The New England Patriots have stars on their roster: Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski. There aren’t nearly as many as on teams such as the Cowboys, Giants and Steelers, but the Patriots do have big-name players. What they certainly have more of than any other team are reclamation projects.
That’s because coach Bill Belichick is a master of turning former busts into key players on Super Bowl teams.
He’s been able to do this throughout his lengthy tenure with the Patriots, and it’s continued in recent years. Many of his best redemption stories are currently on New England’s Super Bowl roster and will play big roles in Houston next Sunday. To show just how many players Belichick has turned from bust-to-boom, we ranked his seven best on the Patriots’ Super Bowl squad.
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Shea McClellin, LB
McClellin was a quiet offseason signing for the Patriots, one who didn’t get much attention from the general public. Fast-forward 10 months and he’s an integral part of the Patriots’ defense and will be on the field plenty in the Super Bowl. After struggling with the Bears, the 2012 first-round pick has carved out a nice fit with the Patriots, saying it was the “best place” for him to do well.
His signature play of the season was his block of Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s field goal, which was Tucker’s only miss of the season. McClellin isn’t an every-down player, but he can certainly have an impact in Houston.
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Kyle Van Noy, LB
Shortly before the Patriots traded Jamie Collins to the Browns in a blockbuster midseason deal, they quietly added a guy who could potentially replace him: Van Noy. Belichick traded a sixth-round pick for Van Noy in late October, and that move didn’t get much attention. However, the former second-round bust has played a key role in replacing Collins.
His playing time has been a bit sporadic at times due to the frequency with which the Patriots play nickel defense, but he has had an impact and he’ll likely continue to do so in the Super Bowl. Belichick obviously liked the Lions' 2014 second-round pick when he made the deal, and he still does. He said this Sunday: “Kyle is long and fast, he has the ability to cover a lot of space.”
Eric Rowe, CB
Rowe was a tweener out of Utah, playing both cornerback and safety. The Eagles primarily played him at the former, but it didn’t work out as he struggled his rookie year in 2015. The former second-round pick is a good athlete with great potential, which is why Belichick opted to make the bold move and trade for him.
Rowe started out slow in New England following the early-September trade for a conditional fourth-round pick. He was a healthy scratch a few times, but late in the year, he really came on as a good player. In the AFC title game, Rowe picked off Ben Roethlisberger to help seal the win, solidifying his place as a starter for the Patriots.
“We felt like Rowe would give us some depth in the secondary,” Belichick said at the time of the trade. “He played safety in college his junior year, then played corner his senior year. He’s played both. He’s played on the perimeter. Could possibly be a matchup type of coverage player.”
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Chris Hogan, WR
The star of the AFC Championship game wasn’t Tom Brady or LeGarrette Blount or Julian Edelman. It was Chris Hogan, who caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers – the exact same numbers as Julio Jones. Hogan was a decent player for the Bills, but having Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel as his quarterbacks didn’t do him any favors.
Belichick took a chance and signed him last offseason. The Bills had a chance to match the Patriots’ $12 million offer sheet but opted not to. Now, Hogan is playing for a Super Bowl and figures to play a major role next Sunday.
“I mean, when you're around a guy every day like we've been with Chris, he has impressive every day,” Belichick said in Week 2. “He doesn't have a lot of up and down days. Every day's a pretty good day for him, which I would say wasn't unexpected, but you just don't know until you're around him.”
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Dion Lewis, RB
Lewis is not just one of the best redemption stories for the Patriots, he is one of the best tales in the NFL. After being drafted by the Eagles in the fifth round in 2011, Lewis struggled to carve out playing time for two years. He was traded to the Browns for Emmanuel Acho in 2013 but never saw the field due to a fractured fibula. Lewis missed two full seasons from 2013-14 before joining the Patriots on a future-reserve contract in December 2014.
These days, Lewis is a dynamic scatback with great versatility, as advertised in the Divisional Round. He may be LeGarrette Blount’s backup, but Lewis can make more plays in the passing game, which the Patriots will be doing plenty of in Super Bowl LI.
“Dion has been very productive with the ball in his hands, and he’s been very dependable when he hasn’t had the ball,” Belichick said in 2015. “… Being able to, in the passing game protect, run routes, catch, in the running game read blocks and make good decisions and make yards on his own.”
Martellus Bennett, TE
Arguably the biggest addition for the Patriots in the past year was trading for Martellus Bennett. It wasn’t viewed as a huge deal at the time, but it’s benefited the Patriots for several reasons. Bennett has played a larger role than originally anticipated because of the unfortunate injury to fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, but it’s only made his redemption story after struggling with the Bears even more impressive.
Belichick acquired him and a sixth-round pick from the Bears last March, sending Chicago a fourth-rounder. On the year, he caught 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns, plus had six catches for 36 yards in the postseason. He’s not Gronk, but Bennett has been a valued addition to the Patriots.
“He’s been good to work with,” Belichick said of Bennett in November. “It goes all the way back to training camp. We talked about the same thing in training camp. He’s a smart guy, has a good set of skills, he works hard.”
LeGarrette Blount, RB
Blount has had a career path unlike most other players. He was a star rookie with the Bucs after going undrafted and being signed by the Titans in 2010. He played well for the Bucs for two seasons but was ultimately phased out of the offense when Doug Martin arrived. Belichick traded for him in 2013 as he helped lead the Patriots to a first-round bye and a trip to the conference title game.
Blount signed a two-year deal with the Steelers the following offseason, but off-field issues eventually led him out of Pittsburgh.
That’s when Belichick worked his magic again, signing Blount in 2014 after he cleared waivers. That season, he helped the Patriots win the Super Bowl, and he now has a chance to do exactly that for the second time.
"When he gets an opportunity, how much he can take advantage of it, how much he can be productive, what he can do with those opportunities will determine how many more there are. It's totally up to him,” Belichick said in 2014.