All preseason speculation about the 2016 New England Patriots finally will cease Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. ET.
That will be a relief with so much uncertainty swirling around Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots’ offensive line and their running game. Finally, opinions will be based on facts and evidence rather than summer restlessness.
With a few more hours to go until the season begins, though, let’s speculate — based on facts and stats — some more by looking at three breakout candidates in 2016.
CB LOGAN RYAN
Malcolm Butler took on slightly higher competition as the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback, but Ryan had better numbers than his starting counterpart.
Ryan allowed 47 receptions on 92 targets for 700 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions, while Butler allowed 50 catches on 99 targets for 833 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
Ryan’s numbers began to drop slightly at the end of the 2015 season, but he should bounce back strong in 2016 for an even better year. Ryan is in a contract year, which should only increase his confidence and motivation. Expect him to earn big money on the open market after another season with forced incompletions and turnovers.
DE JABAAL SHEARD
You very easily could make the argument Sheard broke out last season, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that point. Sheard, also in a contract year, could break out even more in 2016, however.
Sheard is over the knee injury that limited him in the preseason, and he’s projected to start at right defensive end, the spot left vacant when Chandler Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals.
Sheard played in 36.2 percent fewer snaps than Jones last season but recorded two more pressures and 11 more hurries. Sheard generated pressure on 15 percent of his snaps last season to Jones’ 9.2 percent.
Sheard’s pressure percentage likely will drop now that he’s starting and playing more snaps, but expect his total pressures and sacks to rise.
WR CHRIS HOGAN
Hogan is the Patriots’ No. 2 receiver and signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the team as a restricted free agent and has less than 1,000 total yards in four seasons.
He could double his total receiving yards in 2016 alone. Hogan had an impressive training camp and preseason and will be a favorite target of Jimmy Garoppolo’s in the first four weeks of the season.
Hogan isn’t a prototypical “X” receiver, but he’s one that should excel in the Patriots’ offense, since he specializes in short to intermediate routes. He showed solid hands throughout training camp and had impressive moments during the preseason, when he caught 12 passes for 137 yards with a touchdown.
Thumbnail photo via Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports Images