We’ve officially reached the dead period in the NFL schedule. The New England Patriots wrapped up spring practices Thursday, and they won’t reconvene for training camp for another six weeks.
While the players surely love getting some much-needed time away from the field, the NFL’s summer vacation leaves us in the media with little to talk about throughout the second half of June and almost all of July.
So today, we’re asking an evergreen question: Who is the Patriots’ most important player?
Below is my top 10. Disagree? Let me hear your opinion on Twitter at @ZackCoxNESN.
1. Tom Brady, quarterback
I was tempted to go contrarian and put Dont’a Hightower here, but Brady really is a no-brainer. He just had one of the best seasons of his career at age 39, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. You could argue having perhaps the NFL’s best backup quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo diminishes Brady’s importance a tad but not enough to knock him from the top spot.
2. Dont’a Hightower, linebacker
Hightower is one of the best linebackers in football, and with the lack of reliable depth behind him, losing him for any extended period of time would cripple New England’s defense. Re-signing the second-team All-Pro was one of the Patriots’ most significant offseason moves.
3. Rob Gronkowski, tight end
The Patriots survived without Gronkowski for half of last season thanks to Martellus Bennett, who had one of the best seasons of his career in his lone year in New England. The Pats typically don’t get Bennett-like production from their second tight ends, though, and their offense usually becomes much less dangerous when Gronkowski is on the shelf. When he’s healthy, Gronk is easily the best player in the NFL at his position.
4. Devin McCourty, safety
The unquestioned leader of the Patriots’ secondary has missed just five games over the course of his seven-year NFL career. New England’s shallow depth chart at safety (there’s a significant dropoff after McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon) boosts the longtime co-captain’s value, too.
5. Julian Edelman, wide receiver
Brady’s favorite target set a career high with 1,106 receiving yards last season and fell two receptions shy of his second 100-catch season. He would have ranked higher on this list had it not been for the offseason acquisition of wideout Brandin Cooks.
6. Trey Flowers, defensive end
Flowers’ breakout during the second half of last season rejuvenated a Patriots pass rush that had been stagnant early on. At just 23 years old, he should be a key member of New England’s defense for years to come.
7. Marcus Cannon, right tackle
Pro Football Focus ranked Cannon as the NFL’s best right tackle in 2016. That’s a massive shift from just a year ago, when most Patriots fans wouldn’t have complained if he was cut. By signing Cannon to a five-year contract extension in November, New England locked up one of its O-line pillars for the foreseeable future.
8. Nate Solder, left tackle
Solder and Cannon bookended a Patriots line that improved by leaps and bounds last season. Solder played some of the best football of his career in 2016, but it remains to be seen whether the team will extend his contract, which expires after this season.
9. Alan Branch, defensive tackle
The elder statesman of an otherwise youthful defensive line, Branch might have been the Patriots’ most underrated player last season. Re-signing the run-stuffing 32-year-old was a great call.
10. Stephon Gilmore, cornerback
With Malcolm Butler potentially gone after this season, the Patriots will need Gilmore to live up to the five-year, $65 million contract they gave him earlier this spring. If he does, New England’s cornerback duo has the potential to be the NFL’s best.
Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images
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