Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower are chasing down stardom.
The New England Patriots have always been renowned for their remarkable yearly consistency. Much of that stems from the reliable health and performance of their leaders.
Come fall, Tom Brady will be slicing up defenses with his precision, Vince Wilfork will be wreaking havoc on the line and Jerod Mayo will be making tackles sideline to sideline.
However, the difference between a good and great team usually lies in the roster's middle class. Sure, Brady gives the Pats a chance to win every game, but New England's past playoff losses have turned on the likes of Marquice Cole, who couldn't cover Anquan Boldin, and Patrick Chung, who botched a fake punt attempt against the New York Jets three seasons ago.
The Patriots will need several players to break through to propel them into legitimate Super Bowl contention. As Paul Kruger, Victor Cruz and James Starks have shown, players who have big roles on championship teams are often overlooked at the beginning of the year.
With that, here's a look at the five players most likely to break out and become stars for the Patriots in 2013.
*All stats were taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com
Many Pats fans are probably hoping Aaron Dobson will emerge as the No. 2 receiver. The rookie receiver's playing style should offer more balance to the passing game, potentially providing Tom Brady the deep threat he hasn't had since the team jettisoned Randy Moss.
However, Dobson, along with most of the new receivers, has yet to develop any reliable chemistry with Brady. There is just one wide receiver currently on the roster who caught a pass last season: Julian Edelman.
Edelman has a leg up on the competition, as he and Brady already have a rapport.
At first blush, Edelman seems a bit redundant given Danny Amendola's presence (and seemingly successful integration). However, Amendola played outside receiver quite a bit in St. Louis, and many, like Alen Dumonjic of TheScore.com, believe he can be a deep threat as well as a slot receiver:
Amendola excels at getting downfield despite his lack of great size and speed. Once timed at 4.68 in the 40-yard dash, Amendola has the quick feet, cookie cutter route running skills, and surprising upper-body strength to consistently get open when running through the seam. The seam is where the Patriots are most deadly, as we’ve seen over the last couple of years with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And while Welker was very good at working the underneath routes, he sometimes lacked the ability to be productive while running vertically. That’s not the case with Amendola, however.
Edelman has done a fairly solid job in limited reps at the slot. He was their lone bright spot when the Pats were demolished by the Ravens in the 2009 Wild Card game, stepping in after Wes Welker tore his ACL.
Moreover, Edelman has always shown a flair for open-field explosiveness, much like Welker did. Since he entered the league in 2009, only Devin Hester and Patrick Peterson have more punt return TDs.
Edelman has been a bit injury prone, so it's probably best if he splits the No. 2 receiver reps with Dobson or whoever else steps up in training camp. But if Edelman can stay healthy, it seems reasonable to expect something like 65-80 catches this season.
As you read this, there's a decent chance Ras-I Dowling has been placed on IR.
Talent has never been Dowling's issue, and he illustrated his natural ability during spring practices. He emerged as arguably the biggest winner from those practices, performing to the point that ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss believes the third-year corner may earn a starting spot.
Of course, Dowling has yet to play even half a season thus far. The former Virginia Cavalier came with warning labels out of college, and he has unfortunately lived up to that reputation thus far.
Still, the 6'2'' cornerback was and is such an attractive prospect, not only because of his size but also because of his speed and instincts to stay with receivers and make plays on the ball. Sounds like a certain ex-Buccaneer the Pats traded for last season.
Though New England retained its entire starting secondary from last season, the unit still comes with depth concerns at cornerback. As the Ravens passing game showed, New England's defense essentially collapses like a house of cards if Aqib Talib is not around to shut down one half of the field.
If Dowling could step in and provide reliable depth if/when someone goes down, the Pats would probably take that.
But considering how badly Kyle Arrington performed last season, it's not unreasonable to think he could play in the team's nickel packages. That alone would make him valuable, considering the Patriots played in sub packages 57.4 percent of the time last season, per Reiss.
None of this matters if Dowling gets injured again. But if the talented corner can stay out of the trainer's room, he may be a huge factor in helping the pass defense take a step forward.
When Danny Woodhead signed a modest two-year, $3.5 million contract with the San Diego Chargers, many Patriots' followers were surprised. After all, Woodhead was one of the most reliable Patriots since his arrival in 2010, providing consistent receiving, rushing, and blocking ability as a third-down back.
Now, it is up to third-year running back Shane Vereen to step into that all-important role. Vereen has had just 77 rushing attempts in his first two seasons, entrenched behind the likes of Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley on the depth chart.
However, the former Cal Golden Bear was always noted for his soft hands, a fact evidenced by his 74 career receptions at Berkeley. Vereen demonstrated his explosive ability in the Patriots' divisional round win over the Houston Texans, going off for 124 total yards and three touchdowns in the victory.
Of course, it was just one game, and as Mike Cloud showed us, it's dangerous to read too much into such a tiny sample size. Still, based on his known skill set, Vereen shouldn't have too much trouble duplicating Woodhead's receiving and rushing success.
Of course, of greater concern might be his pass protection. While scouting him for the 2011 draft, Kevin Fishbain of Pro Football Weekly noted how Vereen "often [whiffed] in pass protection."
It appears that may still be the case—against the Jaguars last season, Vereen was beaten badly on this play that led to Brady getting crunched. He must shore up this area of his game for Belichick to trust him as a third-down back.
Still, it appears Vereen is the next in line of security blankets out of the backfield, following the footsteps of Woodhead and Kevin Faulk. If he improves his blocking, he should see enough playing time and be good for 600-750 yards from scrimmage and a handful of touchdowns.
Bill Belichick's decision to trade up twice in the first round of the 2012 draft may be what puts his defense over the top.
The second one of those picks, Dont'a Hightower, certainly looks as reliable as advertised.
Hightower ended up playing 52 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season, according to Football Outsiders (membership required). Though he often came off the field during sub packages, he still recorded 60 tackles and four sacks his rookie season.
Though Hightower may not be a three-down linebacker, his freakish athleticism and renowned instincts could make him an invaluable pass-rusher, something that may keep him on the field on all three downs, given the Patriots' need for that skill. Furthermore, he has shown the capability to rush both from the interior and off the edge, allowing him to exploit mismatches all along the offensive line.
Last season, Jerod Mayo called Hightower an "old soul," referring to the then-rookie's mature attitude and approach. Such leadership is important on a defense that is still young and growing together.
On the field, don't be surprised if Hightower begins to eat into some of Brandon Spikes' snaps. Spikes' refusal to attend voluntary OTAs and his impending free-agent status is eerily reminiscent of the tension with Wes Welker last preseason. And as we all know, Welker was seemingly phased out the first two weeks of the season, though that obviously changed quickly.
The difference this year is that Hightower seems capable of supplanting Spikes as a vicious run-stopper. With enough snaps, he may even approach triple-digit tackles and six to eight sacks for the season.
Still, if things unfold according to plan, Hightower may only be the second biggest breakout from New England's 2012 draft.
That's because the player picked ahead of Hightower, Chandler Jones, is poised to become one of the NFL's most feared pass-rushers.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports sums up what most Pats fans are hoping for:
I am always on the lookout for the next great pass-rusher and Jones might be it. He flashed it at times last year as a rookie, but injuries slowed him late in the season. If he can stay healthy, he has a chance for 12-14 sacks.
Expecting double-digit sack totals from a second-year player are certainly lofty expectations, but one that Jones is fully capable of fulfilling. He did not need surgery on either of his injured ankles, according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, a good sign that he should be fully recovered by the start of training camp.
If healthy, Jones could be the elite pass-rusher the team has sorely missed since the surprising trade of Richard Seymour just days before the start of the 2009 season.
From 2001-2008, the Patriots compiled 362 sacks, roughly 2.5 per game, while giving up 171 passing TDs versus 180 interceptions. Since the Seymour trade, the the average sack total has dipped slightly to 2.2 per game, but the defense has yielded 114 passing TDs and picked off only 89 passes.
This offseason, Jones has been working on improving his upper-body strength in hopes of diversifying his pass-rush arsenal, according to Field Yates of ESPN Boston. Indeed, last year it seems Jones tried to get by exclusively on his swim move.
Mastering a total pass-rushing repertoire would make him nearly unstoppable.
New England's inconsistent pass rush has taught the team too many painful lessons, costing them multiple championships (my apologies for linking us back to those memories). As good as the Patriots have been, they have a distressing habit of making their fans queasy when the defense needs a critical stop.
Chandler Jones could be the player that finally gets them that stop (and a better memory).