The New England Patriots are a team with a lot of question marks through seven weeks of the NFL slate. They have lost three games by a total of four points on their way to a 4-3 record, but most people would agree at least two of those teams they fell to were inferior in Seattle and Arizona.
Though they are not off to the kind of start their fans may be used to, they still are in a good spot, sitting just one game back of the Baltimore Ravens for second place in the AFC. They are in that position because of contributions from players across the board, but of course some more than others.
There have been a handful of standouts, but who has been the absolute best? Here is a look at the top 5 players to wear the flying Elvis thus far in 2012.
Jerod Mayo has always been a consistent player, racking up tackles year after year and being a steady presence as the team's defensive captain. Once again in 2012 he leads the way, on the team and in the league, with 72 tackles.
What has made this season special so far for Mayo though has been the impact plays that have not always been seen from him in the past. He has had his hand in everything a little bit-- tallying an interception, a sack, two forced fumbles and two pass defenses.
With the team playing for the second year now in their 4-3 defense, you can see Mayo flying around comfortably a bit more. He along with Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower could be in the process of molding a great trio of New England linebackers that could be among the tops in the league for years to come.
Fans came into this season with unfair expectations for tight end Rob Gronkowski after his earth-shattering 2011 campaign. Gronkowski may never break the records he set last season, no matter how long his career goes for.
If you look at his performance so far in 2012, he has still been extremely impressive. He is currently tied for fourth in the league with five receiving touchdowns on the season and ranks second on the team to Wes Welker in receptions and receiving yards.
What does not show up on his stat sheet is the incredible blocking he brings to the table every single week. His numbers could be even better if he had not been asked to stay back and block a number of times this season, but when you watch him in pass protection or run blocking, it becomes obvious why the team asks this of him. He can dominate many players himself, but he is also very valuable helping neutralize opposing pass-rushers when teamed up with tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer.
It is good that New England locked him up when he did because his stock will only rise in the coming years.
Brandon Spikes has clearly made the most impact on games of any defender to this point in the season. He delivers bone-crunching hits every week that make players want to avoid running his way again.
He adds a physicality that the team greatly misses when he is out of the lineup. Thankfully for them, he has made it thus far missing games like he has in past years.
He ranks fourth on the team in tackles, but that is deceiving. Cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington are ahead of him in large part simply due to the number of plays they allow to happen on their watch only to tackle the receiver after the fact. His 42 tackles are good, but it has been the force of those hits that have been the story on the way to his three forced fumbles.
If Spikes remains healthy the entire season, he may be deserving of his first Pro Bowl nod in 2012.
Wes Welker began the season under some odd circumstances and speculation regarding his playing time with the emergence of Julian Edelman. Those talks seem like ancient history seven weeks later as he leads the NFL in both receptions and receiving yardage.
Prior to Sunday's win over the rival New York Jets, Welker had gone over the century mark in four consecutive games. He is making a statement playing under the franchise tag, that if New England will not pay him, someone else should. His toughness and yards after catch would make him a valuable asset for any team in the league.
If the Patriots fail to win a Super Bowl while they have a weapon like him at their disposal, they will be kicking themselves for years to come. This season possibly being their last chance at it, they are off to a shaky start at best, but certainly not because of No. 83.
Just like in a heavyweight fight, if you want to beat the champ, you have to knock him out. To this point no one has knocked Tom Brady out and off his post as the Patriots' best player. The Patriots' have the No. 1 offense in the NFL almost entirely because they have No. 12.
He may not be having a career season and certainly could have closed games better than he has, but he is still the unquestioned face of the franchise. His 96.9 passer rating ranks sixth in the league, but only one of the five signal-callers ahead of him has a better record (Matt Ryan).
The Patriots will go as far as Tom Brady will take them. With his stellar 12-3 touchdown/interception ratio, that could be very far as long as he continues to take care of the ball like usual self. Once he and newcomer Brandon Lloyd are fully clicking, and the offense hits on all cylinders, they will be an extremely dangerous team.
The Patriots have had their moments where their attack has stalled, but look for them to return to their field after their week 9 bye week with a killer instinct that will propel them through the rest of the season. It would not be a surprise if Brady and company used the bulk of their week off to perfect what could be the most versatile and unstoppable offense in the league.
His will to win makes him not only the best player in New England, but perhaps the best player in the league.