With training camp starting up next week for the New England Patriots, fans can finally put aside their heartbreak from the loss in Super Bowl XLVI and start to get excited about the development of a vengeful and talent-stacked Patriots team in 2012.
This offseason, fans and journalists alike have fished the depths of the Internet for insight on which players are progressing and which players are likely to get the boot.
Will Brandon Lloyd emerge as the much-needed deep threat? Is someone ready to step up and provide a disruptive pass rush? Who will be the odd man out from the crowded running back crop?
This slideshow will highlight players whose stock is on the rise and whose stock is falling heading into training camp.
Now entering his third season, defensive end/outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham enters his most important year as a pro.
The former second-round pick out of Florida impressed early, playing for 50.9 percent of defensive snaps in his rookie campaign in 2010. However, Cunningham fell to a disappointing 3.6 percent playing time in his sophomore season (as noted by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston).
Regardless of a lackluster season in 2011, Cunningham appears to be on the right track heading into training camp, earning high praise from Bill Belichick.
"Jermaine's had a great offseason," Belichick said (as noted by Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe). "He's really worked hard. He looks good."
This is good news for the coaching staff, as the Patriots may be looking to Cunningham to help fill the pass-rushing void left by the departed Mark Anderson (now in Buffalo) and Andre Carter (still a free agent).
With young running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen primed to carry the rushing load in their second seasons and Joseph Addai joining the team as the veteran presence, Danny Woodhead will be fighting for playing time in 2012.
When Kevin Faulk went down in 2010, Woodhead was a pleasant surprise, tallying 547 rushing yards and 379 receiving yards on the season—not bad for a former undrafted free agent out of Chadron State.
Though mostly due to an ankle injury, Woodhead's second season as a Patriot saw his production drop drastically with only 351 rushing yards and 157 yards receiving.
Woodhead has played well for the Patriots the last two seasons (particularly in Super Bowl XLVI) and has emerged as a fan favorite, but he's in a tough spot facing fierce competition.
Much to the chagrin of fans, Woodhead could be a training camp casualty in 2012.
Aaron Hernandez has already cemented himself as one of New England's finest offensive playmakers. However, it's possible that Hernandez's breakout season in 2011 was only a glimpse of the player he could become in 2012.
Field Yates of ESPNBoston notes Hernandez's improvement this offseason, writing:
It’s...possible that he’s already improved from what was a highly successful second season, which is the way it appears. His receiving ability is natural, and the Patriots could continue to find news ways to use him throughout the offense.
It's evident that Hernandez is on his way to becoming one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. His early success this offseason has his stock rising heading into camp.
Though Brian Waters in under contract in 2012, his future with the club is as cloudy as that of current free agent Andre Carter.
Flirting with retirement and missing mandatory minicamp (per Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston), Waters' 2011 season may have been his last.
Andy Hart of Patriots Football Weekly shares his thoughts on Brian Waters in a recent blog post:
Will [Waters] retire? Will he show up to open camp? Will he show up later in camp or even after it ends? I’m not sure either Bill Belichick or Waters himself know how this will play out. Luckily the team has the depth and experience to deal with the uncertainty. Waters was very good in his first season in New England, earning his Pro Bowl nod. If he shows up and plays, the line will be better. But I’m feeling less confident of late that Waters will be starting for the Patriots this season. Time will tell.
Missing an entire offseason does not reflect favorably in terms of team commitment. Bill Belichick—who preaches a team-first mentality—may look elsewhere to fill the starting spot at right guard.
Dan Connolly has certainly earned the trust of the coaching staff, evidenced by his three-year extension worth $9.7 million (as reported by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston). Belichick may turn in favor of the younger Connolly to start at right guard—a spot where he has played well at in the past.
If Waters shows up for camp and plays like he did last year, he'll most likely be the starter heading into the season. But as things stand today, Waters' future with the Patriots is too murky to pencil him in just yet.
Brandon Lloyd was New England's biggest splash in free agency, and so far, he's lived up to the hype.
Andy Hart of Pro Football Weekly opines on Lloyd in a recent blog post, writing:
Lloyd looked really good in OTAs and mini-camp. Given the history of receivers struggling to learn the offense and build a rapport with Brady, that’s already a good sign. Lloyd can add an element to the offense that was lacking a year ago on the outside. He can make elite catches. Brady says the team hasn’t had a receiver quite like him. Put it all together and there is reason for excitement surrounding the Lloyd addition.
When a new receiver doesn't fully grasp New England's complex offense, there are usually early signs, as we saw with Chad Ochocinco last season and Joey Galloway in 2009. This doesn't seem to be the case at all for Lloyd.
Already flashing big-play potential in organized team activities and minicamp, Lloyd is red hot heading into camp.