenson frequently bowled over would-be tacklers with outstanding physicality and contact balance.
There's little question Stevenson will be New England's primary back in 2023 with Harris set to his free agency and limited flashes from rookies Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris. Ty Montgomery should be back from injury and take some of the passing-down load off of Stevenson, but 2022 showed he's capable of doing it all when called upon.
PFF Grade: 78.4 (3rd on Patriots defense, 8th for NFL safeties)
Key Stat: Three defensive touchdowns
By most metrics, Dugger had a similarly successful season to the one he put together in 2022, missing two games in both and producing similar interception and fumble numbers with a 20-solo-tackle dropoff being one area of regression. What makes this a breakout season for the third-year safety were his touchdowns, taking two interceptions to the house while also returning a fumble for six against the Lions as well. Dugger's nose for the ball and the end zone were huge factors for the defense, as was his physicality often playing a hybrid linebacker role. 419 of his 752 defensive snaps came in the box.
Entering the final season of his rookie deal, Dugger still has some steps to take to reach his full potential. While he brings a physical run-stopping presence, his inconsistencies at times in coverage have been an unfortunate detractor from Dugger achieving true superstar status, though he still came in as PFF's 16th-ranked safety in coverage. The Patriots value their hybrid safeties like no other defense, and Dugger is clearly the most talented one on the roster. With turnover potentially at free safety, it could alter the group and evolve Dugger's role even further.
The team faces a dilemma this offseason as they could make an early move to extend Dugger even if he hasn't completely rounded out his game yet, or they can wait and see what happens this fall, where an even better season could price Dugger right out of New England.
PFF Grade: 90.7 offense (1st on Patriots, 18 total snaps), 67.6 defense (13th on Patriots), 80.2 returns (3rd in NFL)
Key Stats: A touchdown on offense, defense and special teams; AP All-Pro First-Team selection
It doesn't get more breakout than a rookie like Marcus Jones, who electrified Patriots Nation in all three phases of the game after a slow start out of training camp as he recovered from shoulder injuries sustained in college. Of course, Jones' walk-off punt return touchdown against the Jets was arguably the greatest moment of the season, but there were plenty of other moments that showed just how capable the youngster is as a total football player.
With three more seasons on his rookie deal to go, Jones' potential and future are among the most exciting developments of the 2022 season as he's shown he can make an impact in multiple ways. The question is how to best utilize him for maximum effectiveness. First, of course you lock him into the returner spots, that's a given. Second, his man coverage ability with his quickness sets a high bar as a valuable matchup slot cornerback, that's his full-time defensive role that he could occupy full time this fall.
Finally, it's hard to look at his explosive touchdown against the Bills and want to keep Jones away from that side of the ball. Perhaps an expanded but targeted collection of plays could be part of the summer install. Players who can make those kinds of big plays are in high demand and Jones' ability is unique in that regard at this point when it comes to the overall roster.
So, the answer is to let Marcus keep on cooking in all three phases and see just how high he can ascend.
PFF Grade: 83.1 (1st on Patriots defense), 87.8 pass rush grade (23rd in NFL)
Key Stat: 11.5 sacks
Uche developed into an ideal complementary pass rusher this season, something that had tantalized everyone since the team selected him in the second round of the 2020 draft. He came into the league known for his speed rush but the refinement of his rush in 2022 that included the addition of more power moves helped boost his productivity after picking up just four sacks in his first two seasons.
Uche's breakout was more of a breakout within his already targeted role, still leaving more uncharted territory to target in 2023. His snaps rose from 30 percent to 38 percent as he remained primarily a passing down situational rusher, but his efficiency went through the roof, setting Uche up for a pivotal fourth season as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
With most of the defensive front returning in 2023 there's good reason to believe Uche will be similarly productive next season but can he continue to grow and take the final hardest final step? That could play a big part in his future and where he ends up in 2024, but make no mistake, his value as a pass rusher is high and he should be due for a monster year this fall.
PFF Grade: 80.4 pass rush grade (2nd on Patriots)
Key Stat: 10 games played
For many, Barmore had a disappointing sophomore season because he played in just 10 games and had just 2.5 sacks, but this is one where Barmore's breakout was still there before our eyes when we look closely at his end-of-year performances. A stint on IR due to a knee injury hurt Barmore's season but his production over the team's final two games provides a glimpse toward the disruptive, high-motor player the Patriots traded up to take in the second round back in 2021. Barmore had seven total pressures against the Dolphins and Bills, turning in his two highest pass rush grades from PFF in his career.
In Year 3, Barmore's presence could take the Judon-Uche-led pass rush to another level, a scary thought considering the Patriots broke 50 sacks in 2022 for the first time under Bill Belichick. His interior pressure is key against the best quarterbacks in the league and an element the Patriots missed to an underrated degree while he was out.
Despite a limited season, Barmore remains a key defensive piece and one who could be poised for a monster season this fall. Even with a dip from 598 snaps to 328, Barmore's per-game snap total showed an ascending three-down player who should make his biggest impact yet in 2023.