Who will follow in Julian Edelman's footsteps?
The New England Patriots finished their season two wins short of their goal—a Super Bowl victory. To rectify that situation in 2014, they'll need some new stars to break out and contribute in a big way.
Julian Edelman—over 100 catches and 1,000 yards—and Chandler Jones—double-digit sacks—broke out in 2014 and propelled the Patriots to a 12-4 record. Edelman will almost certainly test free agency, and Jones won't be able to take anyone by surprise next year.
Here are five players who could step up and surprise next season.
After sitting out Week 1 with a hamstring injury and a maddeningly inconsistent Week 2—featuring a long touchdown and multiple dropped passes—Aaron Dobson steadily improved during his rookie season.
Doug Kyed from NESN.com broke down Dobson's progress:
Dobson made obvious strides throughout the season, earning him six straight starts from Week 6 to Week 11. Dobson’s 519 yards and four touchdowns were the most for a Patriots rookie wideout in the Bill Belichick era. His best game came in Week 9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he had five catches for 130 yards.
Unfortunately, Dobson's progress was stymied by a foot injury suffered in their game against the Denver Broncos that put a damper on the rest of the season. If Dobson can stay healthy, look for him to become a true weapon for Brady.
2013 Stats: 37 receptions, 519 yards, four touchdowns
2014 Projection: 71 receptions, 1,143 yards, 10 touchdowns
Michael Buchanan burst onto the scene in September, recording two sacks in his first month as a pro. However, his inability to play the run and contain quarterbacks in the pocket proved to be an issue.
Veteran defensive end Andre Carter was brought in to help out the nickel package. While Carter failed to produce much pressure—only two sacks and four tackles with heavy playing time—it says a lot that Buchanan wasn't given much of a second chance.
If Buchanan can refine his technique and shore up his responsibilities on the way to the quarterback, he has the natural talent and athleticism to have a profound impact as an edge-rusher in 2014.
2013 Stats: Nine tackles, two sacks
2014 Projection: 34 tackles, nine sacks
When Josh Boyce was on the field—he battled injuries and depth-chart issues all year—he was an exciting player to watch. His deep speed and acceleration aren't easily duplicated.
If Boyce can see the field in 2014—Julian Edelman's possible foray into free agency might help—as either a "Z" receiver or slot receiver he'll get some opportunities to contribute.
If Edelman does leave, a trio of Dobson, Danny Amendola and Boyce—with Kenbrell Thompkins in reserve—would give Brady some interesting options. Add a healthy Rob Gronkowski and another tight end from the draft—Jace Amaro and C.J. Fiedorowicz are two natural fits—and Boyce could be a dangerous afterthought for defenses.
2013 Stats: Nine receptions, 121 yards, zero touchdowns
2014 Projection: 38 receptions, 583 yards, four touchdowns
With injuries to veterans Adrian Wilson—who was placed on injured reserve prior to the season—Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory and ineffective play by Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner, primarily on special teams, rookie Duron Harmon was pressed into service early and often in Bill Belichick's defense.
Harmon—who was pilloried as a ridiculous pick by Mel Kiper in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft—filled in like a five-year veteran. He took good angles covering deep, tackled with authority and made plays when they presented themselves.
If Wilson or Gregory aren't back with the New England Patriots in 2014—both could be cap casualties—Harmon could play an even bigger role. Logan Ryan, McCourty and Harmon would make the nearly all-Rutgers defensive backfield one of the closest-knit groups in the league.
2013 Stats: 31 tackles, two interceptions
2014 Projection: 88 tackles, four interceptions
Jamie Collins came on strong in the postseason—13 tackles plus a sack and an interception—after a quiet first 16 games.
Like fellow rookie Logan Ryan—who totaled 2.5 sacks and five interceptions—you could make an argument that Collins has already broken out. However, it remains to be seen how Collins is integrated into the defense with a healthy Jerod Mayo returning in 2014.
Expect Collins to see major playing time next season. His coverage and blitzing ability should keep him on the field for all three downs. A combination of Collins, Mayo and Dont'a Hightower bodes well for New England's future.
2013 Stats: 43 tackles, zero sacks, zero interceptions
2014 Projection: 112 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions