With 38 players under the age of 26, the New England Patriots have added a lot of youth over the past few seasons, and with each offseason comes the choice of who is a building block and who can be discarded.
In 2012 there were quite a few player who ascended to the next level, such as Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty and Stevan Ridley. There were also quite a few who failed to live up to expectations, including Patrick Chung and Bobby Carpenter.
This coming season there will be a new group of Patriots who will face a make-or-break year. Let's break down whom we'll be watching most closely.
For a seventh-round pick, Brandon Deaderick has probably exceeded most expectations. After experiencing some disciplinary issues in his 2010 rookie year, Deaderick became a consistent contributor in 2011 and 2012 as a reserve and spot starter defensive lineman.
From his stats on ProFootballFocus.com, it is a wonder how Deaderick elevated to the top interior defensive tackle spot next to Vince Wilfork in 2012. In the past two seasons, Deaderick has had three above-average performances, and 11 negative ones, by PFF's grading metrics. His total grades for the past two seasons is minus-16.1.
Still Deaderick managed to play 41.5 percent of the snaps of the 16 games he suited up for in 2012, most likely because his pass-rushing skills, though average, are slightly better than Kyle Love's.
Deaderick is entering the last year of his deal and—with defensive tackle as the primary spot I believe the Patriots must upgrade—he'll need to elevate his game to another level to have a future with the team.
He'll likely find himself in the battle of his life for a roster spot coming out of training camp, because if the Patriots are relying on him for an interior pass rush on base downs, they're in major trouble.
Kyle Love started the 2012 season as the starting defensive tackle next to Vince Wilfork, but by the end of the season he had been surpassed by Brandon Deaderick. While Love is an ascending run-stopper, he brings little in terms of pocket push.
Love was on the injury report for nearly the entire season with a knee injury, but he still managed a better season than Deaderick by PFF's grading, with a final 3.2 score for the season.
While especially stout in stopping the run, Love's pass rush graded out to just a minus-4.7, and at no other time were the Patriots more vulnerable to the pass than when Love was on the field. Love is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle type, but there's a question of whether or not the Patriots should get away from this type of player and find a more traditional 4-3 defensive tackle.
Love could be a victim of a scheme change, but he has value backing up Wilfork and in stopping the run. Love must prove he can also push the pocket against the pass, otherwise the Patriots will continue to be ill-equipped to defend the pass with him in the game.
Ras-I Dowling had his past two seasons ended by injuries after being taken 33rd overall in the 2011 draft.
Despite the disappointing start to his career, Dowling remains an intriguing player with the kind of skills the Patriots could really use if he were to ever stay on the field.
Dowling started the season as the third cornerback in 2012, coming in as the outside corner in the nickel package, while Kyle Arrington slid inside to the slot. But after giving up four completions on four targets against the Tennessee Titans, he was made inactive for Week 2 and then saw just 24 snaps in the next four games.
Dowling has shown some glimmers of talent, and the Patriots have just Alfonzo Dennard as the only other cornerback currently under contract. There's no question the Patriots would receive a huge boost if Dowling suddenly elevates his play, but it still seems like a long shot.
Dane Fletcher just re-signed with the Patriots to a one-year deal and will avoid restricted free agency. Fletcher just might be the most intriguing of all the Patriots who will be in their make-or-break years.
In his two previous seasons, Fletcher had primarily been a cover linebacker with a specialty for spying running backs, like he did to Ray Rice in 2010. He runs and tackles well, and he could bring an element that the Patriots lacked in 2012.
It would not be out of the question for Fletcher to potentially eat into some of Brandon Spikes' snaps at middle linebacker in the base defense against pass-heavy teams. Fletcher saw some extended time on defense at the end of the 2011 season and made some plays at middle linebacker with seven tackles and a QB hit.
Fletcher still has a lot to prove. He has flashed his talent more dramatically than any of the others on this list, but now he must find some consistency and stay healthy enough to contribute.
Jermaine Cunningham was facing a make-or-break season in 2012 but managed to carve out an interior sub-rusher role after Jonathan Fanene, Myron Pryor and anyone else they tried there didn't work out.
Cunningham was really starting to come on before he was suspended after Week 12 for PEDs.
Cunningham played just 48 snaps in 2011 after a promising 2010 rookie season that saw him make a solid transition to outside linebacker, primarily in the 3-4 defense. Before his suspension Cunningham was playing over 50 percent of the snaps and had four sacks, evidence that he was starting to blossom in the sub-rusher role.
When he returned, it appeared he was in Bill Belichick's doghouse, getting just six snaps against the Texans in the first playoff game, before getting 32 snaps against the pass-happy Ravens where he was mostly ineffective.
Cunningham will need to carve out a role for himself again in 2013. The Patriots will surely bring in new interior pass-rushers, and ones who are a more traditional fit for that role. If Cunningham cannot return to the form he was displaying just before his suspension, he might not make it out of training camp.
He still has some versatility to play defensive end and linebacker, and that might save him, especially if injuries strike early. But at this point it's tough to say where his best fit is, and that could hurt his chances of earning a new contract from the Pats.
After missing four games in 2012 with a hip injury, Gregory's return to the lineup in Week 10 coincided with Aqib Talib's arrival. The whole defense began to play better, and Gregory had a great stretch from there until the end of the regular season, with average or above-average grades in each of the final seven contests.
However, his two playoff performances were worst of the seson, with the AFC Championship being by far his lowest graded game. Joe Flacco destroyed the Patriots in the middle of the field, and Gregory was one of those who were powerless to stop him.
Gregory's salary already puts a spotlight on him, and he will need to find some consistency in 2013 if he's going to stick around. Tavon Wilson, along with some new additions via free agency and the draft, should push Gregory in training camp.
He'll need to play up to what New England is paying him.