Offseason Power Rankings for Every Player on New England Patriots' Roster

Sean KeaneCorrespondent IMay 31, 2013

Offseason Power Rankings for Every Player on New England Patriots' Roster

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    As usual, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots brain trust have assembled one of the NFL’s deepest and most talent-rich rosters, led by all-world quarterback Tom Brady.  Like every other team the Patriots experienced some roster turnover this offseason—most notably parting ways with Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd—but the real personnel changes won’t fully take shape until July and August as they whittle their roster down to 53 players.

    Believe you me, whittle they will.  With 90 players on the squad as of this writing, New England will undoubtedly bid farewell to a few more familiar faces before opening kickoff 2013.

    When they leave fans will wish them well, but their chief interest will of course lie with the players who do in fact make the final roster.  Patriots’ fans care about Patriots players; we just don’t know yet exactly who those players will be.

    Aye, there’s the rub.

    How do you rank a team’s roster without knowing which players will comprise it?

    I could rank all 90 players, just to be safe, but I don’t think anyone has the inclination or enough free time at the office to read about New England’s backup punter.  After all, if your boss catches you slacking off at work, shouldn’t it at least be on account of a player worth slacking off for?

     Frankly, I don’t have the inclination to rank them either.  I can only cram a precious few words into my vernacular and I’m loath to squander them on players who ultimately won’t matter.

    So in the interest of avoiding hemming and hawing over Ben Bartholomew vs. Mike Zupancic, and hopefully preventing a few office write-ups, I’ve gone ahead and done the whittling.  The actual result will inevitably differ here or there, but for the most part this represents an accurate estimation of the team’s opening day roster.

    That is, unless Belichick finds another Rutgers grad or two to muck it all up.

    Now that we have a neatly carved 53-man roster to work from, let’s get to the rankings!  Players are featured from worst to best, based on how likely they are to make meaningful contributions to the team, which roles they fill and in some cases (Ryan Mallett for example) how much they can fetch in a trade.  Enjoy.

No. 53-46

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    53: QB, Mike Kafka

    The third-string quarterback likely won’t see the field barring a catastrophic turn of events.

    52: DE/OLB, Jermaine Cunningham

    After being chosen in the second round in 2010, Cunningham has been a colossal disappointment.  His positional versatility has kept him on the roster so far, but won’t save him for much longer.

    51: DE, Michael Buchanan

    Taken in this year’s seventh round, Buchanan averaged 10 TFL (tackles for loss) during his final two seasons at Illinois.  He’ll join a deep rotation along the defensive line.

    50: LB, Steve Beauharnais

    The former Scarlet Knight showed well at his pro day, although it seems simply playing for Rutgers is enough to catch Belichick’s eye these days.  The rookie will have every opportunity to contribute on special teams after being drafted in the seventh round.

    49: LS, Danny Aiken

    As a long snapper Aiken’s job is simple: fling the football back to the holder without getting trampled in the process.  He’s been good enough at it to keep his job for the past two years; this season will make it three.

    48: DE, Marcus Benard

    A castoff from the Cleveland Browns, Benard notched 7.5 sacks in 2010 while playing linebacker.  He’s listed as a defensive lineman for the Patriots, though at 6’2” and 256 pounds, he’s likely just insurance for Rob Ninkovich.

    47: K, Stephen Gostkowski

    Unless you count the role of clubhouse cancer, kicker is the most easily replaceable position in the NFL.  Still, as long as he holds the job, he’ll be a major contributor.  Then again, the same can be said of his camp competitor, David Ruffer.

    46: RB, LeGarrette Blount

    Acquired in a draft-day trade with Tampa Bay, Blount rushed for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie.  He’s totaled 932 yards and seven touchdowns in the two years since.

No. 45-41

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    45: CB, Ras-I Dowling

    Talent has never been an issue with Dowling, but even the world’s most talented player can’t help his team if he can’t stay on the field.  Dowling has only appeared in eight games since being drafted in the second round in 2011.  He stands to climb this list quickly if he can finally stay healthy.

    44: P, Zoltan Mesko

    Having never been in an NFL locker room, I can’t say whether Mesko’s good-natured shenanigans and giddy antics carry any intrinsic value, but he’s been healthy and consistent during his three year career.  He’s only had one punt blocked in his career and reliability means a lot, even from the team’s least used position.

    43: S, Duron Harmon

    When Belichick drafted Harmon in the third round, every expert and his mother panned the pick.  NFLDraftScout.com projected him to go undrafted.   An optimist would say Belichick knows something nobody on the planet does.  A pessimist would tell you he’s a fool and his Rutgers love got the better of him.  The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

    42: DE, Jake Bequette

    Last year’s third-round pick out of Arkansas, Bequette saw almost no action in 2012, appearing in just three games without recording a tackle.  Belichick won’t pull the plug on him so soon, and at 6’5” and 274 pounds, he has the size and versatility to play linebacker or defensive end.  With a full year of practice experience under his belt, Bequette should improve in year two.

    41: OL, Nick McDonald

    McDonald saw action in twelve games for the Patriots last season and four games in 2011.  He’s made starts at both guard and center for New England, showing the type of flexibility needed to bring valuable depth to multiple positions.

No.40-36

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    40: TE, Michael Hoomanawanui

    The “Hoo Man” made six starts for the Patriots in 2012 but totaled just five receptions.  At 6’3” 271 pounds, his specialty lies in the ground game, where he helped pave the way for Stevan Ridley and company.  Expect more of the same in 2013.

    39: WR, Josh Boyce

    This year’s fourth-round selection from TCU, Boyce has the potential to make a meteoric rise up this list.  As things stand now, however, he’ll likely open the season as the team’s fifth or sixth wideout.  He’s a smart young man, as evidenced by him earning his degree in three years, so it stands to reason he’ll learn the Patriots’ system quickly and work his way up the depth chart.

    38: OG, Tyronne Green

    Green appeared in 13 games for the San Diego Chargers in 2012, starting all of them.  Here in New England however, he’ll be just another cog in the wheel, likely battling Marcus Cannon for backup minutes behind Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly.

    37: WR, Michael Jenkins

    Jenkins brings years of experience and veteran know-how to a suddenly unseasoned receiving corps.  He hasn’t been very productive since 2009 when he was a member of the Atlanta Falcons, but the 30 year-old former first-round pick gives Brady a massive target at 6’4” and 217 pounds.  As the elder statesman of the wide receivers, the younger players will look to him for veteran leadership.

    36: S, Steve Gregory

    Gregory started all twelve games he appeared in for the Patriots last season.  Considering how bad they were in the secondary, that’s not saying much.  He’s been an NFL starter for most of the last four seasons, but now he’s buried behind Adrian Wilson on the depth chart and at age 30 his future with the team is unclear.

No. 35-31

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    35: DT/DE, Armond Armstead

    A two-year starter at USC, Armstead went undrafted in 2012.  He took the opportunity to play in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts and was promptly named a league All-Star.  Now with New England, he’ll vie for a starting role alongside Vince Wilfork and could potentially see some time as a defensive end as well.

    34: OL, Marcus Cannon

    Cannon can play; he saw action in all 16 games last season.  This came on the heels of beating cancer and playing in seven games as a rookie in 2011.  Projected as a second-round pick before he was struck by illness, Cannon saw time at tackle and guard in 2012, giving the Patriots yet another talented, versatile lineman to help keep Brady upright.  Don’t be surprised if he overtakes Dan Connolly for a starting role.

    33: QB, Ryan Mallett

    If I were ranking based on production alone, Mallett would slide all the way down into the 50s with fellow backup Mike Kafka.  Instead he ranks here for no other reason than his overall worth, which extends beyond the playing field.  He’s been learning under Brady for two years now and with all the pre-draft buzz that surrounded his involvement in possible trades, I can’t help but think it’s only a matter of time before a quarterback-hungry team forks over a choice pick for him.

    32: WR, Donald Jones

    So much of Jones’ role depends on the readiness of rookie receivers Boyce and Aaron Dobson.  He could conceivably start Week 1 opposite Danny Amendola, or find himself buried behind both rookies and possibly even the aforementioned Jenkins as well.  He’s never been very productive but playing in a disjointed offense like the one Buffalo ran the last few years can do that to a player.  Last season he averaged 3.4 receptions per game and 36.9 yards per game.  Apply those numbers over a full season and you get 54 receptions for 590 yards.  Sprinkle in a few touchdowns and that seems about right.

    31: TE, Jake Ballard

    Patriots fans know Ballard all too well after he racked up 67 yards and a key touchdown against New England during the 2011 regular season.  Then he tore his ACL playing against them in the Super Bowl and hasn’t played in a game since.  Now fully healthy, the 6’6”, 256-pound tight end should be a prominent red-zone target and excellent insurance in the event Rob Gronkowski isn’t ready to play following a tumultuous offseason.

No. 30-26

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    30: CB, Logan Ryan

    The 83rd overall pick in this year’s draft, Ryan hopes to follow in the footsteps of fellow Rutgers alum Devin McCourty, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2010.  Of course hope and reality are two different things and despite his lofty draft position Ryan will likely begin the season as the Patriots’ fourth corner.  His future is bright, but like McCourty he lacks blazing speed (he ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine).

    29: WR, Matthew Slater

    Slater has a grand total of one catch during his five years with the Patriots.  That won’t change much this season but then again he isn’t really here to catch passes anyway.  Slater is strictly a special teams player.  Ordinarily that would make him one of the lowest rated players on the roster, but he happens to be very good at it.  The Patriots’ coverage ace has been named to consecutive All-Pro teams and while he may not impact the game in the same way as a starter, he consistently shines in his role.

    28: DB, Tavon Wilson

    It’s hard to peg Wilson since he spent time at both outside corner spots as well as free safety last year.  He started five games and appeared in all 16 regular season contests as a rookie, contributing four interceptions and six passes defended.  He also recovered two fumbles.  That sort of nose for the football will help make him an impact player, even in what’s expected to be a part-time role.

    27: DT, Tommy Kelly

    Kelly brings 117 starts worth of experience to a defensive line that sorely needs it after cutting loose two starters from last year’s unit (Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love).  He also brings the ability to rush the quarterback from the inside, something the Patriots need desperately after posting a meager 37 sacks as a team last season.  In 2010 and 2011, Kelly posted back-to-back seven-sack seasons, which would have placed him second on the team last year behind Rob Ninkovich (eight).

    26: OL, Dan Connolly

    Connolly currently projects as the team’s starting right guard but he can also play the left side and is no stranger to the center position either.  The fact that he’s the lowest ranked of the Patriots’ starting offensive lineman goes to show how capable the entire unit is.  Just don’t look for him to post another 71-yard kick return like he did in 2010.

No. 25-21

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    25: RB/KR, Leon Washington

    Similar to Slater in that he’ll play a critical role on special teams, Washington should be slightly more involved in the offense than the All-Pro.  He still hasn’t recorded more than 70 carries in a season since 2009 and he caught a career-low four passes for Seattle last season.  Washington’s primary function will be to return kicks, something he excels at with eight return touchdowns and two Pro Bowl selections in his career.

    24: CB, Kyle Arrington

    New England’s much maligned nickel corner failed to record a single interception in 2012 after leading the NFL with seven the year before.  While he still managed to defend 11 passes, the success of the Patriots’ secondary will depend largely on which version shows up in 2013.

    23: WR, Julian Edelman

    Edelman can do a bit of everything for the Patriots.  He can return kicks in the event Washington gets hurt and, as a receiver, he can line up virtually anywhere on the field.  If he can manage to avoid injury, his elusiveness and explosive quickness should help him post a career year as the wideout with whom Brady has the longest relationship.

    22: OLB, Jamie Collins

    The Patriots expect big things from Collins after making him their first player drafted this April.  He should have an immediate impact defensively and help an anemic pass rush off the edge.  Collins is a rare athlete who can play almost any position on defense.  While at Southern Miss, he began his career as a safety before moving to linebacker and eventually defensive end.  The Patriots will use him as a rush linebacker so he can use his speed and athleticism to disrupt the opposing quarterback.

    21: C, Ryan Wendell

    A relative unknown before last season, Wendell started all 16 games at center for the Patriots in 2012.  He isn’t an All-Pro by any means but Pro Football Focus rated him as their best run-blocking center in the NFL.  Stevan Ridley should enjoy another fine season running behind him.

No. 20: RB, Shane Vereen

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    I’ve covered Vereen at length in a pair of recent articles and I have him pegged for a breakout campaign.

    After biding his time on the bench for most of his first two seasons, he will need to carry a much larger load for the Patriots in 2013 with Danny Woodhead no longer in the picture.  Playing behind Ridley, Vereen stands to get the bulk of his work on passing downs and when Ridley needs a rest.

    He filled the same role very admirably in college when he was the backup to Jahvid Best at California.

    In two seasons behind Best, Vereen totaled 2,132 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing and receiving.  With his well-rounded game he should flourish in a similar role with the Patriots this year.

    If you want an idea of what he brings to the table, look no further than his playoff performance against Houston, when he racked up 124 total yards and three touchdowns on seven carries and five receptions.

No. 19: MLB, Brandon Spikes

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    Spikes is the meanest, nastiest, most violent defender the Patriots have.  He delivers bone-crushing hits and pursues ball carriers like a pit bull chasing a burglar.

    Sadly he isn’t very good in coverage which makes him vulnerable in today’s all-out aerial NFL.

    The Patriots will need to take him off the field in certain obvious passing situations but Spikes brings enough to the table to earn his own slide.  While he has his own shortcomings, I think his issues are slightly overstated.  He did defend seven passes in 2012, good for third on the team, so he’s not completely inept.

    As bad as he sometimes is against the pass, he’s that good against the run.  He forced four fumbles in 2012 and according to Pro Football Focus he missed only two tackles all season.  His run-stuffing aptitude and will-crushing attitude will make him a highly coveted free agent after this season.

    I’d like to see Spikes at OTAs with everyone else, but as long as he’s there when he needs to be for mandatory events, I don’t see it becoming an issue.

No. 18: OLB, Dont'a Hightower

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    One of the Patriots’ first-round picks last season, Hightower didn’t post the stellar rookie campaign fans were hoping for.  That doesn’t mean he was a complete failure, though.

    In fact he acquitted himself quite well, showing versatility to play inside and outside, against the run and the pass.  His coverage skills far exceed those of his counterpart, Spikes, and he even flashed an ability to rush the quarterback, adding four sacks to his 60 tackles.

    Hightower also displayed a nose for the football by recovering a pair of fumbles and returning one for a touchdown.

    Both CBS Sports (here) and Pro Football Focus (here) named him to their NFL All-Rookie teams in 2012.

No.17: WR, Aaron Dobson

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    The Patriots other second-round pick this year; Dobson has every opportunity to immediately start opposite Amendola.

    His hands are legendary and reports surfaced all over the web stating that he never dropped a single pass in 2012 at Marshall.  CBS Sports compares him Sidney Rice, whose career was off to a promising start before being slowed by injuries in recent years.

    NFL Films’ Greg Cosell compares him to Larry FitzgeraldPer Boston.com:

    “This is going to sound crazy, but I thought that his size/hand combination, at times, reminded me of Larry Fitzgerald,” Cosell said. “He’s not Larry Fitzgerald, obviously, but he’s a big kid who can move very well with really good hands.”

    Those are lofty expectations but if he even comes close to meeting them Dobson will be an absolute stud in New England.

No.16: DE/OLB, Rob Ninkovich

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    The man I no longer call “Stinkovich” has silenced his critics in a major way over the past two seasons, especially in 2012.

    He led the team in sacks with eight.  He led the team in forced fumbles with five.  He tied for the team lead in fumble recoveries with four.

    In short, he was the Patriots’ most effective and versatile playmaker on defense last season.  While bigger names like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo were commanding more attention from fans, media and opposing offenses, Ninkovich was running wild and wreaking havoc.

    He may have simply been in the right place at the right time, but even that is a testament to his coachability.  2013 will be a barometer year for him now that he’s earned more attention.

No.15: CB, Alfonzo Dennard

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    Last year’s rookie out of Nebraska made his presence felt immediately in New England.

    Despite suiting up for the first time in Week 5, Dennard started his first game two weeks later.  Pro Football Focus graded him at +5.0 in coverage (zero is neutral) and noted that he allowed a total of 78 yards after the catch all season, the best among all qualified cornerbacks.  They also named him to their All-Rookie team.

    Dennard totaled 35 tackles, 34 of which were solo so he’s clearly comfortable on an island and making plays in space.

    In his six starts, he hauled in three interceptions, returning one 87 yards for a touchdown.  He also defended seven passes and forced a fumble.

No.14: OT, Nate Solder

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    In his second NFL season, Solder took over for the retired Matt Light protecting Brady’s blind side.

    Pro Football Focus graded him as their No. 12 left tackle, but named him to their All-Sophomore team, lauding his run-blocking ability.

    As Solder grows more comfortable with his new role as the lynchpin of the offensive line, expect his level of play to take off.  As a former tight end, he has quick feet and should be able to improve his pass protection, especially as his 6’7” frame fills out. 

    It won’t be long before we see the former first-round pick in the Pro-Bowl.

No.13: SS, Adrian Wilson

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    Fans pining for the days of Rodney Harrison patrolling the secondary need pine no longer.

    The five-time pro bowler joins the Patriots after spending his entire career in Arizona.  Like Harrison, Wilson is a hard-nosed safety with a knack for making big plays.

    The do-it-all enforcer can rush the quarterback, bring down running backs and disrupt passing plays in coverage.

    Wilson is no spring chicken—he turns 34 in October—but he has enough gas left in the tank to be a difference maker in a young secondary.  He’ll be the proverbial coach on the field, making sure everyone lines up properly and putting his unit in the best position to make a play.

    Entering his 13th NFL season, Wilson’s seen it all while playing against the NFC West.  He faced the high-powered St. Louis Rams during Kurt Warner’s heyday.  He faced Warner and Larry Fitzgerald in practice every day during Warner’s resurgence with the Cardinals.  He faced young up-and-comers Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson last season.

    There’s very little Wilson hasn’t seen and very little Belichick won’t trust him to execute.

No.12: DE, Chandler Jones

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    I also detailed Jones in a previous column dedicated to this year’s breakout players.  Needless to say, I’m drinking the Kool-aid.

    Jones was an early candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 before injuries slowed him down and he finally crashed into the rookie wall.  He still finished with six sacks and 45 tackles to go along with four forced fumbles.

    This season Jones has packed weight onto his frame, arriving at OTAs noticeably bigger than he was at 6’5” 260 pounds last season.  According to the Boston Herald Jones didn’t specify how much weight he gained but focused instead on simply getting better at whatever Belichick may ask of him.

    He noted his offseason martial arts training (his brother is MMA fighter John “Bones” Jones) to help improve his hand quickness while getting off blocks.

    I expect Jones to follow in the footsteps of J.J. Watt, Cameron Wake, DeMarcus Ware and so many other defensive ends who broke the 10-sack barrier in their second season.

No.11: DB, Devin McCourty

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    McCourty was a revelation as a rookie in 2010, leading the team in interceptions and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.  Then he fell from grace in 2011 as his average deep speed was exposed.

    McCourty was too often chasing receivers from behind and as a result had his back to the quarterback.  When the ball came his way he was frequently out of position, and even when he wasn’t he couldn’t get his head turned around quickly enough to make a play on the ball.

    Last season McCourty bounced back in a major way but he didn’t get any faster.  He got smarter and more adept at keeping plays in front of him.  Belichick took notice and moved him to safety where his football intelligence, ball skills and superb tackling made him a natural fit.

    He can still play corner if need be, but he has the makings of a truly outstanding safety.

    He isn’t Ed Reed but he has the cover skills of a cornerback with the tackling skills of a linebacker.  Add his incredible ability to close space in front of him and you have all the ingredients for an All-Pro.

No.10: WR, Danny Amendola

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    The natural tendency is to compare Amendola to Wes Welker since he’s essentially taking over Welker’s old roster spot.  It makes sense on some level but it’s not really fair to Amendola, who’s a great player in his own right.  He just needs to stay healthy.

    I’ll grant you he and Welker share a remarkable amount of similarities.  Both were undrafted.  Both played at Texas Tech.  Both thrive in the slot and rely on quickness and precision and most importantly both have great hands.

    But fans shouldn’t expect Amendola to come in and replicate Welker’s numbers.  What he did over a five-year stretch in New England has never been done before.

    That doesn’t mean Amendola can’t deliver the goods.       

    Over the past three seasons he’s averaged 49.5 yards per game and 5.3 receptions per game despite starting in only 17 of the 42 games he played.  Give him starter’s snaps and a season of full health and he could easily average seven catches and 70 yards per game.

    Add Tom Brady to the mix and those numbers could easily reach even greater heights.  It would be a shock if Amendola doesn’t notch his first 100-catch 1,000-yard season.

No. 9: CB, Aqib Talib

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    Anybody who watched the Patriots last season remembers how much better the secondary was once they traded for Talib.  In fairness it wasn’t all Talib’s doing—Dennard and McCourty had a hand in it as well—but his impact was undeniable.

    Talib has the speed, size and ball skills to be a true shutdown corner.  He isn’t on the same level as Darrelle Revis but if he keeps his head on straight he deserves to be mentioned in the next group right below him.

    He also has a knack for big plays, returning four interceptions for touchdowns over the past three seasons.

    Perhaps most importantly, his presence allows everyone else in the secondary to slot into their best positions.  It allows McCourty to stay at safety and Arrington to remain the team’s nickel corner with Dennard playing on the outside.

    Once Talib went down in last year’s AFC Championship, Joe Flacco and the Ravens shredded New England’s secondary.  Now on a one-year “prove it” deal, he should be motivated to train harder, smarter and healthier to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

No. 8: RB, Stevan Ridley

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    Ridley broke out in a big way last season with 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns and he enters 2013 as the unquestioned lead back and an indispensable cog in New England’s offensive machine. 

    His 2012 season ended on a scary note when he suffered a nasty concussion at the hands of Bernard Pollard, but he’s taken steps to prevent that from happening again by working out rigorously and adding a boat load of muscle according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald.

     

    Ridley’s already an elusive runner with explosive quick-burst ability.  If he can bring an added dimension of regularly breaking tackles to his game we could be looking at one of the very best running backs in the NFL.

No. 7: OT, Sebastian Vollmer

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    Vollmer doesn’t get much respect from the average fan or mainstream media but that shouldn’t diminish his achievements.

    Despite never making a Pro Bowl roster, Vollmer has twice been named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and for good reason.

    He’s an intimidating presence at 6’8” 315 pounds and protects his quarterback as well as any tackle in the league.  Pro Football Focus ranks him the 54th overall player in the NFL and notes that with the exception of two games when he was bothered by a back injury, he graded positively in each contest.

    Barring injury this should be the season Vollmer finally earns a trip to Hawaii.

No. 6: OG, Logan Mankins

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    Mankins wasn’t as consistent as Vollmer in 2012, but when he’s on he’s one of the best, it not the very best guard in football.

    The five-time pro bowler dominates the line of scrimmage in both the running and passing games, keeping Brady upright and paving the way for New England’s resurgent ground attack.

    Mankins has been named first or second-team All-Pro in five of the past six seasons and at this rate he may find himself enshrined in Canton one day.

No. 5: MLB, Jerod Mayo

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    Mayo burst onto the scene in 2008, starting all 16 games and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.  Since then he’s only gotten better.

    The two-time pro bowler has totaled over 100 tackles in every season as professional but last year may have been his finest yet.

    After being named All-Pro by the Associated Press in 2010, Mayo missed two games in 2011 and failed to make the Pro Bowl roster.  He bounced back in 2012 with his second all-star season and was named All-Pro by Pro Football Focus.

    In addition to his customary 100-plus tackles, Mayo chipped in with three sacks as well and forced four fumbles.

    As the rising captain of the Patriots defense, look for him to continue his upward trend and further cement his place among the NFL’s elite.

No. 4: TE, Aaron Hernandez

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    Hernandez is already among the NFL’s best tight ends but 2013 should bring him even greater accomplishments.

    With Gronkowski recovering from multiple surgeries and so much turnover at the wide receiver position, Hernandez has the opportunity to seize the lead role in New England’s passing attack.

    Surprisingly, he’s never surpassed 1,000 yards in a season before but I expect that to change this year.

    If Gronk isn’t ready to go during the early season, Hernandez will be the only projected starter who’s ever caught a pass from Brady.  In life they say familiarity breeds content but in the NFL it breeds success.

    With rookie Aaron Dobson stretching the field, expect Brady to look for his ultra-athletic tight end early and often as Hernandez sets career highs across the board.

No. 3: DT, Vince Wilfork

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    Wilfork has been named to the Pro Bowl five times, including each of the past four seasons.  He earned his first All-Pro nod in 2012.  He’s won a Super Bowl and been to two others.

    There’s very little that big Vince hasn’t accomplished as a professional.

    In 2012 he posted the second-highest sack total of his career and set new career highs for fumbles forced and fumbles recovered.  Believe it or not, Wilfork seems to be getting better with age.

    Of course there was also that fateful play against the New York Jets where he knocked the opposing lineman back with so much explosive force that poor Mark Sanchez was effectively clotheslined by his own lineman’s rear-end, causing a fumble and subsequent defensive touchdown.

    Butt-fumble indeed.

No. 2: TE ,Rob Gronkowski

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    I strongly believe that if Gronkowski can stay healthy he will go down as the best tight end to ever set foot on an NFL field.

    His style of play is a brilliant balancing act of joie de vivre and pure, primal rage.  If he wasn’t in the NFL he’d probably be in the WWE, tomahawking steel chairs and beer cans onto people’s faces.

    A first-team All-Pro in 2011, Pro Football Focus also named him to their All-Pro team in 2012, despite him missing time with a broken forearm.

    His 17 touchdowns in 2011 are the most ever by a tight end and he was nearly on pace to match that total again last year before he hurt his arm.

    There isn’t a player in the league today who can cover him one-on-one and there probably aren’t any players who can deny him in the red zone even two or three-on-one.

    He’s developing an alarming trend of injuries, but if he can buck his bad luck he should no problem “Gronking” the record books.

No. 1: QB, Tom Brady

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    Surprised?

    I didn’t think so.

    Brady is the winningest quarterback of the Super Bowl era.  He holds the single season record with 50 touchdown passes.  He’s also tied for the fewest interceptions thrown while starting 16 games in a season with four.  He engineered the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history.

    He’s a two-time NFL MVP and the only unanimous winner in the league’s history.  He threw for the second-most passing yards ever in a season with 5,235.  He’s made eight Pro Bowls and still taken pay cuts to help his team.

    What really sets him apart though is his competitive drive.  That’s why all he really cares about is winning Super Bowls.

    That’s also why, with three championships already to his credit, all he needs is one more to claim his throne as the best to ever play.