The Patriots are an unfinished masterpiece. Crucial free agents have been signed to fill important roster gaps, while other key players split and left new gaps in their wake. There's a great deal of work left to be done. Pieces are still shifting around. But we know this much for sure: If there are two men who know how to construct a championship roster, it's Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
The upcoming NFL draft will deliver major additions to the Patriots and bring them a few steps closer to completion. Soon enough, the team will be on the field for the dog days of training camp, putting in the preparation that builds champions.
Here are five Patriots players who should see their roles expand in 2013.
Running back Shane Vereen piqued everybody's interest during a Monday night game against the Chiefs in 2011, when he advanced the ball 39 yards on eight touches in a single drive, culminating in his first career touchdown.
Heading into 2012, Vereen was in firm competition with running backs Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead for the franchise spot. Ultimately, the job went to Ridley, who ended up with 1,263 yards on 290 carries, along with 12 touchdowns. Needless to say, the Patriots made the right choice.
Still though, Vereen managed to stay involved. He ended 2012 with 62 carries, 251 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, along with eight receptions, 149 receiving yards and one receiving score.
Vereen manufactured a particularly exceptional game on Thanksgiving night against the Jets, with a sensational 83-yard touchdown. He also completed a hat trick against the Texans in the divisional round, including a staggering 33-yard touchdown, which demands repeated viewing.
Vereen's a special player. He's an athletic speed demon, a tough running back who moonlights as a remarkably effective receiver. With Danny Woodhead gone, Vereen's in a great position to inherit more field time and put his versatility in the spotlight.
Look for him to have his best season yet.
The ineffectiveness of New England's secondary stems from a variety of elements, but one of the primary catalysts has been the staggering lack of leadership.
None of the team's defensive backs have displayed the ability to sculpt the unit's collective identity in their own image. Nobody's at the wheel. The result is that the secondary has been a scattered, flailing mess.
Fortunately, the Patriots made two important adjustments over the offseason.
For one thing, they added veteran safety Adrian Wilson. Wilson is an incredible player, a tremendous force of nature, who will certainly command the devotion of his teammates, inspire a positive shift in the secondary and remake the unit in his image.
The second adjustment the Patriots made was re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib for a full season, which gives him a platform for an expanded role. Like Wilson, Talib has a voice and a presence which inspires change. We saw some of that change last season, when the secondary started containing the big plays which they had previously given away in droves.
Wilson and Talib will have a remarkable impact on this defensive backfield in 2013. Look for Talib to build upon the framework he began constructing last year. A full training camp will only improve his chances for turning the ship around and establishing this secondary as a force to be reckoned with.
The Patriots are in a strange limbo at tight end. It's their strongest position, but oddly enough, it's also their most unreliable position.
They have the best pair of tight ends in the league, but it's been an endless struggle to get them on the field at the same time, in solid shape. The result is a perpetual "Plan B" mindset, in which the offense is constantly scrambling to compensate for key injuries to their studs.
It's too soon to know the full extent of Rob Gronkowski's health status, but reported setbacks to his forearm could ultimately plunge Jake Ballard into the spotlight in 2013.
Ballard didn't play a lick of football in 2012, spending the entire season in recovery from knee surgery. This, in of itself, is a troubling little nugget of irony, which makes New England's situation at tight end even more absurd.
Nevertheless, Ballard is the team's most skilled backup at the position. He's a meaty, physical player, a very effective blocker and a solid receiver. From a talent standpoint, he's a very capable player. He racked up 604 yards and four scores during the 2011 season. If he can get back to that level and build on it, the team will be able to withstand chunks of time without their superstar tight ends.
We'll know more about the health status of both Ballard and Gronkowski in the coming weeks. But, as it stands, Ballard is poised to see a major role expansion in 2013.
2012 was a tale of two seasons for defensive end Chandler Jones. He was a monster for the first eight games, notching 33 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles. But, in the latter half of the slate, he dipped to 12 tackles, without any sacks or forced fumbles.
He also missed a pair of games with an ankle injury, which cemented a downturn in his overall game and ultimately rendered him totally inconsequential during the postseason.
Look for Jones to bounce back with a huge second-year leap. With some added upper-body muscle and a healthy burst back in his step, he projects to be the team's most dominant defender and their most dazzling game-changer. Look for him to take on a more expanded role and establish himself as the franchise's top pass-rusher.
Double-digit sacks are expected.
Up until now, Julian Edelman has been defined by three things: His work ethic, his versatility and his potential. Those are solid attributes, but the Patriots are too shorthanded on offense to bank on virtues of a whimsical, theoretical nature. The team needs playmakers who can score points in the playoffs. Sounds like a simplified reduction, but that's really what it boils down to.
This upcoming season will be an important one for Edelman. He's been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The best quarterback in the league will be searching for a constant pair of hands to get him through the season. Edelman has seniority over Danny Amendola, with some semblance of a rapport in place with Brady. Now's the time for Edelman to build on that rapport, to shed his aura of "potential" and firmly redefine himself as one of Tom Brady's major offensive weapons.
The winds of fate seem to be aligning in Edelman's favor. Danny Woodhead's gone, Wes Welker's gone, but Edelman's still here. This kid has endured the rigors of an ever-changing roster because he's special.
Edelman's opportunity has arrived. This is his time to shine.