Last season, the New England Patriots came just a few minutes short of winning their fourth Super Bowl title, losing in heartbreaking fashion to the New York Giants. Though the Pats are lucky enough to bring back much of their core talent this season in hopes of taking another shot at the Lombardi Trophy, they still have several big shoes to fill if they hope to make a deep run in 2012-13.
Several key contributors to last season's campaign have departed via free agency or retirement, and the Pats must hope their recent draft picks and signings can fill the void in production.
Defensive end Mark Anderson (10 sacks) left for a big contract with the Buffalo Bills, while starting halfback BenJarvus Green Ellis cashed in on his reputation for consistent production and ball security to score a three-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. Longtime LT Matt Light also bid farewell to the NFL after 11 seasons on the Patriots' offensive line, leaving the Pats with a gaping hole on QB Tom Brady's blindside.
The Patriots also hope to improve on last season's 31st-ranked defense, which put tremendous pressure on Brady and the offense to score consistently.
GM/coach Bill Belichick targeted defense in this year's draft, using his first six picks on that side of the ball in hopes that an infusion of youth, talent and athleticism will help prevent a repeat of last year's Swiss-cheese defense. Belichick zeroed in on his front seven in particular, using three of his first four picks on defensive linemen and linebackers and signing several free agents to bolster his pass rush.
With New England's needs in mind, let's take a look at five players who will be major contributors in the Pats' chase for an elusive fourth Super Bowl title.