Another New England Patriots season is upon us, and while it's still Tom Brady's team, there is plenty of young talent around him looking to emerge. Some of the most reliable players of recent seasons are either no longer with the team or still rehabbing injuries.
The Pats have slowly changed complexion over the past few seasons, especially on defense, where the re-build from the dynasty defense of the 2000's is nearly complete. High-round picks like Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty and Chandler Jones are just entering their primes and appear ready to become household names like Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison were before them.
On offense, this past offseason brought the biggest changes at the receiver position since 2007. No longer can we pencil Wes Welker in for 100 catches and 1,000 yards, nor can we count on Deion Branch or Aaron Hernandez to be the go-to players in big moments. Not to mention no one knows for sure just when we'll see Rob Gronkowski back on the field.
Now is the time for a new set of players to step into the spotlight and here are our predictions for who will turn in this season's superlative performances for the Patriots.
The Patriots haven't been shy about getting plenty of young players experience over the past few years, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Quite a few second and third-year players saw significant time last season and will be looking to build on their promising performances.
Chandler Jones and Stevan Ridley set the bar extremely high for themselves in 2012, but for them it will be more about getting back to that level rather that improving. Dont'a Hightower is sure to improve, but his role on passing downs will be limited and so might his ceiling.
Tavon Wilson doesn't seem destined to see much time at safety this season after a lackluster preseason thus far and could be just a special teams and depth player.
The player that has the skill and the opportunity to show the most improvement? Shane Vereen.
Vereen had his coming out party last Thanksgiving with an 83-yard touchdown catch that ignited an unbelievable scoring rally and a dominant win over the Jets. He continued to show up in the playoffs against the Texans in the division round with three touchdowns.
Now, with Danny Woodhead departed, Vereen takes over as the lead passing-down back. He'll get plenty of touches, and if he builds on what he showed late last season and into this preseason, he'll easily be the Pats most improved player.
WINNER: Shane Vereen
It's hard to project who's going to have a disappointing season in the summer, when hope still springs eternal, but if there's one player who is the lead candidate at this point, it would have to be Brandon Spikes.
Spikes spent the offseason away from the team training facilities and worked on his own in Florida. For a player entering a contract year, and needing to prove that he's a three-down linebacker, that was a questionable move.
However, there's no question Spikes brings a ferocity to the center of the Patriots defense and is an unparalleled run-stopper. Unfortunately it's no longer the 80's, and if you can't play pass defense, you're not going to play as much.
Spikes flashed in the second preseason game against the Buccaneers with two sacks, showing that when opponents play into his strengths, he can be dominant.
The Patriots gave Spikes plenty of opportunities in 2012 to prove he had the savvy to overcome his lack of speed in space. While he responded with a six passes defensed, it was obvious that he was a prime target for opponents in the passing game.
With the arrival of strong-side linebacker Jamie Collins, and Dont'a Hightower's ability to slide to middle linebacker, it's becoming apparent that Spikes' days could be numbered if he remains a target in the passing game. But his presence in the run game cannot be replicated, and that might be the most disappointing factor of all.
"Winner": Brandon Spikes
It would be tough to be more surprised than when the Patriots selected Duron Harmon, a low-rated safety out of Rutgers, in the third round of the draft, but with the possibility he could see time in the starting defense, Harmon just might surprise us all again.
The Patriots seemed set at the safety position heading into the draft with free agent Adrian Wilson, veteran Steve Gregory and second-year player Tavon Wilson, so the selection of Harmon left a lot of pundits scratching their heads. Not only because it wasn't a major need, but because Harmon was rated as a free agent.
Now, with there still being uncertainty who will start next to Devin McCourty, Harmon has flashed potential that impressed Field Yates of ESPNBoston.com. He's been praised for his intelligence, and if it continues, he could find himself manning the back end of the defense with McCourty before long.
Of course, that would leave the Patriots once again looking like geniuses, and prove that drafting the player you like, and not for need you might have, is the way to go.
Winner: Duron Harmon
There should be quite a few candidates for the Pats rookie of the year this season, with Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins all looking like they will contribute at the receiver position, Zach Sudfeld getting plenty of snaps at tight end, and Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon all seeing time on the top defense.
The choice for this year's best rookie could be difficult, but that's a high class problem to have.
Our choice is the player who's been consistently showing up since day one of OTAs, undrafted rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. Thompkins has flashed immediate chemistry with Tom Brady, and seems to innately know where his quarterback wants him to be. He hasn't been without his bad practices, but he's always bounced back, and consistently made highlight reel catches both in practices and in games.
The Patriots needed to find new options at receiver this offseason, and wisely spent two draft picks to give Brady targets. Ironically, it could be one they didn't spend a draft pick on that makes the biggest impact. Though, when it comes to the Patriots and undrafted rookies, it's par for the course.
Winner: Kenbrell Thompkins
There are few defenders in the NFL more valuable to their team than Vince Wilfork. He's the first piece of Bill Belichick's game plan puzzle, and while he often doesn't collect the gaudy stats, he's been the most dominant presence on the Patriots defense for the past five years.
But our choice for defensive player of the year is a player who could have a bigger impact on all aspects of the Patriots defense, and that is Chandler Jones. In today's NFL, playing dominant defense comes down to one key factor–pressuring the quarterback.
A player like Jones, who can have an impact on every down and be a force that must be accounted for by offenses, is what every defense needs to be elite. Jones' size and athleticism give him unlimited potential in the Patriots defense, and he looked unblockable against the Buccaneers.
If he's able to take a step forward in his progression this season, he'll not only take over for Wilfork as the most dominant Patriot defender, he just might make the entire Patriots defense elite.
Winner: Chandler Jones
The biggest question of the Patriots offseason this year was how would they replace Tom Brady's go-to target, Wes Welker. Danny Amendola was brought in to do just that, and so far it appears he can be everything Welker was and more.
Not to undersell Welker's skill or what he meant to the team, but the Patriots' entire offense is set up for the slot receiver to catch a lot of balls and Amendola will do just that. There are few certainties on offense with Rob Gronkowski still out of action and three rookie receivers looking to integrate themselves, but the one constant should be Amendola.
If he stays healthy, he will find himself being the next big star of New England's receiving corps, and put up the kind of numbers that Welker did consistently from 2007 to 2012.
Winner: Danny Amendola
Is there really any question who the MVP for the Patriots will be? The only real question is whether or not Tom Brady will be the MVP of the entire NFL given how dominant and locked-in he has looked this summer.
Brady continues to be in his prime and, despite a minor scare that tweaked his knee in practice, continues to amaze observers with his accuracy and lightning-fast decision making. With an entirely new slate of receivers this season, Brady will prove once again why he is one of the best to ever play the game.
It never matters who his weapons are, he has always found a way to make magic happen and move the ball. Patriots fans are lucky to have at least a few more seasons of elite Brady, and they'd be wise to enjoy every moment of it.
Winner: Tom Brady