Which 2010 Rookie are you expecting to see a big leap from in 2011?
Jason: To me, the development of Jermaine Cunningham is easily one of the biggest keys not only for the defense, but also for the entire team. If he can develop into an every-down OLB who can set the edge against the run and get after the quarterback on passing downs, that could be the difference between a Super Bowl and another early playoff exit. On the other side of the ball, I’d really like to see what Aaron Hernandez can do in his second year. He caused all kinds of headaches to opposing defenses before he was limited late in the season by injuries. If he develops a little bit more as a receiver and a blocker, he could add yet another dimension to an already-potent offense.
Rick: To me, the key for this defense this offseason is in the secondary. Devin McCourty had an impressive rookie year, but remember what NY Jets linebacker Bart Scott told Sal Palantonio that our defense “can’t cover a nosebleed.” That has to be a focus in the offseason and there is a lot of uncertainty of who will be paired with McCourty in 2011. Leigh Bodden is coming back from a shoulder injury that cost him the season and there is a question if he can return to his form from 2009. Also, what will the roles of Kyle Arrington and Jonathan Wilhite be this season? The Patriots will get a pass rusher in the draft in all likelihood, but can they avoid the big play? That is a huge question!
Stephen: This one has to go to the two Florida linebackers: Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham. Both guys got their feet wet in the Patriots’ tough defensive system, flashing their capabilities. But, both have a lot of room to grow and I think they will take that year-two leap this season. Cunningham showed some ability to get to the quarterback, but needs to finish the play. He will hopefully get stronger and learn some more pass rush moves while continuing his solid play as a run defender. Spikes should also improve as he learns the nuances of playing in the 3-4 and will also benefit from another year in the weight room.
Derek: Who do we need to make the leap? Jermaine Cunningham, no question. The OLB position is clearly the biggest need for the Pats heading into 2011 and being able to shore up one side of the field “in house” would be a huge boost. However, that wasn’t the question. The question was “Who do I expect to take the leap”. The answer there, is that I expect Rob Gronkowski to shake off his Pro Bowl snub and have a season that will force everyone to pencil his name in for a spot in Hawaii. (Well, except for the fact the Patriots will be heading to Indianapolis in February and thus skipping the Pro Bowl.) Big Rob Gronk really turned on the jets in the second half of 2010. If the Patriots hold firm with their WR corps, Brady is going to need a reliable target who can get open with regularity. Gronkowski’s size should allow him to “post up” smaller defenders and create some powerful mismatches in New England’s favor. I think we’ll see Brady come to lean heavily on him as he gains more experience.