The New England Patriots went as far as they could go last year. Sure, a difference in the final score of the final game would have been nice, but the team couldn't have gone any further than the field of Lucas Oil Stadium, where they at least had a chance to earn that elusive Lombardi Trophy.
The Patriots should be an elite team again this year. Who knows? They could even go back.
But doing so would likely depend on some players improving their games.
Several Patriots will be under the microscope this season. Some are being looked to improve to help the team compete. Others will have to get better for their own personal sakes. Some still, at a position of need but unable to cash in on their own potential, are both.
For some of these players, that improvement is an expectation, and for some, it's merely a long shot. With all of them, however, there's hope. These players aren't lost causes. But the time to step up is upon them.
Shane Vereen didn't have much of a 2011 season to speak of. It didn't matter, as it turned out, because the Patriots had more than enough weapons for the second-round pick's presence to be mandatory.
Things have changed this year. The Patriots have greatly improved their receiving corps but have seen their running back group take a hit. Gone is BenJarvus Green-Ellis and his 181 carries, leaving a sizeable dent in the group of players taking handoffs from Tom Brady.
Stevan Ridley is the heir apparent for the starting role, but New England doesn't yet have a surefire option to step in as the workhorse. That means it'll take a committee effort.
In other words, Vereen needs to step up.
He was touted post-2011 draft as an excellent pass-catching back. The Patriots can still use a running back of that caliber, especially considering the pass-happy nature of the offense. Danny Woodhead has been the top weapon in the passing game so far, but the onus is on Vereen to give the Patriots another option.
The Patriots used free agency and the draft to improve their defense, but make no mistake, there is still a need for a dynamic pass-rusher. Dont'a Hightower played inside in college, and Chandler Jones is more about upside than an ability to contribute on Day 1.
Jermaine Cunningham was drafted to be that player, and he still could be—but he's running out of time.
Cunningham's place in the organization has plummeted since his selection in the second round of the 2010 draft. He went from playing 15 games and making 34 tackles his rookie season to playing nine games and making one—one!—in a sophomore season that ended with the linebacker on injured reserve.
The urgency is at a max for the former Florida Gator. Taylor Price, taken a round later in that 2010 draft, has already been cut. The Patriots are already drawing conclusions about that draft. If Cunningham doesn't improve, and improve quickly, he'll be on the chopping block.
Cunningham's improvement isn't only necessary from a personal standpoint. He can still contribute for this team. He could add another disruptive presence to the defense.
This might be his last chance to become that player.
Ras-I Dowling didn't get much of a chance to prove himself last year before injury—a common theme for the Virginia product—derailed his season after only two games.
He's healthy again; it's time for the second-round pick to contribute. There was a lot of hope that Dowling, a large, physical cornerback, would be able to immediately fit into a growing Patriots defensive backfield.
The Patriots could sure use his services.
The pass defense was horrid last year, and while improvements were made in the form of late-season replacements (Sterling Moore) and offseason pickups (Steve Gregory), there's still plenty of room for a playmaker—someone who can help in coverage and affect some games.
That's where Dowling, if he makes the jump, comes in. If he does, the group of Dowling, Moore, Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty—in addition to draft picks Nate Ebner and Alfonzo Dennard—becomes a pretty potent bunch.
If he doesn't, the pass defense will suffer, and Dowling's future with the team will look pretty cloudy.
Wilson doesn't need to improve, per se, as there's no NFL performance yet for him to improve on.
But to say the rookie safety isn't under plenty of pressure going forward would be just as false.
When the Patriots took Wilson 48th overall, Bill Belichick may have been the only person who thought the move was a good one. Wilson had no excellent game film, no terrific combine performance and no through-the-roof stock.
Yet there he was, headed to Foxboro rounds before anyone thought he would. The pressure's on him to show it wasn't a botched pick.
Wilson also plays a position of dire need for New England, and it'll be important for him to help out in the defensive backfield. The Patriots never found a surefire companion for Patrick Chung at safety, and while Steve Gregory is a decent player, a second-rounder like Wilson will be expected to compete for the spot.
The Patriots gave him that opportunity. He has to prove he's the right guy for it.
The 2011 season was a good one for rookie tackle Nate Solder. He held his own, grasped the finer points of the position taught to him by Bill Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and served as a more-than-capable bookend at the line. He started in 13 games at right tackle, allowed only three sacks and drew only three penalties in 880 snaps.
But Solder needs to step up in order to keep up with his increasing responsibility. Matt Light is gone. Solder will likely be the replacement, according to ESPN. That means that the crucial task of protecting Tom Brady and keeping his jersey immaculate will fall on the 319-pounder's broad shoulders.
Imagine you're a teenager with a brand- new driver's license. Of course you're a good driver in your old hand-me-down. But when you drive Dad's car? You'd better be the best driver in the world.
That may be over-selling the situation, but the stakes are undoubtedly raised for Solder. If he gets the starting spot, he'd better be the franchise tackle the Patriots were anticipating when they drafted him in the first round.
Even if Sebastian Vollmer gets the job, however, Solder will still get the consolation prize of right tackle. Either way, he's a fixture on the line.
Solder just needs to keep doing what he's been doing. He's in line for quite the promotion. He has to get his game to match it.
Lost in the media frenzy over Julian Edelman playing several possessions on defense last year was the downward trend in many of the receiver's core statistics.
His receptions continued to drop, from 37 in 2009 to seven to four last year. His punt return average dipped almost five yards, from 15.3 per return to 10.7. With the kick returner spot wide open following Brandon Tate's release, Edelman couldn't seize it, and Danny Woodhead became the primary returner despite showing little open-field burst or elusiveness all season long.
Edelman did return a punt for a touchdown against Kansas City, but the Kent State product should improve those numbers going into this season. He has been at an elite level before.
His average per return in 2010 was second in the entire league. Last year, it fell to 12th.
Having a dangerous return game would be an excellent asset for the Patriots going forward. If Edelman can up his numbers returning punts, while also adding potency in kick returns, his impact on special teams would make life that much easier for New England's vaunted offense.
Devin McCourty doesn't need to improve to a point he hasn't reached before. Just getting back to where he was would be nice.
After an outstanding rookie season, McCourty's performance slumped across the board. His coverage fell off. His ball skills got worse. A player who seemed on the verge of an interception on every pass in 2010 was the cure for any slumping quarterback. A day of throwing at McCourty meant plenty of completions, one after another, over and over again.
Simply put, McCourty cannot be the No. 1 corner and play that way. It kills the defense and any semblances of momentum. When the inadequacy of your top cornerback is the league's worst-kept secret, it's tough to cover up through schemes and other personnel.
McCourty doesn't have to be Darrelle Revis, however. The blueprint is already written, and he wrote it. He was the one who picked off seven passes in 2010, who was the runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year and who was a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.
So McCourty has the talent. He has the game. For whatever reason, whether it be a shortened season or simple sophomore slump, that game wasn't there last year.
If he can re-discover that ability, the passing game will click. The onus is on McCourty to make that improvement, but he doesn't need to look far to find the confidence that he can pull it off.