The New England Patriots enter the 2018 season as one of the favorites to bring home the Lombardi Trophy. However, accomplishing this difficult feat is only possible as long as the team’s most important players are able to stay healthy and productive. Entering training camp, these are the ten most important New England Patriots.
Note that most important does not necessarily equal best. This list takes into account not only the skill of the player but also the skills of their backup. Ultimately, this a list of players the Patriots can least afford to lose in the 2018 season.
The 10 Most Important New England Patriots
1. Tom Brady
Duh. The reigning league MVP is also the Patriots most valuable player. Tom Brady is the best quarterback to ever play the game, and he’s dragged rosters much worse than this to deep playoff runs. The Patriots will remain contenders as long as Brady stays in the lineup.
Should the unspeakable happen and Brian Hoyer see meaningful snaps, the season is over. No amount of Belichick genius can turn Hoyer into a superstar quarterback. New England might still reach the playoffs, but their stay there would be short lived.
2. Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski is arguably the most talented tight end in the league, and he’ll be needed more than ever in 2018. Thanks to a suspension to wide receiver Julian Edelman, Gronkowski will be the only truly dangerous threat for the first month of the season.
The Patriots offense can function so long as one of Edelman or Gronkowski is in the lineup. When both go down, the offense falters. New England will need Gronkowski to power the passing game early, and bring it to another level later in the season.
3. Dont’a Hightower
There’s no overstating how important Dont’a Hightower is to the Patriots defense. Along with being the most talented member of the unit, Hightower is the team’s captain and defensive play caller. He always plays his best in the biggest moments and can line up all over the formation.
While Kyle Van Noy filled in admirably during the 2017 season, he’s not on Hightower’s level. Additionally, there isn’t much depth at the linebacker position. As long as Hightower stays in the lineup, he and Van Noy form a solid starting duo. Without him, the unit becomes considerably weaker and easier to expose.
4. Stephon Gilmore
After a horrid first month of his Patriots tenure, Stephon Gilmore has established himself as a true shutdown cornerback and one of the most important players on the team. Gilmore finished 2017 as the eighth-best cornerback in football, per Pro Football Focus. This ranking includes his terrible September, so he performed like a top-five cornerback for the majority of the season.
A common thread throughout all five of the Patriots championships has been the presence of a shutdown cornerback. It was Ty Law for the first three, Darrelle Revis in 2014, and Malcolm Butler in 2016. Gilmore has a chance to be the next shutdown cornerback to bring home a championship.
5. Patrick Chung
Is Patrick Chung the third-best defensive player on the roster? Probably not. However, he plays a unique role on the team as a pseudo-linebacker/safety hybrid. He has the size to play in the box and the speed to cover running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers in man coverage. It’s a key role to how the defense functions, and should he go down, the Patriots replacement options are less than ideal.
Next behind Chung on the depth chart is Jordan Richards. Richards is too small to play in the box and too slow to cover anyone in the open field. All physical evidence shows he’s not an NFL-caliber safety, and yet he’s one injury away from starting. The Patriots recently signed former Houston Texans safety Eddie Pleasant, but he’s still not an ideal starting option.
6. Trey Flowers
Trey Flowers has outperformed any and all reasonable expectations placed upon him. The former fourth-round selection has been the Patriots best lineman the past two seasons and is paramount to the team’s success. He’s easily the team’s best outside run defender and is arguably the best pass rusher. While Adrian Clayborn is a strong addition, the success of the defensive line should still ride on the shoulders of Flowers.
Flowers is set up for a potential breakout season. While he finished 2017 with just 6.5 sacks, he played better than the sack total would imply. As the only consistent pass-rushing threat, teams focused in on taking Flowers out of the game, knowing the other defensive linemen couldn’t take advantage of the one-on-one matchups.
With Clayborn around, teams won’t be able to devote as many resources to stopping Flowers. Expect double digit sacks from the veteran as he enters the final year of his rookie contract.
7. Julian Edelman
Were it not for a four-game suspension, Julian Edelman would rank much higher on this list. However, a player can only be so valuable when they can only play a maximum of 12 games. While he’ll miss the month of September, Edelman should return and serve as the Patriots top wide receiver.
In a year with considerable uncertainty at the wide receiver position, the Patriots will need Edelman to step up and serve his usual role as Tom Brady’s security blanket. Edelman missed all of 2017 with an ACL injury, and at times the Patriots offense faltered because Brady couldn’t turn to Edelman for quick completions. Whether Edelman can still be that guy after suffering an ACL injury at age 32 is unknown, but the Patriots better hope he can.
8. Devin McCourty
Devin McCourty has been the best safety on the roster and captain of the secondary for the past few seasons. While his play has dipped in recent years, he’s still one of the best free safeties in the game. He’s most at home roaming the deep portion of the field, but he’s certainly capable of a lot more than that.
The Patriots line McCourty up all over the formation. It’s no surprise to see him play deep safety, box safety, and cover tight ends and wide receivers in man coverage during the same drive. He’s one of the Patriots more versatile defenders and is still one of the best at what he does. While Duron Harmon is a good deep safety, he lacks the versatility that McCourty brings to the table.
9. Shaq Mason
Shaq Mason would be higher on this list were it not for an enviable amount of depth along the interior line. That being said, Mason is one of the best guards in football, and his performance will be paramount to the success of the 2018 New England Patriots.
At age 41, keeping Tom Brady upright is priority number one for the New England Patriots. Historically, interior pressure gives Brady the biggest fits, and Mason’s pass blocking will be paramount to keeping Brady healthy and comfortable. Additionally, Mason is one of the top run blockers in the game. Resigning Rex Burkhead for over three million a year along with drafting Sony Michel in the first round implies the Patriots will try to run the ball more than ever this season. As the best run blocker on the offensive line, Mason will go a long way in determining how successful that venture is.
10. Kyle Van Noy
One of the silver linings from Dont’a Hightower’s injury was the emergence of Kyle Van Noy. Initially acquired from the Detroit Lions for a seventh-round pick, Van Noy served as the teams top linebacker for the majority of 2017. While he’s not the player Hightower is, he did an admirable job as the unit’s de facto leader.
If the Patriots have at least one of Hightower and Van Noy, the defense can function. Should both go down, the defense is in huge trouble. There’s nobody on the depth chart behind Van Noy capable of starting in the center of the defense. Elandon Roberts struggles in open space, and the only other inside linebackers on the roster are late round rookies. Linebacker is arguably the most important position in a Bill Belichick defense, and the Patriots need to have a good one in order for the defense to function. If something happens to Van Noy and the injury-prone Hightower, the Patriots don’t have a good starting linebacker.
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