Every New England Patriots fan, no matter how casual, knows Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. They all know Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower, and probably Devin McCourty, too.
But the non-diehards –the ones who didn’t spend the spring and summer devouring every available bit of Patriots news and perhaps haven’t paid much attention to the team since Super Bowl Sunday — might not be aware of the rookie linebacker who turned heads during the preseason or the young tight end who’s pushing for a larger role.
With that in mind, here are seven under-the-radar Patriots players (relatively speaking) all fans should familiarize themselves with ahead of Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Houston Texans:
Phillip Dorsett, wide receiver
This Patriots receiving corps, which currently consists of Chris Hogan, Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson and Chad Hansen, has been mentioned with the 2006 and 2013 groups as one of the weakest of the Brady/Bill Belichick era. A Dorsett emergence would change that narrative. The 2015 first-round pick was little more than a decoy in his first season in New England, playing 377 offensive snaps but catching just 12 passes on 18 targets after being acquired five days before the season opener. The Patriots are expecting more this season from Dorsett, who now has had a full year to digest New England’s complicated playbook and build trust with Brady, and he figures to play a prominent role during Edelman’s four-game suspension.
Jacob Hollister, tight end
Unlike Dwayne Allen, who provided sound blocking but contributed next to nothing to the Patriots’ passing game in 2017, Hollister should be a legitimate weapon for Brady after working extensively with the 41-year-old quarterback this summer. It’s unrealistic to expect Hollister, who primarily played on special teams last year as an undrafted rookie, to put up anything approaching Gronkowski numbers, but it shouldn’t take him long to eclipse Allen’s 2017 totals of 10 catches for 86 yards.
Trent Brown, left tackle
Excluding injury fill-ins, the Patriots have had just three starting left tackles since 1990. Three! With Nate Solder — who held down the left side from 2012 to 2017 — now in New York, that mantle has been passed to Brown, who has impressed coaches, teammates and reporters alike with his unique blend of overwhelming size (6-foot-8, 380 pounds) and surprising mobility. He’ll be in charge of protecting Brady’s blind side this season.
Eric Rowe, cornerback
The man tasked with replacing Malcolm Butler should be no stranger to Patriots fans. Rowe has played in 17 regular-season games and all six playoff games since being traded to New England at the start of the 2016 season, spending much of that time as the Patriots’ third cornerback. Veteran newcomer Jason McCourty or rookie J.C. Jackson could push for snaps opposite Stephon Gilmore if Rowe struggles early, but there’s no reason to expect that following the fourth-year pro’s strong summer.
Ja’Whaun Bentley, linebacker
Linebacker undoubtedly was the Patriots’ weakest position group last season. Having Hightower back from the torn pec that ended his 2017 season in November will be big, but Bentley could make a significant impact, as well. The fifth-round draft pick saw considerable time with the first-team defense during the preseason and made plays both in the run game and in pass coverage. Bentley has a chance to be New England’s most impactful rookie this season.
Sony Michel, running back
Speaking of rookies, Michel might be the biggest wild card on the Patriots’ roster. The first-round draft pick could turn into New England’s version of Alvin Kamara, or he could struggle to find his footing after missing nearly a month of practice and all four preseason games with a knee injury. It’s tough to predict what kind of role he’ll play in the Patriots’ offense until we actually see him on the field in an NFL game. Michel was an electric playmaker at Georgia, averaging 7.9 yards per carry last season.
Adrian Clayborn, defensive end
According to the folks over at Pro Football Focus, the Patriots had the NFL’s second-worst pass rush last season — ahead of only the 0-16 Cleveland Browns — despite finishing tied for seventh in the league in sacks. They hope Clayborn, the team’s marquee free agent acquisition, can help give that unit a much-needed boost. The former Atlanta Falcon, who tallied six sacks in one game last season, showed off his potential by dominating Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai in New England’s second preseason contest. Either Clayborn or promising second-year pro Deatrich Wise likely will start opposite last year’s Patriots sacks leader, Trey Flowers, with Derek Rivers and Keionta Davis coming off the bench after missing last season with injuries.
For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, go to ProFootballFocus.com.
Thumbnail photo via Paul Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports Images