New England's best kept secrets may unfold in 2013
The New England Patriots put together a brilliant campaign this past season, but ultimately fell short of their goal to win the Super Bowl. Though it was disappointing to lose in the AFC Championship, the Patriots have some weapons who will breakout in 2013.
Finishing the season with a 13-5 record, the Patriots were able to accomplish some great things. They were the highest scoring team in the league during the regular season, and won the AFC East yet again.
Patriots fans were given a glimpse of what some of their young players are capable of. This coming season, some of New England's players will likely break through as emerging stars.
Here is a look at five Patriots who will emerge in 2013 with a breakout season.
Vereen exploded on to the scene in the playoffs against Houston.
Something the New England Patriots have lacked over the past several seasons is a consistent running game. Now, things have completely changed as New England has a young core of running backs including Shane Vereen.
He was effective on the ground and in the passing game against Houston. Vereen made the best of all of his touches, collecting 41 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries, while also recording five catches for 83 yards and two scores.
Stevan Ridley received the bulk of New England's rushing attempts this past season, putting up big numbers as the starter. Both Ridley and Vereen are entering their third seasons in the league and will only continue to improve.
With limited chances in 2012, Vereen still gained 251 yards rushing and ran in three touchdowns. He also made eight catches for 149 yards and a touchdown during the regular season. He caught seven passes in two postseason games as well.
The Patriots will use Vereen more often next season, as he is just too quick and valuable to keep on the sideline. Expect a big year from Vereen, in both the running and passing games.
Jones can give the Pats an improved pass rush.
New England's defense took some steps forward this past season, but they still need to get better rushing the passer. That is where Chandler Jones, their top pick in the 2012 NFL draft, comes into play.
Jones got off to a hot start early on, but was hampered by ankle injuries toward the end of the season. He suffered an injury to his right ankle in November in a win over Indianapolis, then injured his left ankle in the New England Patriots' playoff win over the Houston Texans.
Luckily for New England, Jones will not require surgery and can use the offseason as a time to get healthy.
Before the injuries, the rookie out of Syracuse was making some big plays at defensive end. He had 34 of his 45 tackles in the first nine games of the season, before the matchup against the Indianapolis Colts.
Also, Jones had all of his six sacks, as well as all three of his forced fumbles on the season during those first nine games.
Chandler Jones will be one of the Patriots' best defensive players in 2013. He was brilliant while healthy and will continue to grow as one of the league's top pass-rushers.
Edelman was hitting his stride before getting injured.
Julian Edelman put together a solid 2012 season before suffering a season-ending foot injury in early December. He now enters the free agent market after his fourth year in the league, all with the New England Patriots.
Should the Patriots decide to bring back the do-it-all receiver, he will be a fierce weapon for Tom Brady. If the team does not re-sign Wes Welker, then Edelman will become a drastically important piece of the puzzle.
In nine games last season, Edelman had 21 receptions for 235 yards and three touchdowns. His three scores were a career high, and he was quickly becoming one of Brady's favorite targets.
Edelman also returned a punt for a touchdown for the third consecutive season.
Over the years, he has been a factor on offense, defense and special teams. He plays a key role with this Patriots team, and could easily play an even larger role in their offense this coming season.
New England should re-sign the scrappy receiver and expect big things from him in 2013.
Hightower will make New England tough to run against.
The New England Patriots linebacking core has slowly become one of the stronger units in the NFL. With three SEC linebackers, Jerod Mayo (Tennessee), Brandon Spikes (Florida) and now Dont'a Hightower (Alabama), New England's run defense is now elite.
Hightower was the Patriots' second pick in the 2012 draft, No. 25 overall, and made an instant impact in his first year with the Patriots.
The young linebacker put up a strong rookie campaign. His 60 tackles were good for No. 5 on the team this past season. He also got to the quarterback, recording four sacks in 2012.
New England ranked No. 9 in both rushing defense and scoring defense, allowing 102 yards on the ground per game, and giving up just under 21 points per contest. They also had 1,246 tackles as a team, the most in the NFL.
The addition of Hightower has definitely strengthened this New England defense. He will return for what should be a stellar sophomore campaign, shutting down opposing running backs and executing blitzes.
Dennard could be a reliable corner for the Patriots.
The biggest problem that New England has faced recently is pass coverage. Adding Aqib Talib in 2012 may have slightly stabilized the secondary, but they still struggled with the deep ball.
Alfonzo Dennard was a surprise for New England, stepping up and becoming a starter at cornerback. Dennard was one of the lone bright spots for a New England Patriots secondary, which gave up a massive 4,342 yards through the air, No. 29 in the league.
Dennard, another rookie, was able to make some one-on-one tackles in space, as well as force multiple turnovers.
This past season he had 34 solo tackles to go along with three interceptions and a forced fumble.
The highlight of Dennard's first season in the league came in the Patriots commanding 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts. In that game, he intercepted an Andrew Luck pass and returned it 87 yards, all the way to the end zone for his first career NFL touchdown.
Alfonzo Dennard did some damage in just 10 games for New England. 2013 will provide a big opportunity for Dennard to establish himself in this Patriots secondary. He will come through with a breakout performance in his second season.