Elise Amendola/Associated Press
Dan Connolly, G
With Logan Mankins' release, the previously on-the-bubble Connolly looks like a lock for the starting lineup—at least at the beginning of the year. New England's heavy draft investment in the offensive line this year could eventually expedite Connolly's departure, but for now, his veteran reliability is necessary.
After struggling in pass protection last season, Connolly fared better in the preseason, grading out at a roughly league-average plus-2.2 overall (subscription required).
The Patriots' starting interior line remains a fluid situation, but Connolly surprisingly looks like the stablest asset of the unit.
Logan Ryan, CB/S
After a promising rookie season in which he demonstrated ball-hawking instincts, Ryan has struggled the entire preseason. His minus-3.9 overall grade during the exhibition slate ranked 187th out of 202 (subscription required) qualified cornerbacks.
Seeing him playing deep into the fourth game against the New York Giants was an ominous referendum on his place on the depth chart.
However, Ryan has the talent to rise from a bit role, most likely as either a slot corner or deep-half safety. The latter role may not be utilized much, as the Patriots seem unlikely to play much Cover 2 or Cover 4 when they possess excellent press coverage corners on the outside.
Still, it would be surprising if Ryan did not emerge as an important sub-package presence.
Tim Wright, TE
New England's newest tight end may not make fans forget about Mankins, but he is a potentially valuable weapon. Even if the days of wreaking havoc out of 12 personnel are likely gone, the 6'4" Wright is an imposing, athletically gifted target who can threaten the seams and emerge as a red-zone threat.
The latter is particularly important, as the Patriots struggled in that area without Gronkowski last season.
Wright is in a tough position after arriving so late in the offseason program, but his physical tools make him a moveable chess piece that affords more play-calling and game-planning versatility.
Dominique Easley, DT/DE
It seems strange to call a first-rounder an X-factor, but Easley's role is that of an interior pass-rushing specialist.
That Belichick was willing to invest so highly in a role-specific player indicates the defense's shift toward heavy sub-package usage, as he has passed on prospects like Clay Matthews in the past because of their purported base-defense limitations.
It is fair to expect a learning curve from a rookie returning from an ACL injury, though, so Easley's rookie season may mirror that of Jamie Collins in 2013.
Even if Easley's impact is limited early, the Pats would gladly accept a pass-rushing infusion late in the year against top-notch offenses in the postseason.