The Patriots have known commodities on their roster penciled into roles for the upcoming season, but nothing would improve their bottom line more than an under-the-radar breakout star.
Some of that breakout potential also comes from opportunity. With the Patriots moving on from veteran running back Damien Harris this offseason, there are snaps available behind lead back Rhamondre Stevenson. Along those same lines, Pats legend Devin McCourty's retirement opens the door for new faces at the safety position.
Then, there's New England's ongoing pursuit for a game-changing playmaker at wide receiver. The Pats remain in the running for free-agent wideout DeAndre Hopkins, but, for now, the growth will need to come from within as the Patriots offense looks to take a step forward.
With the open opportunities in mind, here are four under-the-radar breakout candidates for the Patriots heading into the 2023 season:
The Patriots rocky draft history at the wide receiver position is often heavily scrutinized from the outside looking in, and Thornton is now under pressure to buck the trend.
It's not fair to put that all on the 2022 second-rounder. But it's up to Thornton to silence the naysayers by performing at a level where the team can finally say they "hit" on a receiver after the Pats made the former Baylor wideout the 50th overall pick in the 2022 draft, which is the fourth-highest selection that head coach Bill Belichick has ever used on a wide receiver.
Although the second-year wideout needs to figure out how to translate his 4.28-speed and field-stretching skill set to actual production, it's not all on Thornton to develop as a player.
Thornton couldn't have entered a more unsettling situation for a first-year receiver than he did as a rookie, where he was thrown into a unique coaching setup and a shaky offensive system. Then, the young receiver broke his collarbone in the 2022 preseason, putting him behind schedule when he made his NFL debut in the fifth week of the regular season.
The combination of his collarbone injury, the issues the Pats had offensively as a whole, and growing pains for a young wideout led to only 22 catches for 247 yards and two touchdowns in Thornton's rookie campaign. At 181 pounds, Thornton needs to prove that he can finish through contact and find ways to release off the line of scrimmage against press-man. He also struggled at times with hitting precise landmarks and making the proper sight adjustments to defensive coverages while running routes.
However, after a brief viewing of Thornton this spring and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's history with similar receivers, O'Brien's ability to make life easier by scheming him into advantageous positions to win foot races is a source of optimism that Thornton can break out.
|Stat||Tyquan Thornton||Will Fuller||Jameson Williams|
|Height||6-2 3/8||6-0||6-1 1/2|
|Weight||181 pounds||186 pounds||179 pounds|
|40-Yard Dash||4.28s||4.32s||Didn't run due to injury|
Former Texans wideout Will Fuller and Alabama star Jameson Williams thrived in O'Brien's system as slender burners with game-breaking speed. Like Thornton, those two have durability concerns— the production when healthy speaks for itself.
The main ways that O'Brien unlocked Fullers and Williams's speed in the offense were using them from tight splits, having them run routes out of bunch or stack alignments to avoid contact at the line of scrimmage, and putting deep safeties in conflict to help them gain leverage.
For example, Alabama is in a three-receiver condensed bunch formation to the quarterback's right. With Williams off the line of scrimmage as the inside receiver in the bunch, it allows the explosive wideout to have a free release downfield. Alabama then runs a levels-style concept with two in-breaking routes as Williams runs the deep post. The deep-middle safety has a choice: he can collapse down on the intermediate dig pattern or stay deep to protect against the post. The deep safety chooses to clamp down on the dig, leaving the outside corner without deep-middle help, and it's a house call for Williams.
In an example at the NFL level, O'Brien would use similar concepts to get Fuller open. Above, the Texans dial up a shot play off under-center play-action where Fuller is tight to the formation. By using his alignment and the heavy personnel to their advantage, the defense matches with off-coverage, giving Fuller a free release. Houston uses a deep out and an in-cut to stress the intermediate area of the field, and Fuller just has to win the foot race with the deep safety on the deep over route.
Thornton's potential breakout hinges on him staying healthy, and a soft-tissue injury reportedly held him out of spring practices. If he's healthy, O'Brien will scheme up ways to get him open. Besides free-agent addition JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Pats need to give Thornton every opportunity to produce, so one would expect him to be heavily involved.
As we mentioned, the Patriots need a rotational back behind Rhamondre Stevenson, and Strong is far from the first Pats draft pick to "redshirt" at the position as a rookie.
Although he had 17 touches and contributed on special teams, Strong's been on the James White track from the get-go, as White similarly only had 14 touches while sitting behind Shane Vereen in his rookie campaign.
Strong's breakaway speed and short-area agility lend themselves to a role as a receiving back in New England's offense. Historically, due to the mental side of things, that has been a challenging role to grasp for younger players, especially those featured in a different way in college.
The Pats 2022 fourth-rounder was a lead back for South Dakota State with 1,686 yards and 18 touchdowns on 240 attempts in his final season with the Jackrabbits — ten of Strong's 40 career collegiate touchdowns went for 50-plus yards. On his ten carries in his rookie season, Strong produced three runs of ten-plus yards and two runs of 15-plus yards, so the potential to create big plays is there.
We've seen flashes of that big-play ability in the pros, which translated to a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, in his limited opportunities as a rookie and at practice. For example, Strong broke off a 44-yard run when he found daylight down the left sideline in a Monday night victory over the Cardinals and broke some ankles the next week with a nifty jump-cutting run to find open grass against the Raiders. Strong could complement Stevenson as the lightning to Rhamondre's thunder.
For Strong, the questions are more about volume than talent. Is he a scheme-oriented player who gets a few touches per game to try to break a big-gainer or a true spell-back who can carry some of the load? The Pats prepped for Damien Harris's free agency by selecting Strong in the fourth round of the 2022 draft. Now, it's time to see what the second-year running back can do.
Along those same lines, New England hedged their bets in anticipation of losing the veteran Harris by also selecting the South Carolina product in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Harris, a 225-pound power back, also barely saw the field in his first season with only 18 rushing attempts, with 13 carries coming in Weeks 14 and 15 when the Patriots running back depth was depleted due to injuries. Harris also lasted to the sixth round partially due to back surgery during his career at South Carolina, and some viewed Harris as lacking the elusiveness and imagination to gain significant yards after contact.
Still, he is a powerful runner capable of finishing runs and running through tackle attempts with adequate contact balance. Although they were non-padded spring sessions, Harris looked more explosive in his second minicamp as a receiver during pass-heavy practices, which could translate into the Patriots downhill run schemes that many expect them to return to this season.
Harris's bully-ball running style produced seven missed tackles and 44 yards after contact on his 18 rush attempts during his rookie season, including an impressive tackle-breaking touchdown run against the Cardinals. The Patriots have a long lineage of power backs succeeding in their offensive system and typically lean toward bigger backs to fill an early-down role, which they lost in Damien Harris's departure.
Although breakouts for the offensive skill players would garner the most attention, the Patriots are also keeping their options open as they navigate life without Devin McCourty.
For 13 terrific seasons, McCourty mostly played a vital role as the primary deep safety in Bill Belichick's single-high safety heavy system. The post-safety is responsible for providing the necessary help to the deep middle of the field so the man coverage defenders can play other routes on the route tree freely, knowing that they had D-Mac as a last line of defense.
New England doesn't have an obvious replacement on the roster via an experienced deep safety, but they have several DBs with similar body types who can mix and match in the backend, allowing them to disguise and maintain flexibility to fill McCourty's big shoes.
Bledsoe fits the mold as another hybrid box/slot safety with the size and tackling ability to hold up in the running game and man coverage traits to guard tight ends. Getting Bledsoe more involved as a tight end stopper would free up playmaking safety Kyle Dugger to play more help assignments as a deep safety or robber, and the same goes for veteran Adrian Phillips. The Pats are also experimenting with Jalen Mills in a tight end-stopper role, but Mills might need to provide depth at perimeter corner in light of recent events.
In his first defensive snaps of his career, Bledsoe was used as a game-planned element on third downs to cover Ravens tight end Mark Andrews. On five third-down coverage snaps, Bledsoe didn't allow a catch to the Pro Bowler and forced an incomplete pass. However, Bledsoe, who sometimes struggles with contesting the catch point against tight ends, allowed two red-zone touchdowns in his next appearance against the Jets tight end Tyler Conklin in Week 8.
Bledsoe needs to develop his ball skills to be more effective at the catch point to reach his potential, but he typically has tight coverage and doesn't look out of place on the practice field. With a little more seasoning, the third-year safety could carve out a role this season.