After a disappointing 2009 campaign, the Patriots are facing questions of a lack of leadership and playmaking ability on both offense and defense heading into 2010.
Here are eight less heralded players who may break out in 2010 and help the Patriots back to the playoffs.
It is hard to remember that Wheatley was the Patriots' 2nd round pick in 2008. A two-time All-Big 12 selection at Colorado, Wheatley showed the speed and ball-hawking ability that warranted such a high selection, but in two years in the NFL he has been plagued by injury and only registered four tackles.
With the likes of Leigh Bodden, Jonathan Wilhite, and 2010 first-rounder Devin McCourty, the Patriots appear to have some depth at CB this year, but for Wheatley, largely forgotten in this mix, this could very well be a make-or-break year. If healthy, he could finally show what the Patriots saw in him as a Buffalo.
A third-round rookie wide receiver from Ohio, Price has been overlooked thus far due to the exciting offensive promise of fellow rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Price, if he can pick up the playbook in his rookie campaign, could be a contributor in 2010. With a 4.33 40, he has the blazing speed that could make him the deep threat that the Patriots lacked in 2009.
With the departure of Jarvis Green to Denver, Myron Pryor is going to have to fill the void of a sub-package rusher. A 2009 6th rounder, Pryor was a pleasant surprise in his rookie year, dressing for 13 games and logging 20 tackles.
In college, Pryor showed he could get after the quarterback and force turnovers (10 FF's in his sophomore season). With many questions at defensive end, and his ability to play inside in the 4-3, Pryor may be poised to break out in his sophomore season.
The Patriots finally got a reliable punter when they spent a 5th rounder on Mesko in this year's draft. Touted as the best punter of his class, Mesko was a second team All American and first team All Big 10 at Michigan.
With a young defense in need of building confidence, field position may become an important aspect of several games in 2010, and Mesko certainly has the skills to pin teams deep in their own territory.
After suffering a season ending injury in rookie minicamp of last year, this inside linebacker is chomping at the bit to get on the field in 2010.
McKenzie embodies all that the Patriots have lost since their dynasty. He is a smart and resilient man who moved around to 3 different schools to support his family. If he can stay healthy, McKenzie will have the opportunity to compete for the spot alongside Jerod Mayo at ILB, a position at which the Patriots are dangerously thin.
Two seasons, and two stints on IR. Crable has been a huge disappointment after being the Patriots' 3rd round pick in 2008. In his senior year at Michigan, Crable registered 28.5 tackles for a loss, and showed that he can be a playmaker on defense.
Like Wheatley, this is a make-or-break year for Crable. The Patriots need to establish a pass rush to be an effective defense, and this often forgetten player could fill that void if he can remain off the shelf.
With Tate, his potential for 2010 hinges on his health. Widely regarded as UNC's best receiver (ahead of Hakeem Nicks) in 2008, Tate suffered a crushing ACL and MCL tear that saw his draft status plummet.
In 2009, Tate's health limited him, although he made a few appearances before going on IR in Week 9. While Tate is expected to compete mainly with Torry Holt for playing time at receiver, his greatest contributions will come on Special Teams. An electrifying returner, he will be a constant threat that the Patriots lacked in 2009 after trading away Ellis Hobbs. This team needs energy, and Tate can provide it.
What the Patriots lacked most in 2009 was playmaking. The staples of their dynasty era teams were big plays at crucial moments in the game. Plays that came from Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, etc.
Chung has a year under his belt, and now is the time for him to break out. He can be a roamer at free safety like Rodney Harrison, or a force in blitz packages. The Patriots defense will need turnovers and big plays to win games in 2010, and Chung is poised to step up and channel the ghosts of Patriots past.