Dark-horse candidates understand the value of chances. The best among them seize those rare chances and overachieve. They dazzle the coaches by outperforming the competition, they swipe roster spots from potentially bigger-name players, and they make themselves indispensable.
The New England Patriots collect those types of players. Guys like Tom Brady (drafted in the sixth round), David Givens (seventh round), Troy Brown (eighth round) and David Patten (undrafted) began as relatively unwanted merchandise, until they made the most of their opportunities and went on to become the audacious architects of a dynasty.
Before the newest generation of dark horses follow in the footsteps of legends and become heroes in their own right, they first need to make the team.
Here are six dark-horse candidates that could make the Patriots' final 53-man roster.
If you've been following the early progress reports from New England's offseason activities, you've undoubtedly noticed Kenbrell Thompkins' name popping up on a nearly constant basis. The reason for that is simple: He's been seizing his opportunities, aggressively attacking the ball, hauling in tough catches and outperforming just about everyone.
Injuries to other receivers have certainly given Thompkins a greater platform to shine, but still, opportunity is almost always born from that sort of circumstance. The important thing is that he's capitalizing on it and making a name for himself.
Undrafted out of the University of Cincinnati, this kid boasts a solid frame (6'1", 190 lbs) with splendid footwork and deceptive quickness. He's a tenacious receiver, and he's already established himself as one of the top guys to beat at camp.
This kid is a quiet warrior building some very loud momentum. He's a dark horse circling a roster spot and getting ready to pounce.
In five years with the Titans, Lavelle Hawkins has displayed shades of terrific energy, nice speed and underrated power. Back in 2011, he made some noise with 47 catches for 470 yards. There's untapped potential here. He has a chance to explore that potential in New England with the greatest quarterback of all time.
Hawkins has already gotten the ball rolling on his roster spot, having staked his ground as one of the top performers of the team's spring workouts. He's been out there catching everything and stirring up some buzz. He's showing streaks of Deion Branch-type potential.
Ultimately, Hawkins' chances of making the roster will depend upon two things: his ability to stay hungry through camp and his willingness to steal a spot from someone else with a bigger name. Niceness won't get this done.
If this dark horse can get mean, he can swipe a roster spot.
Undrafted out of Clemson, Brandon Ford is an exceptional tight end-receiver hybrid who stands tall at 6'3" and weighs 240 pounds. He balances that staggering frame with powerful legs and exhibits incredible tip-toe footwork and great reach on the field. His football IQ is excellent. He's a high-energy, high-character guy. He also had a great senior season with 40 catches for 480 yards and eight scores.
Ford's biggest obstacle on the horizon will be the roster battles at camp. Fellow undrafted tight end Zach Sudfeld certainly has a leg up, having already carved a reputation for himself with some stellar workouts this offseason. Still, though, there's time for Ford to make a legitimate run at a roster spot. His skill is too dynamic to ignore.
Don't be surprised if this dark horse wrestles a job away from a bigger-name tight end.
Steve Gregory made his presence known on the Patriots roster last year by tallying 37 tackles, five passes defended, three picks and a pair of forced fumbles. He also generated a memorable performance against the Jets on Thanksgiving night, registering a pick, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries (one of which he ran for a 32-yard score).
Gregory's shot at a roster spot this season will, in part, hinge on what type of defensive backfield the Patriots are looking to build. If they're shooting for swift talent and refined skill, then Gregory will likely get forced out by quicker, younger defenders.
But, then again, the Patriots haven't had swift talent and refined skill in the secondary for years, which is why they've been scotch-taping it together with versatile misfits, blue-collar tough guys and worker bees. If they're duplicating that mood again, then Gregory could make it. He fits that mold. What he lacks in top-notch skill, he makes up for with excellent character and underrated toughness.
No matter what identity the Patriots choose for 2013, this much is true: Gregory's heading into camp as a major dark horse.
Earlier this offseason, when New England's receiving unit started crumbling, Kamar Aiken was one of the last men standing in the rubble. Amazingly, this 24-year-old is still standing pretty strong, even with all the added competition around him.
This kid's a football player. He isn't a star, but he's a football player. He's had practice-squad experience with the Bills, Bears and Patriots, giving him some professional know-how and discipline. He's already shown deep shades of skill during the offseason workouts, capitalizing on the open competition and establishing himself as a consistent performer with soft hands and nice speed.
If he can keep this sense of urgency going through camp, he'll likely be one of the last men standing again.
Standing tall at 6'3" and weighing 235 pounds, undrafted rookie receiver Mark Harrison is an imposing animal. He's quick, mean, energetic, dynamic, creative, limber, dominating, exciting and fresh.
He finished his career at Rutgers with a total of 107 receptions for 1,769 yards and 18 touchdowns (including an impressive senior year with 44 catches for 583 yards and six scores). He also had an impressive showing at the combine, posting a 4.46-second showing at the 40, along with a 38.5-inch vertical and a 129-inch broad jump.
Harrison's style of play is absolutely relentless. Similar to Rob Gronkowski, he's a violent force of nature who uses his pure power to beat and shield defenders, carry tacklers on his back and dominate the red zone.
Harrison's foot injury has affected his stock and turned him into a dark horse, but if he can break out of that shadow and win the coaches over, he'll make this team.
This guy could be a star.