While championship contenders usually have rosters that consist of older players, recent trends in the NFL have seen younger teams contend for the Super Bowl. Despite their reputation as an experienced team due to their annual success, the New England Patriots certainly fit in the latter category.
According to data compiled by Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz, the Patriots were the 10th-youngest team in 2013 based on weighted snap average. So while over-30 starters like Tom Brady and Logan Mankins played a considerable number of snaps, the Pats actually gave the majority of their snaps to younger players. This trend played out especially on defense, where New England was the fourth-youngest team in the league.
Thus, there are plenty of breakout candidates that we could pinpoint for 2014. The Pats will expect further development from players like Chandler Jones and Nate Solder, though those players have already established themselves as worthy starters and are simply trying to reach another level.
Instead, the most crucial X-factors are players who have not yet emerged as a reliable starter but have the talent to mature into a crucial cog in the Patriots machine. Not all of the players on this list will necessarily develop into a Pro Bowler, but they should all fulfill an important role next season.
In identifying players expected to take a big step forward, here are five names to keep an eye on throughout the summer and fall.