COMMENTARY| Defensive end Chandler Jones showed promise during an uneven rookie season with the New England Patriots last year. While he started off strongly, he faded down the stretch. A major question for the team heading into training camp is whether or not he can be a breakout player in 2013.
Jones joined the Patriots as a first-round draft pick out of Syracuse. The 260-pounder posted six sacks and 45 tackles in 14 games, but 33 of the tackles and all of the sacks came in his first eight games. His downfall coincided with an ankle injury he suffered in a 35-point November 18th blowout of the Indianapolis Colts that knocked him from the game and caused him to miss the next two contests. He was never the same after that, frequently being invisible in the games he did play.
It's a tall order to expect the inconsistent 23-year-old to be the heart of the team's pass rush but that is exactly the position the team has put him in entering this season.
The Patriots have developed a trend of not paying for premium rushers. Aging Andre Carter (10 sacks in 2011), and scrap-heap pickups Mark Anderson (10 sacks in 2011) and Tully Banta-Cain (10 sacks in 2009) are the only players to record double-digit sacks since 2007.
While there are certainly teams that struggle to get to the quarterback more than the Patriots, the team has lacked a stud in that department for some time. They haven't had a player consistently pile up sack numbers since linebacker Mike Vrabel accumulated 48 in his eight seasons in New England from 2001-2008.
To be fair, the last time they spent big for a pass rusher was linebacker Adalius Thomas in 2007. Although that didn't turn out well, it shouldn't dictate how they continue to operate.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich, another lunch pail player, led the team with eight sacks last season. Although the team was linked for a time to then free-agent defensive end John Abraham, they ultimately made no major moves to address their pass rush this offseason.
Because of their high-flying offense and weaker group of defensive backs in recent years, opposing teams have passed on the Patriots with abandon. Last year, the team ranked 15th in the NFL with 37 sacks, and 29th in passing yards allowed at 271.4 per game. A more effective pass rush would go a long way in shoring up their defense.
Jones may have the most pass-rushing talent on the team but his path to realizing his potential won't be easy. He doesn't have any teammates who can divert attention from him. The opposition can gang up on him with extra blockers, especially during passing downs, because he is easily identifiable as the biggest threat on the field in such situations. This puts him in the position of fighting an uphill battle when trying to make impact plays.
Ninkovich's game is not based on top-end athleticism and technique. Instead, he's a ball hawk whose uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time gives him opportunities when the opposition's blocking breaks down.
The one newcomer who might be a wildcard is rookie linebacker Jamie Collins. He was the team's top pick in this year's draft out of Southern Mississippi, and while he has freakish athletic ability, he is also extremely raw. It may be a stretch to expect him to step right in and produce without the growing pains often experienced by young players trying to pick up New England's complex game plans.
Perhaps there is another player or two on the roster who will emerge this year to lighten Jones' burden, but there are no obvious candidates entering training camp. While the "Patriot Way" relies on cultivating little-known pick-ups and young players to fit their needs, paying for brand names isn't always a bad thing.
Jones could become one of the premium sack artists New England typically avoids paying. On the other hand, he could fall short given the lack of help the team is giving him. Effectively rushing the passer is dependent on pressure coming from multiple angles, which may be difficult to achieve this season with the players currently on the roster.
Jones is one of the most talented young players on the Patriots. It will be interesting to see if he develops into a consistent long-term contributor, if not a star. His natural ability will largely determine his future but it would be nice if the team gave him some help to expedite that process while improving their defense at the same time.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- New England Patriots