New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick took the 199th player chosen in the 2000 draft and transformed him (depending on your interpretation of the natural gas law) into the greatest NFL quarterback of all time.
So figuring out a way to replace the offensive production of running back Dion Lewis should not be too much of a challenge.
The Patriots have some major concerns on the eve of the 2016 season that go beyond the looming four-week suspension of Tom Brady. Or whether or not his temporary replacement, Jimmy Garoppolo, can parlay his otherworldly good looks and robust right arm into 2-2 or 3-1 start.
Belichick’s success in turning castoffs such as Corey Dillon or undrafted players such as Malcolm Butler into Super Bowl champions is the emotional fallback position for Patriots fans whenever they see sizable holes on the team’s depth chart.
Just this week, Patriots running back/designated dump-pass catcher Lewis landed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list indefinitely because of “cleanup” knee surgery. The team also jettisoned the combustible and often-concussed center Bryan Stork in a trade with the Washington Redskins and saw defensive end Jabaal Sheard miss significant time because of injury.
This was all overshadowed by Brady’s brief unexplained absence and potentially life-threatening thumb injury.
(If you squint really hard at the image below, you might just see it.)
— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) August 23, 2016
Those injuries/transactions further depleted three areas — the offensive line, defensive front and running back — where the Patriots are already thinner than Gisele. Belichick moved to solidify the defensive end spot by swiping 2013 first-round pick and linebacker Barkevious Mingo from the Cleveland Browns on Thursday.
With all this real and imagined woe, there is hope. And here are three players who we believe will surprise in a positive way in Foxborough this season.
Center David Andrews
The nightmare of Von Miller mauling the Patriots offensive line and Brady in January’s AFC championship game was only surpassed in horror across New England by Stephen Gostkowski’s missed extra point. Recent injuries to Sebastian Vollmer, Jonathan Cooper and Shaq Mason shattered an unsteady line even before Stork was dealt. Meanwhile, Marcus Cannon remains nothing more than the equivalent of a water pistol when it comes to blocking potential quarterback assailants.
David Andrews emerged in the offseason and in camp as both a viable alternative and likely improvement over Stork at center. Andrews played well for Georgia against the fierce defenses of the SEC but was undrafted in 2015, most likely because of his size (6-foot-3, 295 pounds). He has earned a reputation around Gillette Stadium as a hard worker and quick study. More importantly, Andrews, and not Stork, was Brady’s center of choice. When Brady practiced with the first team in camp, Andrews was there to snap the ball to him. Garappolo worked with Stork. Andrews is well liked by returning offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Having friends like Brady and Scarnecchia in Foxborough means it is almost impossible not to exceed expectations.
— NFL (@NFL) August 19, 2016
Running Back LeGarrette Blount
Before training camp, Blount’s status with the Patriots was as uncertain as the Red Sox bullpen. But Blount has a history of performing at his best when things appear to be at their worst for him. Blount came to New England in 2013 and gained 772 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He then signed with the Steelers before the 2014 season, only to return to the Patriots in November after literally walking away from Pittsburgh in the middle of a game. Three months later, he was a Super Bowl champion. A hip injury cut short his 2015 season and kept him out of the playoffs. Blount amassed 703 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns in 12 games last season. He was no doubt missed by the Patriots during their January drubbing in Denver.
The indefinite loss of Lewis means running back James White will likely move into his role as the first dump-off option for Brady/Garoppolo in the backfield. However, White has not shown the same sort of elusive speed and power moves possessed by Lewis. With defensive lines looking to pressure and stunt against the unproven Garoppolo, Blount will earn more carries in Weeks 1-4 than he would have had with Lewis on the field. If Blount stays healthy and can avoid any more suspensions under the NFL’s substance abuse policy, he has a literal and figurative opening to excel this season.
— Matt Chatham (@chatham58) August 19, 2016
DT Anthony Johnson
This Anthony Johnson is nicknamed “The Freak.” (His unrelated UFC counterpart carries the moniker “Rumble.”) Johnson set a Louisiana state record of 67.5 sacks in high school before becoming a starter for the Louisiana State University Tigers in 2013. He declared himself draft-eligible in 2014, only to not be chosen. His weight soared to 325 pounds and he was signed and cut twice by the Dolphins and once by the Redskins. His performance against the Bears last week (1/2 sack, batted pass, tackle for loss and forced INT) served as a reminder to fans and media of his college credentials, failed NFL expectations (only seven games in three seasons) and potential as an interior pass rusher. Johnson has since shed more than 50 pounds from his days with Miami and Washington. He has muscled his way up the Patriots depth chart in camp and in the preseason. Ideally for Johnson, he would earn the spot once owned by former first-round pick Dominique Easley from Florida.
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who grew up in the Bay State and has been watching the Patriots since 1970. He writes the ‘Obnoxious Boston Fan’ column for the Boston Herald and Tweets at @RealOBF and @BillSperos.