The Patriots’ 2023 roster doesn’t look drastically different than what New England put on the field last season, but even beyond promising offensive coaching changes, there’s reason to believe the team could put out a better product this year.
One potential cause for optimism is the expected growth of young players on the roster.
Let’s dive into five potential breakout candidates on New England’s roster.
RB Pierre Strong
Strong, a 2022 fourth-round pick out of South Dakota State, barely touched the ball last season despite playing in 15 games. He finished his rookie campaign with 10 carries for an even 100 yards with one rushing touchdown and seven catches on seven targets for 42 yards.
Now, veteran running back Damien Harris is no longer part of the running back room after departing in free agency for the Buffalo Bills, and his prospective replacement, free-agent signee James Robinson, was cut during spring practices.
The Patriots have been kicking the tires on running back depth, according to a league source, but Strong has a chance to take over that No. 2 running back role behind Stevenson. With a timed 4.37-second 40-yard dash during the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine, Strong is one of New England’s fastest players. He caught 62 passes during his college career but needs to prove himself to be reliable in blitz pickup to earn a consistent role in the passing game.
WR Tyquan Thornton
Thornton is another speed demon from the 2022 NFL Draft. The second-round pick ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash before last year’s draft and actually finished his rookie season playing 50.1 percent of offensive snaps despite missing four games on injured reserve.
He caught just 22 passes on 45 targets for 247 yards with two touchdowns, however. The Baylor product flashed in New England’s first organized team activities practice open to the media but then missed the rest of the open sessions to injury.
Thornton, who’s slim at 6-foot-3, 182 pounds, must prove he can stay healthy. He has a chance to continue to push players like DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne for snaps in the Patriots’ pass-catching rotation and provide a unique deep-speed element to New England’s offense.
DT Christian Barmore
The Alabama product showed a ton of promise as a rookie in 2021 but missed the middle portion of his second season with a knee injury. He finished strong last season with 11 total pressures over New England’s final two games as PFF’s highest-graded defensive tackle in Weeks 17 and 18 with a 91.5 mark.
Barmore should take on a greater role this season if he can stay healthy. He brings the highest upside as a pass-rusher out of any of New England’s interior defenders.
CB Marcus Jones
Perhaps the most exciting player on the Patriots’ roster, the biggest question surrounding the 2022 third-round pick is what roles he will play in 2023. Jones was a full-time return specialist, part-time defender and gadget offensive playmaker as a rookie. That’s seemingly the best way to utilize him moving forward, as well.
He was named a first-team All-Pro as a punt returner with 362 yards and a score on 29 returns. He also contributed 27 kick returns for 645 yards, four catches for 78 yards and a touchdown and 39 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, seven pass breakups, a fumble recovery and a touchdown on defense.
Jones’ defensive role will be dependent on a number of different factors — namely, Jack Jones’ status while facing felony charges for allegedly attempting to bring two firearms onto a flight, how New England plans to replace Devin McCourty at free safety and if Jonathan Jones is involved in that equation.
Jones primarily played slot cornerback last summer in training camp but was mostly an outside cornerback in college and last regular season despite his 5-foot-8, 175-pound frame. If Jones ascends into a starting role on defense, he could see his offensive and return usage decrease. It might be best for him to remain a part-time player on defense to continue his playmaking role on offense and special teams.
S Jabrill Peppers
Peppers, 27, is entering his seventh NFL season, so it might look a little bit strange to find him on this list. That being said, he played last season while recovering from a torn ACL in 2022, and he even acknowledged that he’s heard “it’s a two- to three-year injury before you’re fully, fully healed” over the spring.
Head coach Bill Belichick raved about Peppers when asked if he’s seen particular growth from the veteran safety.
“Yeah. Oh my god, yeah,” Belichick said. “He’s a much different player now than he was last year at this time or even in training camp.
“A full year after the injury, a lot of confidence in the communication, the system, his assignments. He’s playing fast, aggressive, helping out his teammates. Last year he was trying to learn things, now he’s helping out his teammates, anticipating, making calls or adjustments that maybe help him or possibly help his teammate be in a better position to defend a certain play or type of play. Yeah, he’s been great. He’s way ahead of where he was last year.”
Peppers is in the mix to replace McCourty in a potential safety rotation.