A high-priced tight end, a journeyman running back, a pair of defensive backs and an intriguing veteran wide receiver are among five New England Patriots’ players facing a make-or-break season in 2018. Whether due to injury or just a general lack of production, these players must impress this year if they hope to be able to continue suiting up in a NFL uniform.
Entering training camp, the Pats need someone to step up in the secondary after getting torched by Nick Foles and the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. With uncertainty a major theme in the defensive backfield, a couple of former second-round draft picks find themselves in pivotal seasons.
At the receiver spot, a low-key offseason signing has a prime opportunity to show he can still be a significant contributor during Julian Edelman’s suspension. Meanwhile, no position features as much competition as the battle for carries at running back. A bargain bin free-agent signing is facing an uphill climb to even make the team, seemingly behind two established veterans and a first-round rookie.
Here’s a more in-depth look at the five Patriots facing critical years:
Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver:
From 2014 through 2016, no player in the NFL gained more yards from the slot than the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jordan Matthews. Unfortunately, following a trade to the Buffalo Bills during the 2017 offseason, the wheels came off for Matthews. After posting two consecutive years with at least 73 receptions, Jordan suffered a frustrating season in Buffalo. He finished the year with just 25 receptions for 282 yards and one score. Struggling through a multitude of injuries, Matthews never looked comfortable with the Bills. His 2017 season ended with him getting ranked as the 113th-wide receiver in the league by Pro Football Focus.
Jordan now joins New England after signing a one-year, $1 million contract in April. With Danny Amendola now a Miami Dolphin and Edelman set to miss the first four weeks of 2018, Matthews couldn’t possibly find himself in a better position to succeed with the Patriots. Jordan will have first crack at filling the vacated slot position in what will essentially be a four-week audition with New England. Matthews has to show he can click with Tom Brady early on. If so, the Patriots will find ways to keep him involved even after Edelman returns. If he can’t capitalize on this golden opportunity, he will find himself riding the bench or looking for a new team before the season’s done.
Jeremy Hill, Running Back:
A former 1,000-yard rusher, Jeremy Hill has seen his career steadily decline over the last three seasons. 2017 was a career-low for the former LSU Tiger, as he carried just 37 times for 116 yards without a score. Signed by New England to a one-year, $1.5 million contract that includes only $150,000 in guarantees, Hill will have to earn his spot on a loaded depth chart that includes James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Brandon Bolden and Sony Michel.
After a 2017 which included falling out of favor in Cincinnati and being placed on Injured Reserve with an ankle injury, this season may be the last shot that Hill has at making a NFL roster. Having three straight seasons of posting sub-four yards per carry, Jeremy’s only chance at making the Patriots’ roster is by excelling in short-yardage situations. With 29 career rushing scores, Hill definitely has a nose for the endzone. He should challenge Gillislee for New England’s goal-line job. A failure to convert those short-yardage carries in camp and preseason will result in Jeremy looking for work elsewhere.
Cyrus Jones, Cornerback:
Jones, a second-round pick by the Patriots in the 2016 NFL Draft, struggled mightily in his first year with the Patriots. Playing in ten games as a rookie in ’16, he fumbled the ball five times on kick returns and was burned deep by multiple receivers. He would spend most of the year in Bill Belichick’s dog house. Jones struggled again at the start of the 2017 training camp, misplaying several kicks, but appeared to be making strides in the preseason before going down for the year with a torn ACL.
Looking like he may yet be another Patriots’ second-round bust at the cornerback spot, Cyrus has one last chance to salvage his career in New England. In a deep defensive backfield, Jones will have to fight for reps. With New England currently having no clear-cut leader for the job, Cyrus does have a great shot at being the primary punt returner once again. If his knee’s fully healed and he plays like he did during last year’s preseason (zero fumbles on seven punt returns with a 10.1 yards per return average), Jones will have secured a spot. If he lacks consistency or continues to make mental mistakes, Belichick will wash his hands of the former member of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Jordan Richards, Safety:
Richards was another head-scratching second-round draft pick by the Patriots, and since coming into the League in 2015 he has done little to prove the doubters wrong. In 41 games with the Patriots (seven starts) Richards has totaled just 36 combined tackles and is without a career interception. In 2017 Jordan was horrific on defense, giving up 14 catches on 16 targets (for 154 yards and a td) on just 272 defensive snaps. It was even worse in the Super Bowl loss to Philly, as Richards gave up the most passing yards on the team.
According to @PFF, Jordan Richards gave up three receptions and a team-high 81 yards in coverage against the Eagles on just 11 coverage snaps.
— Ryan Hannable (@RyanHannable) February 5, 2018
Slated to start the year as New England’s fourth-safety, Richards will need to beat out a pair of second-year safeties in Damarius Travis and David Jones. One thing Jordan does have going for him is his role on the kicking teams (six special-teams tackles). That alone is unlikely to keep the fourth-year pro on the roster. Unless he can show marked improvement in the secondary during the preseason, he will be gone. Richards is in the final year of his rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $1.18 million, making him a tantalizing cutdown option.
Dwayne Allen, Tight End:
The New England Patriots can save $5 million by cutting Allen this year, who has two years and $12.4 million remaining on his contract. Fortunately for Dwayne, the Pats really don’t have a replacement for him on the roster yet. Troy Niklas, Will Tye and Jacob Hollister are all considered receiving options, while Allen is viewed as a solid blocker. After coming over on a high-dollar contract from the Colts in 2017, Allen didn’t put up much on the stat sheet.
The Patriots had hoped Allen would turn out to be the dual-threat, second-tight end they had been lacking for years. Instead, he finished the year with just ten receptions for 87 yards and one touchdown. PFF wound up ranking Dwayne as the 32nd-best tight end in the league. Though he did have success as a blocker, he just wasn’t a factor as a receiver. None of his remaining contract is guaranteed. New England may decide he just doesn’t warrant a roster spot at his current price. If Allen can’t show more in the passing game, it would not be a surprise to see Belichick save the money and go with a younger option.
David Rogers writes for Full Press Coverage. Follow him on Twitter.