New England Patriots: 5 Players headed for breakout seasons in 2017

Mike Gillislee New England Patriots

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As if the New England Patriots didn’t already have a ridiculously talented roster, these five youngsters appear headed for breakout campaigns in 2017.

Coming off a historic Super Bowl 51 victory, the New England Patriots have only helped their chances of repeating with an outstanding offseason. They made a few impact moves, signed some underrated free agents, and put together a small-but-strong draft class.

It’s safe to say the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through New England. We already know about all of the superstars that keep this dynasty running, but it’s going to be the unheralded talents who help them make a return trip to the NFL’s biggest stage.

In this instance, I’m talking about a few of the Patriots’ younger players poised for breakout seasons in 2017. These players have been patiently waiting for opportunities to shine. And now, for one reason or another, those opportunities are ready to present themselves. Because, you know, New England needs even more playmakers to work with.

So who are these breakout candidates I speak of? You probably know most of their names, although a couple are relatively unknown at this point. Either way, the future looks bright for these up-and-coming Patriots.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at five Patriots who are headed for breakout seasons. Before the 2017 campaign is in the books, the rest of the NFL will know exactly who these rising stars are.

Joe Thuney New England Patriots

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5. Joe Thuney, G

If you’re not a Patriots fan or avid NFL Draft follower, then chances are you’re not even sure who Joe Thuney is. It’s understandable if that’s the case — not many third-round guards are exactly household names.

By the time the 2017 season is over, though, Thuney will be a well-known name. It obviously helps that he starts for the reigning champion Patriots, but he’s got the skills to earn some serious recognition before all is said and done.

Last year, Thuney played a whopping 1,355 snaps while earning strong marks from Pro Football Focus. He excelled as both a run blocker and pass protector, playing a big part in allowing only 10 sacks on the season. Based on what we saw from him in Year 1, Thuney appears to be the future of this New England front five.

His sophomore season is going to deliver an even larger impact from the NC State product. With a full year as a starter under his belt, Thuney should see his efficiency and reliability improve significantly. This offensive line has had time to build more chemistry as well, which should keep things running like a well-oiled machine.

It’s not often we talk about offensive lineman as having breakout seasons. In the case of Thuney, though, that’s exactly what 2017 has in store.

Malcom Brown New England Patriots

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4. Malcom Brown, DT

It may be because of the team he plays for, but Malcom Brown hasn’t gotten a lot of credit for his effort through two seasons. He played an integral role in helping the Patriots field an outstanding defense in 2016, and that’ll continue to be the case in 2017.

As a result, Brown will finally get the respect he deserves from NFL fans everywhere. However, that’s not why he’s on this list. Instead, it’s because he’s going to finally assert himself as one of the league’s top run-stuffing defensive tackles. I mean, he’s already getting close after finishing 15th among 117 qualified interior defenders for run defense, according to Pro Football Focus.

So if he’s already playing so well, what will make 2017 a breakout season for Brown? Well up to this point, he hasn’t exactly been a standout pass rusher. Although he’s notched six sacks through two seasons, this upcoming campaign will be when he convinces everyone he’s a quality interior rusher.

A big part of that will be the emergence of other options along the New England defensive line. With some younger defensive ends finally unlocking their full potential, there will be less blockers for Brown to power his way through.

Will he lead the team in sacks? Highly unlikely. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doubled down on his three quarterback takedowns from a season ago. Between his near-elite run-stuffing skills and improved abilities on third downs, Brown will officially break out in 2017.

Malcolm Mitchell New England Patriots

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3. Malcolm Mitchell, WR

To the surprise of many, Malcolm Mitchell played a prominent role in the New England offense as a rookie. Despite there being so many different mouths to feed, he ended his first year in the NFL with 32 catches, 401 yards and four touchdowns. Not too shabby for a fourth-round pick.

If my hunch is correct, it’s only going to get better for the Georgia product in 2017.

Now there is again the whole issue of the Patriots having so many mouths to feed. On top of Rob Gronkowski returning to full health, Brandin Cooks was also acquired this offseason. That means Mitchell will be no better than the No. 4 receiver heading into the season. And yet, I don’t think that’ll stop him from making a huge impact as a sophomore.

Chances are someone is going to get hurt. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but that’s the way life goes in the NFL. When that time inevitably comes, Mitchell will get an opportunity to step into that No. 3 role, which is essentially a starting role in New England’s pass-happy offense.

That’s when he’ll show us what made him a highly rated recruit coming out of high school. Mitchell has all of the physical tools to be a star in this league, and will show them off when the opportunity arises this year. Before long, he’ll have asserted himself as one of Brady’s go-to targets.

Trey Flowers New England Patriots

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2. Trey Flowers, DE

Since the departure of Chandler Jones, the Patriots have lacked a dominant pass rusher. However, in 2016, we started to see one particular youngster rise to prominence on the edge. This year, Trey Flowers is going to make his name known across the league as a nightmare for opposing passers.

Last season, Flowers led New England in sacks with seven. In only his second NFL campaign, he started to flip the switch, showing tremendous athleticism and burst off the edge. We’ve seen the potential he possesses, and his third season in the league is when he’s finally going to put it all together.

I’m talking double-digit sacks and relentless pressure on quarterbacks. The tools are all there for it to happen — we know that because we’ve seen glimpses of it through two seasons. However, with Jabaal Sheard gone and Flowers assuming the lead rusher role, it’s the perfect time for him to make the other 31 NFL teams wish they hadn’t passed on him for four rounds.

It’ll also help with Brown set to enjoy his own breakout campaign of sorts. With the protection forced to pay more attention to the inside, Flowers should get more one-on-one opportunities. That’ll lead to more sacks, and more big plays for this New England defense.

The Patriots appear to have found their star pass rusher, and he only cost them a fourth-round pick. Flowers plays with a chip on his shoulder because of his draft status, and will use that motivation to wreak havoc on the rest of the league in 2017.

Mike Gillislee New England Patriots

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1. Mike Gillislee, RB

Right now, the Patriots’ running back room is bursting at the seams. All of Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White and Brandon Bolden will be hoping to earn touches during training camp and the preseason.

However, at this moment, Gillislee appears to be in the lead to earn the top spot on the depth chart. According to the Boston Globe’s Jim McBride, the former Buffalo Bill “would appear to have the inside track” on the starting gig. Based on what we’ve seen from him through three seasons, it makes plenty of sense.

Over the last two seasons, Gillislee has averaged a whopping 5.7 yards per carry. However, in Buffalo, he was stuck behind LeSean McCoy in the pecking order. Although he may actually have to work harder to earn snaps in New England, he’s got a legit shot at being the lead back in 2017.

Although a true lead back role is unlikely considering there’s so much talent in the backfield, Gillislee could easily fill the LeGarrette Blount role from a season ago. That means much of the short-yardage and goal-line work, which helped Blount find his way into the end zone 18 times in 2016, could go to Gillislee.

That sounds like a breakout season to me — especially for a guy with 11 career touchdowns.

There are a number of ways things could pan out in the New England backfield in 2017. With all of his untapped potential, though, Gillislee is in position to take the opportunity and run with it. If that’s the case, expect a whale of a season for the former fifth-round pick.

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