The question is often asked and the answer changes on almost a weekly basis. How many of the players on this current roster are part of the long-term solution?
In so many ways, this is what this season is about. Identifying a young nucleus. Finding important pieces to help build around. Seeing which of these players fit into what this team is trying to become.
Well, with seven games remaining, and after dissecting all the positives that have surfaced in two straight victories, here is my updated list in alphabetical order of the first and second-year players, or players new to this team, who are either sure things to be a part of this moving forward or are certainly trending in that direction. See if you agree.
- Linebacker Jerome Baker: It was evident early on that this staff had a lot of confidence in this second-year player. Not only is he an every down player, but he has been entrusted to call defensive signals as well. We're starting to see Baker take his game to another level, his sack last Sunday in Indy certainly an indication of that.
- Linebacker Vince Biegel: Acquired in the trade that sent Kiko Alonso to the Saints, Biegel has been one of the most pleasant surprises of this season, both as a special teams player and on the outside in passing situations. Just listen to the coaches talk about him, how they marvel over his foot-to-the-pedal approach, and you can quickly tell he's not going anywhere. By the way, he leads the team in quarterback hits.
- Guard Evan Boehm: There are no guarantees that Boehm will be a starter here after the influx of talent expected for next season. But this is a highly efficient player who is flexible enough to play either guard or center and who at just 26 years old can be a valuable piece on this offensive line for years to come.
- Defensive end Taco Charlton: He has leveled off some in recent games after his four early sacks, but he remains the most promising pass rusher on this roster and a player who at just 25 years old has a chance to blossom into an elite player. Keep in mind this is a former No. 1 pick of the Cowboys and one of the nation's top pass rushers in college at Michigan. Because things didn't work out in Dallas doesn't mean a second chance won't produce different results. We've seen signs of that already.
- Guard Michael Deiter: Go ahead and write his name down in ink. He could very well be the left guard on this team for the next decade or so. Deiter hasn't missed a snap this season and you're noticing him less and less each Sunday, which for an offensive lineman is usually good news.
- Tight end Mike Gesicki: The production has increased as the season has progressed. We now see signs just about every week of Gesicki's unique athletic ability, his number of catches and yards are already better than his entire rookie season. Granted, he is still somewhat raw and the mistakes, like his fumble against the Colts, deter some of the progress. But the upside is too enticing not to see how this player evolves.
- Cornerback Nik Needham: The arrow is clearly pointing up for this undrafted rookie out of Texas El-Paso who at one point this year was released and brought back. Now he could be here a while. Needham had his best game of the season against the Colts with an interception and a game-saving fourth-down stop and you get the distinct feeling that there's plenty more to come. Does he have star power? It's way too early for that. But it's not too early to gauge his importance to this team and how valuable he can become on a defense that sometimes puts seven defensive backs on the field at the same time.
- Defensive back Eric Rowe: We're labeling him as a defensive back because Rowe has played both cornerback and safety and has done a solid job at both. The coaching staff saw the potential during his time with the Patriots, but now that potential is being realized. Rowe is a smart player who rarely makes glaring mistakes and is presently second on the team with 49 tackles. He's certainly an intriguing long-term option.
- Placekicker Jason Sanders: Yes, I'm putting a kicker on this list because if you watched Sanders nail three kicks from more than 45 yards last Sunday against Indianapolis and if you've noticed how many kickers are struggling around the league, you'll understand the importance of having him on this team. It was announced Wednesday that he is the AFC's Special Teams Player of the Week and it's certainly deserving. Look at this two-year numbers. When you combine field goals and extra points – which nowadays is a 33-yard field goal – Sanders has made 74 of his 81 kicks in 25 games in the league. Sure looks like that makes him a keeper.
- Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins: He was the No. 1 pick last April for a reason and you can see the growth in this player almost on a week-to week-basis. Has he made some rookie mistakes? He'll be the first to tell you that he has. But there should be no doubt, Wilkins is everything this team hoped he would be, and he's only going to get better.
- Receiver Preston Williams: Eight games were enough to convince us that Williams can be special. Before his season ended with a knee injury, Williams had 32 catches for 428 yards and three scores. But it was more than the numbers. It was the combination of size and speed. It was his ability to adjust in the air and to make difficult catches look easy. It's unfortunate we couldn't see him for 16 games. But at just 23 years old, we could be seeing him for a long time.
This list isn't final or definitive. It doesn't include players who have been here more than two years such as offensive tackle Jesse Davis, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and wide receiver DeVante Parker, who all appear to have bright futures with this team.
Then there's a player like rookie linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel who has been on injured reserve all season, and only this week has returned to practice. From what we saw in the preseason, he has a chance to stick around a while.
We'll certainly learn more about all these players as the season winds down, just as that young nucleus could very well expand. But even as it stands right now, the names on that list offer plenty of reasons to feel encouraged moving forward.