It’s clear the New England Patriots have had an eventful offseason up to this point. They dominated free agency, using their newfound cap space to draw in a number of key players to help fill their numerous holes from last season. And they appear to have drafted their QB of the future in Mac Jones, while also snagging a couple other high upside prospects that could be set to contribute as soon as this season.
For all the commotion about the players who have been brought in this offseason, the Patriots still have a lot of high upside players returning from last season who could be set to breakout this season. We saw it last season when J.C. Jackson emerged into one of the best ballhawking corners in the league, or when Jakobi Meyers stepped up to become the top wide receiver option for New England down the stretch. With that in mind, lets take a look at three Patriots players who could be set to follow this path, and have a breakout season of their own this upcoming campaign.
3 – Damian Harris
A case could be made that Harris broke out last season, but it only feels like the surface of his potential has been scratched. After essentially redshirting his rookie season, Harris stepped up to take over the lead back role last season when Sony Michel was forced out with injury. Despite starting 10 games last season, it didn’t really feel like the reigns were fully taken off Harris yet. He still would split time with Sony Michel when he returned from injury, and would often get passed over in favor of James White in third down situations.
When Harris was on the field though, he was easily the best running back New England had on it’s roster. He ran for 691 yards on only 137 attempts (good for a pristine five yards per carry), while also finding the endzone twice as well. With the aforementioned running backs taking snaps away from Harris, not mention Cam Newton’s threat as a runner, it helps explain why Harris production was rather limited despite his production being better than those around him.
Based on what we saw last season, it feels like it is finally time to fully hand over the running back position to Harris. He only averaged 13.7 carries per game last season, and while the workhorse running back role is starting to die off, it feels like Harris should be getting closer to 20 touches a game at this point. He’s clearly shown more potential than Michel, and has been able to stay on the field more than him for the most part, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Harris break the 1,000 yard threshold on the ground this season if he can stay healthy himself.
2 – Kyle Dugger
There was admittedly some skepticism surrounding the Patriots first selection in the 2020 Draft, especially considering he was coming from an unheralded Division II school by the name of Lenoir-Rhyne. But Kyle Dugger quickly put those concerns to rest, and really started to get comfortable in the New England defense by the end of the season. With Patrick Chung officially retiring after sitting out last season, Dugger should be given more responsibility defensively this season, and could be poised to emerge as a star in the Patriots secondary.
Dugger’s numbers from last season, won’t pop off the page, as he recorded 64 tackles, with only one going for a loss, and failed to record a turnover. But from just watching the games, it was clear there’s a lot to like about Dugger’s potential. He has great instincts for what the offense is running, especially in the run game, and would often be found colliding with an opposing running back as he clogged a running lane. Those instincts should help Dugger excel this season in his non-traditional hybrid linebacker-safety role that has become so popular across the NFL.
Not all was great for Dugger last season, as he oftentimes struggled in coverage, particularly against tight ends. Dugger has the size to matchup with those guys, but would often just get beat on the routes, leading opposing pass catchers to catch 73 percent of the passes to them when he was in coverage. This an issue than can be worked out over time however, and Dugger has clearly showed he has what it takes succeed in the NFL. If Dugger can iron out a couple of these kinks in his game, he could be poised to develop into one of the better players on defense for New England.
1 – Josh Uche
It certainly wasn’t the rookie season Josh Uche was expecting, as he struggled to stay on the field, only playing nine games, and only played 18 percent of the defense’s snaps last season. Despite that, Uche may just be the Patriots biggest potential breakout star as we head into the 2021 season.
Uche only recorded nine tackles last season, including one sack, but clearly showed why Bill Belichick and co. used a second round draft pick on him. Uche was a force on the edge, often creating pressure on the opposing quarterback or disrupting running plays, despite not seeing the field too often. It’s clear after missing most of the offseason and the start of the season, Uche was playing catch up from the start, but he was eventually able to make his presence felt towards the end of the season.
Now Uche is getting a full offseason to build on what he learned last season, and it’s already paying off. Uche was often lining up with the first team on defense during New England’s recent mandatory minicamp, and those on hand to witness camp were raving about what they saw from Uche. It’s clear Uche is already way ahead of where he was last offseason, and the coaching staff has clearly taken note. While the Patriots brought in many new faces on defense, it could be a familiar face in Uche who ends up stepping up the most and developing into a dangerous asset for New England moving forward.