Guregian: It Has to Be Gronkowski
By Karen Guregian
With training camp set to start Thursday, here are lists of the Top 10 most indispensable Patriot players, not counting Tom Brady, from this writer. The term “indispensable” implies not only talent and ability, but also how the team would be affected if the player missed time, or how vital the player is to the Patriots’ success in 2018.
The order might change in a few months. So might the list of names. This is how it looks heading into camp.
10. Julian Edelman: Even though he won’t be playing in the first four games, and is coming back from an ACL injury, you can’t overlook his bond with Brady, their chemistry, and what he’s meant to the offense. Will he be the same player when he returns? Hard to say, but he still gets in the Top Ten based on history and the compete level he brings to the field.
9. Patrick Chung: As a strong safety, he can play in the box and stop the run. He can also cover tight ends, and slot receivers if need be. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick calls him “one of the best players in the league, one of the best players on our team.” And one of the most indispensable given all the roles he fills.
8. Chris Hogan: With Edelman missing the first four games, Brady has to depend on another receiver. Maybe he develops chemistry with Jordan Matthews or one of the other new guys, but he already has a good connection with Hogan, who can run similar routes.
7. Devin McCourty: He’s the quarterback of the secondary, and in a passing league, it’s an important distinction. He also has multiple roles whether playing single-high safety, closer to the line, or covering man-to-man. Everyone follows McCourty’s lead both on and off the field, so he’d be missed.
6. James White: Maybe third-down backs are a dime a dozen. And yet, when you have one that Brady trusts to the point of catching a record 14 passes during the epic Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons, there’s a certain measure of indispensability about White. In this offense, with Edelman out, he’s that important.
5. Trey Flowers: Someone has to get pressure on the quarterback, and for the past few seasons, Flowers has been the best and most consistent rusher whether attacking from the edge or from the inside. The Pats have Deatrich Wise Jr. and added Adrian Clayborn, but Flowers is still the man.
4. Nate Solder’s replacement: Obviously, we don’t know the identity just yet. Based on minicamp, it might be veteran Trent Brown. Or, it could be rookie Isaiah Wynn. Those two seemed the likely candidates to succeed Solder. Whoever it turns out to be, the job of protecting Brady’s blind side is huge. That task alone puts the player high on the list.
3. Stephon Gilmore: With Malcolm Butler gone, Gilmore is their lone stud cornerback. He’s the star in the group, and played like one toward the end of the year and in the postseason. He has the ability to lock down some of the game’s top receivers, and the Patriots will see plenty of them this season.
2. Dont’a Hightower: Think he was missed in the Super Bowl? Maybe they got by during the regular season without the linebacker and defensive signal caller, but not in the biggest game. He’s one guy who thrives in the signature games, making game-changing plays in the big moments. He needs to stay healthy this season.
1. Rob Gronkowski: While it’s true the Patriots managed to win a Super Bowl without Gronk, his presence in the offense becomes more vital without Edelman early on. Brady needs at least one of his two most trusted targets to generate offense. Add in the losses of Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis and the dependency on Gronk shoots to another level. He commands so much attention on the field. As one of the league’s best offensive weapons, he stands as the team’s most indispensable player.