The New England Patriots. A constant force in the NFL for as long as Tom Brady has been the starting quarterback, and even battling some tough questions heading into the 2013 season, New England figures to be right in the mix to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this season.
With an improved defense and some new blood offensively, the Patriots are going to have to adjust the style that they play a bit. With Wes Welker gone and the wide receiver group completely revamped, Tom Brady is going to have some adjustments to make.
Still, this is a very talented team. If Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez can stay out of the training room the majority of the time, there’s no question the Patriots have the tools to make a deep run. With Stevan Ridley’s breakout season in 2012, the Patriots can rely a lot more on the ground game, and the offense is much more diverse.
Here are three players for the Patriots that I think could break out this season, one player from each of the last three draft classes.
Third Year–Ras-I Dowling, CB
The time for Dowling to step up is now. The Patriots moved Devin McCourty over to the safety position last year, freeing up a spot at cornerback that was filled by seventh round pick in 2012 Alfonzo Dennard. Dennard was a first or second round graded guy coming out of Nebraska, but he made some bad choices before the draft that nearly led to his going undrafted.
Even with the Patriots’ issues at CB the last couple of years, Dowling has been unable to step up and be the player many thought he was capable of being coming out of Virginia in 2011. He was considered to be one of the top prospects at the CB position leading into that draft even after his junior season as a Cavalier.
With the Patriots, Dowling has disappointed up to this point, but he has impressed at offseason camps so far this season. Here is what ESPN Boston reporter Mike Reiss had to say about Dowling:
“There was a play in Tuesday’s organized team activity where a ball was thrown to the sideline and a cornerback made a sharp break on the delivery to break it up and nearly pick it off (it would have been an easy touchdown). When it happened, because the players aren’t wearing jersey numbers, my first instinct was that it was Aqib Talib because it was a taller corner flashing playmaking skills. But upon closer inspection, it was Dowling.”
Dowling is on the right track to earn a starting job this season potentially, and if he does, he could have a breakout season and give the Patriots two big, long, fast corners on the outside in their defense.