Bill Belichick has often spoken about players making marked improvement from their first to second seasons in the NFL, something Chandler Jones has the opportunity to do in 2013.
Jones, the team's top pick in 2012, started his rookie campaign strong, notching six sacks in his first eight games. A pair of ankle injuries limited him down the stretch, and Jones finished with just those six sacks for the season.
But the upside was apparent, and he's among the most pivotal players for his team in 2013, according to former NFL GM Bill Polian, who wrote about Jones in a recent piece for ESPN Insider.
"Rob Ninkovich has turned into a very solid pass-rusher. I liked him coming out of Purdue and the Patriots have done a great job with him. That said, they need more from Jones. New England was 22nd in the league on third down last year and had only 21 sacks. Even in an AFC East that should be relatively weak this season, that won't cut it.
"They drafted Jones to be the next Willie McGinest. Jones needs to stay on the field and get the job done. If he can measure up to McGinest or Mike Vrabel, the Patriots will be a much better defensive team systematically and functionally. If Jones can't, this defense will likely have some of the same holes it had last season."
Jones worked hard this offseason to balance his strength and become more proportional throughout his body (targeting improvement in his upper half), and we've seen positive signs throughout training camp and the preseason. He helped force a fumble in the team's preseason opener and recorded another sack against the Buccaneers.
The key for Jones, in our estimation, is the expansion of his arsenal of pass-rush moves. He has the length and initial quickness to win off the edge, but there will be tough tackles that he is forced to take on and beat with his technique as well. We've seen some development from Jones as a technician, and if he can stay on course, he'll make an even bigger impact as a rusher.
That's something the Patriots need, as it was an area that let them down during the AFC Championship Game. They were unable to generate a single hit on Joe Flacco, putting their secondary is a difficult spot.
Beyond Jones, Ninkovich will be counted on as a complementary rusher, while the team has a rotation of young ends who could provide reserve rush presence too. Justin Francis appears to have emerged as the third rusher, with Marcus Benard also impressing in his effort to solidify a roster spot.
To read the piece in its entirety (Insider content), click here.