As you would expect of a team that has Super Bowl aspirations, the New England Patriots are loaded with top-end talent at a number of positions. The key to getting that final push over the top to actually winning another Lombardi Trophy will be the performances of their role players.
There will be key plays in the 2012 season where the Patriots middle of the pack players will have opportunities to make plays. The execution by these players will go a long way in deciding what kind of football team the '12 Patriots are.
Here are a few players who will play some significant roles and could help make or break the Pats this season.
Bobby Carpenter is a player who signed in free agency this offseason without many people taking note. Despite that, with the season-ending knee injury this preseason to Dane Fletcher, Carpenter could play a much bigger role than originally expected.
On most teams, the backup middle linebacker may not be an important position, however, with New England's injury-prone MLB Brandon Spikes leading the charge, the backup is guaranteed more time than they'd see in most other uniforms.
Carpenter is a player who has bounced around the league the last few years after being a highly-touted first-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2006 out of Ohio State. He has the capability to fill in at three linebacker spots and contribute on special teams, he just does not particularly excel at any one thing.
If and when Carpenter starts a game this season in the middle of the much-maligned Patriot defense, he will warrant a close watching, because he could get exposed quickly.
It is well-documented that many people questioned Tavon Wilson as Bill Belichick's second-round pick in April. Virtually everyone not named Bill Belichick saw Wilson as a late-round pick, at best.
Regardless of all that, Wilson is going to be in the mix immediately in the New England secondary. Like Carpenter, Wilson will benefit from playing in a spot that has another fragile player in Patrick Chung. Wilson will likely start games at safety because of this, but even with both Chung and Steve Gregory healthy, Wilson should still see time in sub-packages.
Wilson has been seen creeping up to the line and using a bit of his physicality in the preseason in a hybrid-type safety/linebacker role deemed the "money" linebacker in the Patriot defense.
He showed off that physicality Wednesday night in the preseason finale when he jarred the ball loose on a clean hit to Giants tight end Martellus Bennett, causing an incompletion.
Wilson is going to get on the field in a variety of spots and have opportunities to make plays, it is just going to be a matter of whether he can do something with them like he did against New York.
Deion Branch was at one time a step-away from being an elite receiver, recording double-digit receptions in two consecutive Super Bowls and even being named the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XXXIX. At this point in his career though, even Branch himself would have to acknowledge that that part of his career is behind him.
He is now just a piece of the puzzle, but nonetheless, an important one. With the releases this week of fellow veteran wide receivers Donte' Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney, Branch is now solidly in place as the team's No. 3 receiver behind All-Pro talents Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker.
Branch's value will have a chance to shine through in crunch time, when Tom Brady likes to go to the players he trusts. Brady has chemistry with Branch that he has had with few other receivers in his time in the league, if anyone.
Fans hope it never comes down to a few plays at the end, but if it does, Branch may have as much importance to the high-powered offense as anyone.