ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. recently released a feature on players he expects to make a leap in their second season in the NFL. The list does not include any Patriots, although one could make the case that a number of their 2011 draft picks will take on increased roles for the 2012 season. (To read the Insider content, click HERE).
Here’s a look at each of the Patriots 2011 picks (excluding fifth-round TE Lee Smith, who is now with Buffalo), and a brief overview of both their rookie seasons and what to expect heading into their sophomore campaigns:
OT NATE SOLDER (FIRST ROUND)
Solder stood out on the line as a rookie, playing multiple positions and starting in big games for the Patriots. He earned praise for his work, while also showing that he has strides to take to become a consistent NFL tackle. With Matt Light now retired, Solder is expected to assume the left tackle duties, the position his skill-set is most tailored towards. It’s a critical role for any offense, but one that many project Solder to step into and effectively handle next season.
CB RAS-I DOWLING (SECOND ROUND)
Leading up to the draft, the biggest knock on Dowling was his durability. An early-season hip injury shelved him for almost all of 2011, and he finished with three tackles in just two games played. The secondary was a major issue for New England last year, and Dowling is one of many central figures who will be counted on to improve the results in 2012. He has very good size and was regarded as a strong reactive athlete, both of which project him to be a capable starting cornerback if healthy. Depending on how the Patriots decide to use Devin McCourty, Dowling could assume a starting cornerback role (assuming he has a clean bill of health).
RB SHANE VEREEN (SECOND ROUND)
Finding the field was a struggle for Vereen as a rookie, as he battled a hamstring injury and managed just 15 carries on the season (and 25 overall snaps). The Patriots had competition in the backfield for carries, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis remained the workhorse. With Green-Ellis (and possibly Kevin Faulk) gone, Vereen figures to have a chance to earn a larger role, both as a runner and receiver, a dual role in which he excelled in college. He and fellow second-year back Stevan Ridley may become a featured tandem, although veterans Joseph Addai and Danny Woodhead will likely be counted on for steady work as well.
RB STEVAN RIDLEY (THIRD ROUND)
It wasn’t difficult to see why the Patriots invested in Ridley in the third round, as he flashed impressive running ability on numerous occasions as a rookie. He averaged more than 5 yards per carry, but late-season fumbling issues limited his role in the playoffs. Should those fumble issues be rectified, Ridley could become a more prominent player for the Patriots, possibly taking on a chunk of the carries that went to Green-Ellis a season ago. New offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may look to incorporate a number of two back running sets, and that could be an opportunity for Ridley to rack up yardage.
QB RYAN MALLETT (THIRD ROUND)
In limited exposure, Mallett displayed enough potential to generate enthusiasm about his future as a Patriot. In the preseason, he showcased a rocket arm and poise for a rookie. Although Mallett may not rise on the depth chart in 2012, it seems safe to expect him to continue on his arc of growth, and ready himself for the opportunity to become Tom Brady’s backup in 2013 (current backup Brian Hoyer will be a free agent after this season).
OL MARCUS CANNON (FIFTH ROUND)
Cannon beat the odds in returning to the field after a battle with cancer, showing his resolve and strength. He also was an effective rookie reserve player, logging limited snaps in seven games played. In 2012, he may play an important role as the third tackle to back-up projected starters Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. Having a player who can move around the line and play in a pinch is a staple to a strong offensive line, and the massive Cannon, with flexibility to line up at guard and tackle, may provide just that in 2012.
LB/DE MARKELL CARTER (SIXTH ROUND)
Carter spent the 2011 season on the Patriots' practice squad, but the team pledged its commitment to him by upping his salary in an attempt to keep him from signing to another team's active roster. Carter stuck in New England, and has a chance to develop entering his second year. Where he fits remains a little bit unclear, as the team has invested in a number of front-seven players this offseason, and a numbers crunch may be working against Carter. That being said, the team liked what it saw last season, and Carter showed off a bulked-up frame this offseason, which may help him land a spot on the active roster in 2012.
DB MALCOLM WILLIAMS (SEVENTH ROUND)
After starting the season on the practice squad, Williams was a late call-up to the 53-man roster, and was active for Super Bowl XLVI. He didn’t record any tackles while playing in a special teams role. Heading into 2012, Williams will have to once again earn his spot in a secondary in need of a boost. Based off of what we saw as a rookie, his greatest value remains in his ability to contribute in the kicking game, although Williams should have a chance to once again work as a defensive back in preseason, and perhaps show enough to keep him around on the active roster. With practice squad eligibility remaining, he could have a similar path as he did in 2011.
Other second-year players to watch: LS Danny Aiken (claimed on waivers from Buffalo before '11 season and entrenched in top job); OL Kyle Hix (signed as a free agent after '11 draft, spent year on injured reserve); OL Matt Kopa (signed to practice squad in '11 after he was released by Miami at end of training camp); LB Aaron Lavarias (signed as a free agent after '11 draft and spent part of the year on practice squad); DB Sterling Moore (signed as a free agent after he was released by Raiders and split time between practice squad and roster); LB Mike Rivera (signed in November of '11 and spent rest of year on practice squad); DE Alex Silvestro (signed as a free agent after '11 draft, mostly remained on practice squad but was promoted twice to active roster); LB Jeff Tarpinian (signed as a free agent after '11 draft, opened on practice squad before promotion to roster, then landed on injured reserve); S Ross Ventrone (back and forth between practice squad and roster in '11).