After their offseason spending spree, the New England Patriots enter Week 1 with a roster stocked with proven veterans.
But Bill Belichick’s squad also features a number of high-upside youngsters. As the Patriots prepare for Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium, we spotlighted six such players who could break out in 2021.
Note: We intentionally left out rookie Mac Jones, who, as New England’s new starting quarterback, is an obvious breakout candidate.
LB Josh Uche
Uche emerged as one of the Patriots’ top pass rushers late last season and looked fantastic this spring and summer. Though he likely won’t start — Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy project as New England’s top two edge rushers — the 2020 second-round draft pick should play a starring role in the Patriots’ passing-down packages. He’ll need to prove he can stay healthy, though. Uche missed half of last season with injuries and got dinged up in each of New England’s first two games this preseason.
S Kyle Dugger
The Patriots’ other 2020 second-rounder also showed major potential as a rookie. Dugger’s size, athleticism, versatility and ability to dish out bone-rattling hits make him a valuable asset in New England’s secondary — one who likely won’t leave the field often this season. But like Uche, Dugger does enter Year 2 with some question marks. His biggest? Man-to-man coverage. Opposing tight ends gave the Lenoir-Rhyne product issues last season and in training camp. He’ll need to shore up that area of his game if he wants to become a true game-changer for the Patriots.
WR Jakobi Meyers
The Patriots’ most impressive pass-catcher in training camp wasn’t Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor or Kendrick Bourne. It was Meyers, who looks poised to build on his promising 2020 campaign. Among wideouts who saw at least 70 targets a year ago, only Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, Stefon Diggs, Calvin Ridley, Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins averaged more yards per route run than Meyers, according to Pro Football Focus. Don’t be surprised if the 2019 undrafted free agent finishes as the Patriots’ leading receiver again this season.
DT Christian Barmore
Jones was the Patriots’ most impressive rookie this summer, but his former Alabama teammate wasn’t far behind. Though a lingering foot injury hindered Barmore in training camp, he was a tornado of destruction when healthy, wreaking havoc in 1-on-1 drills and seeing significant reps with the first-team defense. He’ll likely begin the season in a specialized rotational role but has the skills to develop into a three-down defensive tackle.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
Stevenson began his first NFL summer by failing the Patriots’ conditioning test. By summer’s end, he’d become the league’s most productive preseason rusher, ranking first in yards, touchdowns, yards over expected and Pro Football Focus grade and second in yards per carry. With the skill set of a shiftier LeGarrette Blount, the fourth-round draft pick could be a dangerous complement to top back Damien Harris this season — assuming he avoids the Patriots’ traditional rookie redshirt.
RB J.J. Taylor
The only NFL ball-carrier to average more yards per rush (7.8) than Stevenson this preseason, the 5-foot-6 Taylor played his way into a roster spot and could take over the Rex Burkhead role as a versatile change-of-pace back who can contribute as a rusher or receiver. Position coach Ivan Fears said the Patriots wouldn’t have used Taylor in the passing game “to save his ass” last season, but the 2020 UDFA was a reliable pass-catcher this summer, hauling in all 10 of his preseason targets from New England QBs. With Sony Michel gone, at least one of Taylor and/or Stevenson is guaranteed to have a legitimate offensive role.