Right off the bat, the most important rookie, on the face of things, is first round pick and former Florida defensive tackle, Dominique Easley- especially in the long run. If healthy, he’s a game changer, bringing an interior element that’s been missing from the Patriots’ pass-rush for a while.
But next season, Easley will most likely be third on the depth chart behind vets Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. The Pats also have, while not any future starters on Easley’s level, a group of capable backup players in Seaver Siliga, Armond Armstead, and Chris Jones to pick up the slack should Easley, Wilfork, or Kelly once again fall victim to injury.
But do you know what position doesn’t have the same depth, and, in fact, might have the least depth on the entire roster?
The New England Patriots have one of, if not the best starting linebacking trios in the AFC. Jerod Mayo was on pace to put up another 100 combined-tackle season (his fifth in six years) before tearing his pectoral muscle in October. He’s a renowned team leader, and his injury shouldn’t be a long term concern. Healthy, he’s one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
Dont’a Hightower is fast on his heels, however, and his play may improve even more playing in the MLB role that Brandon Spikes vacated. Jamie Collins had a wildly impressive rookie season, stepping in when Mayo went down, and projects to have more success in the pass-rush and in coverage now that his duties are alleviated a bit.
The problem is, if one of those three players goes down (knocking on all the wood in sight), the Patriots have a problem. One of my biggest bugaboos going into this draft was the Patriots needed to draft a coverage linebacker who could step in on 3rd down, be a special teams ace, and act as crucial depth behind the starting three.
(And I’ll lay down money that Christian Kirksey, Jordie Tripp, and Telvin Smith, who fit that role perfectly, will make a lot of teams regret passing on them)
Dane Fletcher was that guy, and he did it really really well. But he’s gone. Next on the depth chart are Steve Beauharnais (who essentially redshirted the year), Chris White (9 tackles in 16 games) and Ja’Gared Davis (a practice-squad regular). If you’re a Patriots fan, that should make you nervous.
Enter James Morris.
The undrafted linebacker hits a lot of the points on the “Bill-Belichick-Catnip” check-list. Initially recruited by Stanford, Morris decided to go to Iowa, where his father had been an equipment manager for decades. A two-way player in high school (running back and linebacker), Morris stepped immediately into the heart of the Hawkeye defense.
In four seasons, Morris racked up 400 career tackles, making one of six to do that in Iowa history. In his senior year, along with recording 107 tackles, he also had a surprising 8 sacks and 4 INT. His Pro Day measurables times were also pretty impressive, running a 4.59 40, a 4.17 shuttle, a 6.86 3-cone, and a 36-inch vert. Those times are almost identical to Dane Fletcher’s pro day results (4.61, 4.35, 6.93, 36).
On and off the field, Morris has the reputation of being a great leader. He was named a permanent team captain following his junior and senior seasons. He was named second team all-Big Ten by the press and coaches. He was a three time Big Ten Academic all-American, with a 3.87 GPA as a poli-sci/pre-law major (dude is wicked smart). Every Iowa award given to players who represent leadership, integrity, and for excelling on and off the field is sitting on his mantle.
But he was undrafted for a reason. Middle linebackers are becoming less and less of a hot commodity in today’s NFL landscape. He’s not the biggest player (6-1, 241) and he doesn’t play with the same speed as his 40-time might suggest.
But if he comes in with an “anything I can do” attitude, he’ll be a special teams contributor from Day 1. With a host of rising talent (Hightower, Collins, Jones) and stalwart veterans (Mayo, Wilfork, Ninkovich), he’s in the best situation possible to make the most of his talent at the pro level. While other rookies may struggle being thrust into new situations, or don’t see the field at all, Morris will be able to pick his spots and impress. And, of course, should the Pats need to go to the LB depth, Morris could be the no. 1 guy off the bench.
In two years, Dom Easley may be the most important member of this draft class. In five years, it might be Jimmy Garoppolo or Cam Fleming.
But for the 2014 season, don’t be surprised if it’s James Morris who makes the biggest impact for the New England Patriots in his rookie season.
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