Undrafted rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld are critical X-factors this season.
The New England Patriots are one of the NFL's preeminent franchises, with ten consecutive seasons of double-digit victories. That astounding streak is made possible by the consistent yearly contributions from their depth players. Superstars like Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are undoubtedly the most critical Patriots, but their stardom would be worthless without a steady supporting cast through the years.
2013 may prove to challenge New England's depth more than ever, as a tumultuous offseason has thinned the ranks at several positions. The starting 11 looks formidable on both sides, but for the first time in several years it's wholly unclear whether or not the Patriot machine will continue humming when injuries inevitably strike.
The following players are all established contributors, and the Patriots will lean on them to varying degrees throughout the season. However, victory often requires second-tier players to play like stars, if only for a few situational snaps per game.
Roles will fluctuate throughout the season, but entering Week 1, here are six players who look like the biggest X-factors for the Patriots this season.
Steady offensive line play has been one of the foremost factors in the Patriots' sustained success. New England's ability to develop unheralded talent into All-Pros is a testament to Dante Scarnecchia and the coaching staff.
Starting center Ryan Wendell is the most recent product of the pipeline, as he became one of the league's elite run-blocking centers in his first taste of a full-time role. According to Kiernan Hogan of Pro Football Focus, Wendell's plus-27.5 grade in the run game was third-best among all offensive linemen, and Patriots running backs averaged 4.7 and 4.8 yards per carry to either side of their center.
However, Wendell's greatest weakness lies in the passing game. Hogan notes that the New England center was a liability in pass protection, grading out at minus-6.1. That is especially concerning considering Brady's notorious struggles with interior pressure.
Nick Underhill of MassLive.com lays out the grisly details of what happens when Wendell cannot hold up:
It's no secret that interior pressure has long been Brady's Achilles heel, but learning the actual depth of his struggles is somewhat surprising. According to a study conducted by ProFootballFocus.com, Brady rates as one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL when facing pressure from center.
Since the 2008 season, Brady has completed 33 percent of his passes on those plays with one touchdown and two interceptions (43.6 passer rating) on 64 drop-backs when facing pressure from center. He was sacked on 14.1 percent of those plays.
Logan Mankins is a rock at left guard, and right guard should be dependable if the combination of Dan Connolly and possibly Marcus Cannon is unspectacular. Potential improvement from Wendell in the passing game could not only elevate him to All-Pro status, but also minimize one of Brady's few weaknesses.
As a seventh-round pick, Michael Buchanan has flown under the radar for the most part. His lowly draft status usurped his impressive physical tools in the eyes of most Pats followers. But with the surprising cuts of Marcus Benard, Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham, it appears Buchanan is now the top reserve at defensive end behind Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
Buchanan's athleticism makes one wonder why his college production at Illinois didn't particularly stand out, apart from a solid junior year in 2011.
At 6'6" and 255 pounds with a 34-inch arm length, Buchanan's frame is a bit reminiscent of Jones. Moreover, Buchanan uses that size well not only to rush the passer, but also to drop back into coverage, as evidenced by his six passes defended last season.
The Patriots final preseason game against the Giants provided the most eye-opening display yet of Buchanan's natural talent.
While the performance came against second and third-string tackles, Buchanan still constantly terrorized the New York backfield with three sacks, four hurries and a batted pass. That earned him a plus-6.3 grade from Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo, the highest of any Patriot.
Again, preseason results against backups are not particularly meaningful, but Buchanan clearly possesses the physical tools and polish to be a rotation defensive end. It's a bit concerning that his National Football Post scouting report questions his effort and competitiveness, though he certainly looked motivated with his roster spot on the line.
If Buchanan harnesses his physical tools, a less burdensome role as a situational end could allow him to play at full-speed every snap. The Patriots have had success with seventh-rounders under Bill Belichick, and Buchanan may be next in the lineage of final round steals.
Zach Sudfeld has been one of the Patriots' biggest breakouts this offseason, and his shocking ascent may actually have him at the top of New England's tight end depth chart—at least until Rob Gronkowski's arrival. At the beginning of the summer, that possibility was simply unfathomable.
Make no mistake, Sudfeld is not at the top by default. He is there because of his remarkable pass-catching ability. His 6'7" height and consistency on downfield seam routes almost make the rookie look like Gronkowski, with only a haircut needed to complete the imitation.
Sudfeld is certainly not perfect, as he has looked overwhelmed at times in blocking. But considering what the Patriots lost with Aaron Hernandez's departure, Sudfeld is almost a perfect fit. He is not as agile as Hernandez was, and few tight ends are, but his soft hands and surprising athleticism will allow the Patriots to sustain their familiar two-tight end sets, if they so choose.
Even in Gronkowski's absence, the combination of Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui—an extremely adept blocker—is nothing to sneeze at. More than anything, Sudfeld has allowed the Patriots to preserve versatility in formation, Josh McDaniels is free to toy around and create mismatches.
Sudfeld must still stay healthy, which has been no easy task for him, and the heavy reliance on rookies likely means the Patriots passing game will experience early fickleness. Nevertheless, with good health, Sudfeld's emergence allows the Patriots to continue tormenting opposing defenses with tight end mismatches.
Steve Gregory never seemed to quite satisfy Patriots fans last season. At 5'11" and 200 pounds, his size seemed a bit redundant with Devin McCourty, giving New England a tiny tandem at safety. Despite picking off three passes and recovering two fumbles, he never really felt like a true playmaker.
However, the Aqib Talib trade created a massive domino effect on the Patriots defense, and Gregory was one of those most affected. With McCourty's enormous range and exemplary instincts at safety, the Patriots were able to play more single-high coverages. This entailed man coverage from corners and a "robber" look from Gregory.
That allowed Gregory to play closer to the line of scrimmage, where he was able to make some plays jumping underneath routes over the middle. His interception on Thanksgiving day against the Jets was a textbook example of this.
Gregory certainly was not great last season, as AdvancedNFLStats.com ranked him 30th among safeties in win percentage added, while Pro Football Focus gave him a minus-2.2 grade for the year. But free-agent signing Adrian Wilson, whose size seemed more fit to play near the line, is now on injured reserve.
Meanwhile, young safeties Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon do not appear ready for expanded roles.
That means Gregory will likely once again receive the lion's share of snaps this season. That may not sound appealing to Pats fans. But if the eight-year veteran can be more consistent in tackling while continuing to force turnovers, he might be an asset rather than a neutral or net-negative presence on defense.
Dont'a Hightower's rookie season was not spectacular, but it was certainly serviceable. Playing roughly half of the Patriots' defensive snaps, Hightower graded out at plus-13.2 for the year per Nate Hodges of Pro Football Focus by making positive contributions in run defense, pass coverage and pass rushing.
But for the Patriots defense to make a marked improvement in 2013, Hightower is among the handful of young starters who need to make the jump from serviceable to stardom. As the above grade suggests, Hightower has the potential to become a deadly all-around weapon.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hightower was one of just two rookies to compile at least 40 tackles and four sacks.
The Patriots appear set at linebacker, with a relatively stable starting trio of Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. But apart from the occasional jarring hit from Spikes, the unit is short on playmaking ability.
Hightower has the kind of versatility to consistently create explosive plays, a trait missing from most New England front seven players the past several seasons.
Part of the issue might be positional. Hightower has generally lined up at strong-side linebacker in the Patriots' base 4-3, a role that requires more dirty work, like engaging and shedding blockers.
But as Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald notes, the Patriots have been experimenting with some 3-4 packages, a defense that would allow Hightower to take on greater playmaking duties as a "Jack" linebacker.
The Patriots are a hybrid defense that incorporates both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, so Hightower will not necessarily rush the quarterback all the time. But with increased opportunity, the second-year linebacker could break out with a gaudy all-around stat line in 2013.
The rags-to-riches story of undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins is well-known among Pats followers by now. Thompkins has performed so well that national writers are already pegging him as the next great product of the New England offensive machine.
The more pressing question now is not whether or not Thompkins can contribute, but what type of contributions he can make. More specifically, Thompkins would maximize his value to the Patriots if he could serve as a respectable vertical threat. Remember, part of the reason many fans hung onto the Aaron Dobson bandwagon stemmed from the second-rounder's prototypical deep-threat skill set.
Based on Thompkins' preseason performance, the early signs are encouraging in that regard. The rookie's greatest skill is creating separation of the line, as epitomized by this 37-yard reception after a beautiful fake inside gave Thompkins outside leverage on the cornerback. Considering X receivers (Thompkins' likely role) are usually tethered to the line of scrimmage, that is an especially useful trait in beating press coverage.
But what about winning jump balls in the air when he cannot create significant separation? That could be a bit more problematic, as Thompkins' 6'1" height and 4:54 40-yard dash time does not scream deep threat.
He averaged an impressive 15.9 yards per catch last year at Cincinnati, but examining the film, it appears he was more comfortable running intermediate crossing routes and gaining yards after the catch.
That sounds more like Deion Branch, which would be an excellent outcome nonetheless. If Thompkins translates his impressive preseason to the regular season, he will minimize the potential drop-off on offense and emerge as one of the Patriots' biggest steals in recent seasons.
And yet, if Thompkins exhibits more of a vertical element, that would give the Patriots more options in formulating gameplans and in-game adjustments. If achieved, Thompkins could be the piece that stops the offense from stalling in the playoffs, quite possibly putting the Pats over the top.