2017 was a brutal year for injuries in the NFL, and the Patriots were no exception. The team saw a number of critically important players suffer season-ending injuries, drastically changing the makeup of the team. While we cannot go back in time and see which of these players would have made the biggest difference in changing the outcome of Super Bowl 52, we can look forward and predict which player will have the biggest impact on the team in 2018.
There are some players that are unlikely to return and have major impacts. Both Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones will be coming back from season-ending injuries, but both will be competing for roster spots, never mind having a significant effect on the team overall. The same can be said for Nate Ebner; although Ebner’s roster spot is very likely to secure, his role as a special team whiz will help, but not dramatically change, the team’s success.
The most likely candidates would be Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Derek Rivers, and Malcolm Mitchell. Edelman and Hightower seem like two obvious answers, and for good reason. The former Kent State quarterback-turned-receiver has been Tom Brady’s favorite target for years, and his absence was certainly felt in 2017, particularly in some 3rd down situations. Edelman’s return will be vital, especially in the wake of Danny Amendola’s departure. Hightower’s impact will be just as great. He is a brutal run stuffer and an impressive edge rusher, two things the Patriots linebacking corps severely lacked in 2017. Simply put, he will give the Patriots a legitimately talented linebacker that opposing teams need to adjust for.
However, Mitchell and Rivers could be equally as important. Mitchell was a surprise during his rookie season, catching 32 balls for 401 yards and four touchdowns. He also was absolutely crucial to the Patriots victory in Super Bowl 51 thanks to his six catches for 70 yards. He developed a solid repertoire with Brady and has a knack for feeling out routes and being exactly where he needs to be. Mitchell missed the entire 2017 season due to a knee injury. It could be argued that his return won’t have a massive impact, because Brady had an MVP-winning season without Mitchell. However, New England will be without Amendola and Brandin Cooks in 2018, which will make it even more important for Brady to have receivers who he trusts.
Rivers was the Patriots first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, selected in the third round. He tore his ACL during the preseason and missed all of 2017. He is a talented edge rusher who could fix the Patriots nearly non-existent pass rush from last season. If he can come back healthy and play to his talent level, he could add a level of energy and success that would spread across New England’s entire defense.
In the end, I find it likely that Hightower will make the most impact on the team, simply because of how bad the Patriots linebacking corps was and really still is. They need the most improvement and his presence should make a visible difference right away. However, don’t underestimate the impact that these other players can make both at their respective positions and in the locker room.
Until next time – B$