Deatrich Wise Jr. among Patriots whose development is key in 2018

Deatrich Wise Jr. finished the 2017 season with 26 tackles and five sacks. Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Former New England Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel was often insightful in interviews during his playing days, and that has continued in his role as Tennessee Titans head coach.

Last week at the annual NFL owners meetings, he was asked about his team missing out on free agent Ndamukong Suh and discussed how he liked what the team had at defensive tackle. He then went through some of the team’s personnel, mentioning 2016 second-round draft choice Austin Johnson and said, “We feel like he’s a young player who is ready to play more than he has. That’s the maturation process -- you draft him and get him ready, and hopefully he’s ready to take that next step in his career.”

That development is critical for all teams and had me thinking of which Patriots players might fall into a similar category in 2018 -- those who could develop and potentially play a larger role than might be currently projected.

DE Deatrich Wise Jr. -- The 2017 fourth-round pick from Arkansas played 51.3 percent of the defensive snaps in the regular season, finishing with 26 tackles and five sacks as the team’s shortage at the position thrust him into more action than perhaps anticipated. At 6-foot-5 and 271 pounds, with long arms, Wise has some unique traits and has laid the foundation to possibly become a starting-caliber player.

OT/G Cole Croston -- Having made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Iowa, he played 223 preseason snaps and took part in all 107 practices. The Patriots saw enough from him to keep him on the 53-man roster all season as the final blocker on the depth chart. He’ll be part of the mix of options to replace starting left tackle Nate Solder, but even if he doesn't win that job, he could elevate to a top backup role on the 46-man game-day roster.

CB Cyrus Jones -- Unlike his first year with the team in 2016, when he was the team’s top draft pick (No. 60 overall), the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Jones no longer has high expectations following him after he struggled as a rookie and then missed last year with a torn ACL. Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones top the projected cornerback depth chart, but Cyrus Jones could still be a factor -- defensively and/or as a returner.

DT Adam Butler -- He made the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt and played 43.7 percent of the defensive snaps in the regular season, with his primary role coming as an interior sub rusher (two sacks). Having made the conversion from offensive line to defensive line in college, he’s still a relative newcomer to the position.

OLB Harvey Langi -- His physicality stood out in 2017 training camp as he made the team as an undrafted free agent from Brigham Young. Langi showed up on special teams as well, but experienced a setback after being involved in a serious car accident that ultimately landed him on the reserve list after playing in just one regular-season game. His recovery has progressed well, and he is expected to once again compete for a roster spot in 2018.

OT Antonio Garcia/DE Derek Rivers -- The 2017 third-round draft picks missed their rookie seasons due to illness/injury, but Garcia will be part of the left tackle competition, and Rivers, who set a Youngstown State record with 41 career sacks, at least should help the pass rush as a situational rusher.

Extra point: WRs Riley McCarron and Cody Hollister and DBs Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz, David Jones and Damarius Travis spent all season on the practice squad and could also qualify.