21 Jul 19
With training camp set to start Thursday, here is this writer’s list of the top 10 most indispensable Patriot players, not counting Tom Brady. The term “indispensable” implies not only talent and ability, but also how the team would be affected if the player missed time, or how vital the player is to the Patriots’ success in 2019.
The order might change in a few months. So might the list of names. This is how it looks heading into camp:
10. Ben Watson — The tight end position has been such an important one for the Patriots throughout the past decade. It’s been a huge part of Tom Brady’s success. While it’s impossible to replace a talent like Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots need to keep the position a viable part of the offense. For starters, it keeps some pass-run mystery in the mix with either Watson or Matt LaCosse on the field. It helps if the defense has to guess what’s coming, or has to protect against both possibilities. The Pats still need a tight end who can block and catch passes. Even missing four games because of a PED suspension, Watson is the best they have at the position, so that ups the indispensable quotient and puts him in the top 10.
9. Receiver who emerges not named Julian Edelman — Maybe this is rookie N’Keal Harry. Maybe it’s Maurice Harris. Maybe it’s Josh Gordon, who may or may not be allowed to return from NFL purgatory. Maybe it’s another receiver on the roster. Time will tell. But whoever it turns out to be is going to be significant because that receiver will give Brady another legitimate target outside of Edelman, so opposing teams can’t just eliminate Edelman with double teams. So, whether it’s Harry, Harris or whoever becomes that threat, their importance and indispensability factor will rise.
ATLANTA, GA – FEBRUARY 3: The Rams Jared Goff is pressured by Patriots Kyle Van Noy in the first quarter during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on February 3, 2019. (Staff Photo By Christopher Evans/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
8. Kyle Van Noy — Debated putting Devin McCourty here, or somewhere in the top 10, and while he’s the brains in the defensive backfield, Duron Harmon could step in and essentially pick up most of his job. Perhaps Jamie Collins could do the same with Van Noy, but the outside linebacker really emerged last season as a big-time player on the defense given his versatility and ability to line up anywhere on the front seven. He’s also one of the best at getting to the quarterback. He had 47 pressures last season, including 11 in the postseason. Van Noy, at age 28, has just started to hit his stride with the Patriots and, in a contract year, will be motivated to have an even better year.
7. Patrick Chung — There aren’t many players in the league who can play as many roles on the defense as the veteran safety. He can play in the box, in the slot, up on the defensive line, split out wide or back at free safety. He can cover receivers, tight ends and backs coming out of the backfield. And he can perform all of those roles at a top level. Lose him, and it’s hard to plug in another player on the roster who can fill the void. Last season, he had 84 tackles, one pick and three passes defensed. He’s one of Bill Belichick’s favorite players and it’s easy to see why.
6. James White — Third-down backs have become a staple, especially in the offense-crazed NFL. When you have an exceptional third-down back such as White, one who Brady depends on so heavily in key spots, it’s hard to live without him. White finished with 751 receiving yards last year. Without Gronkowski at tight end, he’ll be relied on even more. Sans Gronk, teams might be able to key on him a little more and get better matchups. But White, a clutch performer, still will find a way to get open and be productive.
5. Dont’a Hightower — He’s the leader of the front-seven, no matter where he lines up. He’s been the on-field communicator for the defense with the green dot, but even if that duty gets passed on to linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, it won’t diminish Hightower’s importance. He has the versatility to play traditional linebacker on the inside, and also can line up on the edge and rush the passer. He’s dropped weight so it might be a precursor to him being moved to a more permanent role out on the edge. Whatever the position, he has a knack for making difference-making plays in the biggest games.
FOXBORO MA. – JUNE 5: Joe Thuney runs through warmups during New England Patriots mini camp at Gillette Stadium on June 5, 2019 in Foxboro, MA. (Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
4. Joe Thuney — With a quarterback who turns 42 next month, it’s imperative to have an offensive line that’s going to keep him upright and prevent blindside hits in particular. Last year, there was some uncertainty at left tackle until Trent Brown took over the job. He played so well, he earned an outrageous contract from the Raiders in free agency. There’s uncertainty whether Isaiah Wynn will be ready to take over the job. He’s coming back from a torn Achilles suffered last year. If he can’t hold up, or can’t go right away, that would force the Patriots to move Thuney over from left guard, and move someone else into Thuney’s spot. That’s two moves, and not the formula you’re looking for, but it highlights Thuney’s importance.
3. Michael Bennett — The Patriots lost a key member of the defensive front with the departure of Trey Flowers. He provided most of the pass rush both from the outside and inside, with 11 sacks, 16 hits and 51 hurries according to Pro Football Focus. Bennett was hired to essentially do the same. He has to provide a similar presence and make up for the pressure on the quarterback and sacks that were lost. Playing with the Eagles last season, he had 12 sacks, 22 hits and 44 pressures. Having someone who can maintain that level is critical for the Patriots defense.
2. Stephon Gilmore — Having a shutdown corner in this league, during this era, is invaluable. And the Patriots have one in Gilmore. More times than not, he can eliminate the opposing team’s best receiver. It wouldn’t be outrageous to have him in the top spot, but he’s the star of a loaded secondary. You wouldn’t want him to miss any time, but the Pats could get by a game or two thanks to their depth. Still, Gilmore makes the defense that much more imposing and effective all around with his ability to take out one guy. Last year, he finished with 45 tackles, two interceptions and 20 passes defensed.
1. Julian Edelman — Brady no longer has Gronkowski (we think). Beyond the stable of running backs who Brady relies on to catch the football, there are no receivers he trusts except one. It’s Edelman. Along with Gronk, he has been Brady’s binkie and go-to-guy in just about every clutch situation during the past decade. He’s coming off a Super Bowl MVP performance and playoffs in which he delivered in spectacular fashion. Without knowing if rookie Harry is going to blossom in his first year, or any of the new receivers are going to catch on with Brady, or if Gordon is going to be reinstated, that makes Edelman so much more indispensable to the operation. The offense would be lost without him.