Commentary

Patriots' young players coming through

Cunningham, Hernandez, McCourty among rookies having a major impact

Updated: November 10, 2010, 2:23 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

When the New England Patriots gathered for training camp in late July, one of the major questions was how quickly first- and second-year players would integrate into the mix.

In one sense, the team's 2010 theme has been "fresh start, fresh faces," which reflects the 24 draft picks from '09 and '10, as well a few rookie free agents who broke through, expected to play important roles.

Back in August, we wrote, "If the Patriots are to defend their AFC East title, and potentially contend for a Super Bowl championship, the development of this group is crucial. About half look as though they will be in the 'high impact' category this year. "

At the midpoint of the season, here is how things have shaken out:

HIGH IMPACT

Kyle Arrington (free agent, 2009) -- After making his mark mostly on special teams in 2009 after being promoted from the practice squad, he has surprisingly stepped into the starting lineup after Darius Butler struggled in the first two games of the season. He earned a game ball for his work against Randy Moss in the team's 28-18 win over the Vikings on Oct. 31.

Patrick Chung (second round, 2009) -- His performance Week 4 at Miami, when he blocked a field goal and punt, was sensational. On top of that, he has become a starter on defense, flashing the playmaking ability the unit needed entering the year. This was the jump the Patriots were hoping he would make.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Cunningham
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellSecond-round pick Jermaine Cunningham has developed into one of the Patriots' top pass rushers faster than could have been expected.

Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) -- The Florida Gator overcame missing all four preseason games because of injury and is now starting at outside linebacker, growing on the job. He is one of the team's best pass rushers, with his presence limiting Tully Banta-Cain to sub-rushing duties. The hope was that he would grow into the job -- which is tough for a 4-3 college defensive end -- and it's happened faster than many anticipated.

Brandon Deaderick (seventh round, 2010) -- A surprise performer, the defensive lineman went from not being expected to make the team to the starting lineup for three games, passing Ron Brace on the depth chart. Like others, he's still learning on the job, but he fits in nicely.

Rob Gronkowski (second round, 2010) -- After a 2009 season in which the Patriots struggled in the red zone, the tight end has been a big target when the space gets tight (3 TDs). His integration into the offense, along with fellow tight ends Alge Crumpler and Aaron Hernandez, has altered the team's approach. This was the expectation.

Aaron Hernandez (fourth round, 2010) -- Playing more than any tight end, and often on the field for more snaps than most receivers, Hernandez has been as solid as the coaching staff could have hoped. He leads the team in receiving yards (436) while lining up in a variety of spots, which challenges defenses. His production has exceeded expectations.

Devin McCourty (first round, 2010) -- Despite grumblings of some analysts when the pick was made, the Patriots look like they struck gold, as McCourty has the makings of a shutdown cornerback. Few could have predicted he would make such a seamless transition to the NFL, as his reputation as a solid special teams player seemed to typecast him in the eyes of some.

Zoltan Mesko (fifth round, 2010) -- One figured the Patriots didn't select a punter in the middle rounds without plans for him to seize the job. Mesko has done just that, while also serving as a reliable holder on field-goal attempts.

Brandon Spikes (second round, 2010) -- The Patriots' second-leading tackler, Spikes has made a quicker-than-anticipated leap up the depth chart, passing Gary Guyton and the since-departed Tyrone McKenzie as a first- and second-down starter at inside linebacker. He has been thrown into the fire and sometimes the learning curve is steep on the field.

Brandon Tate (second round, 2009) -- In need of more playmakers, Tate has proven to be explosive with the ball in his hands. The next challenge is more consistency at receiver, but he's been a big-play option as a returner and receiver. This was the jump the Patriots were banking on.

Sebastian Vollmer (second round, 2009) -- The only question was whether he would be on the left or right side, and the Patriots chose the right. Vollmer has stepped right in and generally has accounted well for himself. The Patriots knew they had a good one when they saw Vollmer play beyond his years as a rookie.

MODERATE IMPACT

Ron Brace (second round, 2009) -- The big, sturdy defensive lineman has been in and out of the lineup, showing flashes of excellence (fourth-and-1 penetration on Adrian Peterson), but also bouts of inconsistency that had him as a healthy scratch for one game. Based on the way things started, with Brace on the PUP list, his contributions have been more than anticipated.

[+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliAfter a promising preseason, Julian Edelman hasn't had much impact as a receiver.

Julian Edelman (seventh round, 2009) -- After looking like the best player on the field in the preseason, the receiver has not been a big part of the offensive attack, in part because of the switch to more two-tight end packages. His biggest impact has been as a punt returner.

Dane Fletcher (free agent, 2010) -- A surprise breakthrough in training camp, the inside linebacker made his debut on "Monday Night Football" against the Dolphins in Week 4, playing mostly on special teams. His work as a spy against Ravens running back Ray Rice and Chargers running back Darren Sproles was impressive and exceeded expectations.

Brian Hoyer (free agent, 2009) -- Backup quarterback met expectations by holding on to the job and showing good progress in preseason games.

Myron Pryor (sixth round, 2009) -- The defensive lineman primarily has come on to the field in sub-rushing situations, and there have been some bright spots (e.g. his hit on Brett Favre).This was what the team expected.

LOW IMPACT

Darius Butler (second round, 2009) -- His fall on the depth chart was one of the surprising stories of the first half. Entering the season, the expectation was that he would start and make the Year 2 jump that Bill Belichick often refers to as the time when players have the most improvement. Instead, Butler struggled in the season's first two games and has been a backup since.

Jake Ingram (sixth round, 2009) -- After a solid rookie campaign, the long snapper has struggled with consistency and has been replaced in favor of Matt Katula.

Kyle Love (free agent, 2010) -- One of this year's surprise performers in training camp, he earned a spot on the 53-man roster and has mostly been a healthy scratch on game days. Still, to earn a roster spot shows he's part of the team's future plans.

Tyrone McKenzie (third round, 2009)  In a surprise, he was passed on the inside linebacker depth chart by Spikes and Fletcher, ultimately landing on the practice squad. He has since been let go and signed with the Buccaneers' practice squad.

Rich Ohrnberger (fourth round, 2009) -- Cut at the start of the season but brought back on the practice squad, the center/guard was soon promoted to the active roster. While he hasn't played, he appears to have a chance to be part of the future.

Taylor Price (third round, 2010) -- It was clear he had a steep learning curve based on the offense he played at Ohio, and there were some early signs that this could be a red-shirt type of year. That has been the case as he hasn't been active for a game.

Darryl Richard/Kade Weston (seventh round, 2009/2010) -- Long shots to make the final roster, they both landed on season-ending injured reserve, so they will be part of the mix in 2011 training camp.

Others: OL George Bussey (fifth round, 2009), OL Ted Larsen (sixth round, 2010), QB Zac Robinson (seventh round, 2010) and Thomas Welch (seventh round, 2010) were all cut.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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