The Patriots added plenty of talent to the roster, but which players could surprise in 2021?
The New England Patriots wanted a more competitive roster in 2021 and they got what they wished for.
Bill Belichick, almost uncharacteristically, spent in free agency to retool the roster. With a beefed-up defense and more depth at wide receiver, the battle for roster spots is much more competitive. Despite the influx of talent, there are still some intriguing players looking to make an impact. Historically, New England is known for guys having big years seemingly out of nowhere. Here are four players who could surprise outsiders during the upcoming season.
The Patriots love their quick slot receivers. Olszewski has already made himself known in the special teams’ department in Foxborough. Last season, he had one punt return for a touchdown along with 17.3 yards per punt return. That mark was the 11th best in NFL history, and better than Devin Hester‘s highest average for a season.
While Olszewski should continue to make an impact in the return game, he saw increased reps at receiver last season as well. His speed created some separation and while he only had five catches, three of them were for first downs. Comparing him to another quick slot receiver, Julian Edelman had four catches in year three which jumped up to 21 catches the next season and 105 in year five. It’s not a certainty that Olszewski can have that kind of leap, but there are many similar qualities.
Olszewski has the twitchiness to find open space and make defenders miss, but also a willingness to work across the middle of the field. On a few of his catches last season, his ability to sit in zones and make catches in traffic was what got him open. Jakobi Meyers had the breakout season last year, but Gunner could be the one angling for more work this season.
The only rookie to make the list, Stevenson is a strong, tough running back whose presence likely signals the end to the Sony Michel-era in New England. If Michel is cut, Stevenson will battle for reps on the field with Damien Harris, James White and J.J. Taylor. All have different qualities that give Belichick a diverse backfield, but Stevenson is the biggest. At six feet and 247 pounds, Stevenson has drawn comparisons to Patriots’ fan-favorite LeGarrette Blount. The comparisons are fair, but Stevenson offers even more in the backfield. In fact, his tape shows he might be New England’s most well-rounded running back.
Blount did a lot of great work in New England, but wasn’t much of a factor in the passing game. Stevenson had 18 catches last season, mostly off of screen passes or slipping off of blocks.
This was my favorite play from the highlight reel. Stevenson punishes the blitzing defender, realizes his quarterback needs help and gets a 20-yard catch and run. Part of the frustrations with Michel among Patriots fans has been his lack of awareness and production in passing and blocking situations. Belichick thinks highly of running backs who can block, which is why Stevenson will find a way to make an impact.
3. Josh Uche
Uche worked in a limited role last season after battling injuries, but impressed with the reps he was given. Uche had a sack and seven pressures while playing only 178 reps last season. The Patriots brought reinforcements at linebacker, with the return of Dont’a Hightower, free-agent additions Kyle Van Noy and Matthew Judon and draft pick Ronnie Perkins, who can play outside linebacker in a 3-4.
The competition for snaps will be tough, but Uche has already begun working with the first team this offseason. Moving around between inside and his traditional outside linebacker role, it’s clear the coaching staff wants him on the field. While improving as a pass rusher, his speed and versatility can be utilized in different roles. The Patriots’ defense took a step back with the loss of the Boogeymen, but Uche could make this one of the deepest groups in 2021.
4. Kyle Dugger
This one feels like cheating a little bit because Dugger was solid last season as a rookie. He got plenty of snaps, but the surprise could be that he is taking the spot from Adrian Phillips full time. New England should feel confident about its top four players at safety, plus Joejuan Williams could fit back there in a bind, but it’s likely all four won’t be on the field at the same time.
Devin McCourty is a lock to be on the field as much as possible. As a leader and free safety/center fielder for the Patriots, he’s important to the defense. I also think the Patriots deploy a lot of Jalen Mills this season, one of their free-agent signings from the offseason. It seems as though more and more teams around the league are transitioning to hybrid safety and slot corner players (similar to Tyrann Mathieu) which Mills profiles as.
The Patriots ran this big-nickel formation for years with McCourty, the recently retired Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. With Mills operating in that coverage spot, Dugger’s versatility to blitz, defend the run, and defense the pass could make him a prime candidate to operate in Chung’s old role going forward.
I also think we could see all four safeties on the field in obvious pass situations, as Dugger has the size to operate as a small linebacker in coverage. For the most part, it will be Dugger or Phillips on the field, and the second-year pro has all the tools to make the job his.
Photo: (AP Photo – Ashley Landis)
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