The New England Patriots earned a Wild Card berth in 2021, but they were quickly ousted in the first round of the playoffs. With several breakout candidates on their roster, can the Pats challenge the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East next season? Let’s look at three young players who could help New England take the next step.
New England Patriots 2022 breakout candidates
Rhamondre Stevenson, RB
The Patriots largely used a two-headed backfield in 2021, as Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson accounted for 68.5% of the club’s rushing attempts. Harris posted a breakout of his own last season, setting a career-high with 929 yards while tying for second in the NFL with 15 rushing touchdowns. But Stevenson was also impressive in his rookie campaign, and there’s room for growth in 2022.
Stevenson may have been in the New England coaching staff’s doghouse early in the 2021 season. He was inactive from Weeks 2-4 and again in Week 7. While the team didn’t make any public declarations about Stevenson, running backs coach Ivan Fears seemed to indicate after the Week 7 benching that the club was unhappy with the rookie’s practice performance.
Stevenson returned in Week 8 and didn’t miss another game aside from a COVID-related absence in Week 16. The Patriots were apparently pleased with his production over the rest of the year, as he managed at least 10 carries in six of his final eight regular-season games. Stevenson finished the year with 133 attempts for 606 yards and five touchdowns.
Harris received more volume a season ago due to his availability and veteran deference. However, Stevenson may have been more effective on a per-carry basis. The Oklahoma alum finished third in the NFL with a 59% success rate, meaning he was consistently contributing runs that generated expected points added and kept the chains moving. Harris, meanwhile, ranked 19th in the same metric.
Stevenson is under contract for three more seasons, while Harris is entering the final year of his deal. Bill Belichick never invests much in any single running back, so could the Patriots use 2022 to gradually hand the backfield reins to Stevenson? If so, he could put up spectacular results behind one of the league’s best offensive lines.
Christian Barmore, DT
After just slipping out of the first round and falling to the Patriots at 38th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, Christian Barmore was a full-time player in his rookie season. Technically, he only started two games. However, he played 598 snaps, second only to Davon Godchaux among New England defensive linemen.
Barmore ranked ninth among all NFL defensive tackles with 51 pressures and was named to the PFWA’s All-Rookie team. There’s a case to be made that he’s already broken out. Yet, New England may ask Barmore to do more as a run defender in 2022 given their defensive lineup changes.
Having already traded Stephon Gilmore during the 2021 season, the Patriots lost fellow cornerback J.C. Jackson in free agency. Slot CB Jonathan Jones will return from season-ending shoulder surgery, but New England’s outside corners are Jalen Mills, Terrance Mitchell, and Malcolm Butler. Not great!
Given New England’s weak CB depth chart, they’ll likely have to devote more players to coverage. The Patriots faced the third-most 12 personnel (two TEs) looks in the league last season. Expect that to change as opposing teams realize they need to spread out and attack Belichick’s secondary.
If New England is forced to utilize lighter boxes, Barmore’s role as a run defender will become even more critical. He’s an excellent breakout candidate heading into the 2022 season.
Kyle Dugger, S
Speaking of the Patriots’ depleted secondary, let’s turn to an ascending player in that unit: third-year safety Kyle Dugger. An elite athlete coming out of Lenoir-Rhyne in 2020, Dugger may be asked to do a little bit of everything next season.
Dugger spent most of the time in the box in 2021. With free safety Devin McCourty deciding to continue his career for at least one more year, Dugger should see a lot of action near the line of scrimmage again. He’s also capable of playing the slot (137 snaps last season). Dugger could take over that role if Jones has any issues returning from injury.
Belichick has always placed a lot of emphasis on safety play. Defensive backs like Rodney Harrison, Patrick Chung, and McCourty were integral to New England’s defense over the past two decades. Recently, the Patriots have added veterans such as Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers on modest deals to provide significant depth.
Dugger should be able to continue his progression in 2022, and he’ll likely surpass Phillips in defensive snaps. Moreover, if the 34-year-old McCourty finally decides to hang up his cleats after next year, Dugger could become the long-term face of the Patriots’ secondary — or maybe even their defense as a whole.