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New England Patriots: 5 Players Not Named Wes Welker to Watch

Jimmy KelleyCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2017

New England Patriots: 5 Players Not Named Wes Welker to Watch

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    New England has been abuzz about the many different theories surrounding why Wes Welker -- a two-time All-Pro -- has been limited in his involvement with the Patriots offense.

    Is he hurt? Are they trying to trade him? Are they mad at him for fighting the franchise tag and talking to the media about contract negotiations?

    All of those have some basis in reality, but when it comes down to it everyone knows that as long as Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick are running this team the real reasons will not make it to press. They may as well file it away with the Watergate tapes and the Area 51 evidence.

    So with Wes Welker in sight but out of mind, here is a look at five New England Patriots to watch on Sunday night besides No. 83.

Donald Thomas

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    If there is still anyone out there who doesn't think that Brian Waters' absence on this team is significant, I urge them to go back and watch the game film of last week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

    Going from Waters—a veteran and perennial Pro Bowler—to Dan Connolly—injured playing fullback against Tennessee—to Thomas has been such a massive drop off that the untrained eye can see teams feasting on rushing the interior. The worst thing that can happen to an offensive lineman is end up on their back and that happened to Thomas several times against Arizona.

    With Connolly still limited with his concussion, Thomas' play on the right side of that line will need to be significantly improved, or it could be a long day for Tom Brady.

Ras-I Dowling

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    After playing well against the Titans in Week 1, Ras-I Dowling did not play a single snap against the Arizona Cardinals. Much of this can be attributed to the way the Patriots defended Larry Fitzgerald, using Devin McCourty and safeties to double, leaving Dowling without a package to play in.

    The Patriots love to talk about personnel groupings and it will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick and Co. work their second-year cornerback into the defense this weekend. He is a physical cornerback who could be exactly what the Patriots need against Ravens' receivers like Lee Evans.

    Dowling has the makings of a shutdown corner in the NFL, so be sure to watch his activity on Sunday.

Vince Wilfork

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    Big Vince Wilfork has been a man on a mission this season and continued to look like one of the top defensive tackles in the league. Although he has just five total tackles in 2012, his position is more about disruption than production.

    Two of the biggest plays of the Patriots season have directly involved Wilfork. His tackle-for-loss on the goal line against the Titans took a touchdown off the board in Week 1, and his fumble recovery late in Week 2 against the Cardinals could have won them the game.

    With so much talk of stars being mistreated on the offensive side of the ball, Wilfork and his defense have been quiet and effective in helping the Patriots regain their status as one of the NFL's top teams.

Brandon Lloyd

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    On the other side of the receiving spectrum from No. 83 stands the Patriots new "Ocho Cinco," Brandon Lloyd. A true "x" receiver, you can throw every passing game cliche at Lloyd and they would all make sense.

    "Stretches the field."

    "Takes the top off of a defense."

    "Knows where the sideline is."

    The biggest thing for Lloyd this week will be developing that rapport between him and his quarterback. Brady and Lloyd have been on different wave lengths on some long throws this year and if they can make that big play a consistent weapon, this Patriots offense will be even more frightening.

Kellen Winslow Jr.

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    The closest thing to Aaron Hernandez not named Jimmy Graham or Tony Gonzalez showed up in Foxborough this week. Kellen Winslow Jr. was something of the prototype coming out of college, but bad teams and even worse decisions have landed him in hot water.

    Coming to the Patriots could be his last shot at being relevant, and I believe he will take advantage. McDaniels and Belichick will need to come up with some personnel packages to get him involved right away and put him in positions to succeed right off the bat.

    If the Patriots and Tom Brady can make Winslow work for them, the void left by Aaron Hernandez will not be felt quite as much in his absence.

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