For a team coming off a 14-2 regular season, the New England Patriots have a considerable amount of uncertainty surrounding the prospects of the 2011 season.
The contractual status of Logan Mankins is one specific area of concern because the All Pro guard held out in protest of his salary in 2010 after he and the team failed to agree upon an extension.
He skipped out on mini-camp, training camp, the preseason and the first eight weeks of the regular season before finally making his season debut in Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns.
Mankins didn't miss a beat following his return and his nine-game season was enough to earn him a second straight Pro-Bowl selection.
His importance to the Patriots cannot be understated; New England is undoubtedly a better team with him on the field.
Head coach Bill Belichick recently presented Mankins on the NFL Network's countdown of the top 100 players. The lineman was voted 39th best in the league by his peers and Belichick offered a first hand account on what makes him special.
"With a quarterback like Tom Brady, who needs to step up into the pocket, who likes to step up into the pocket, there has to be somewhere to step up into," said Belichick. "Logan does a great job of that, of staying firm on the line of scrimmage and not getting driven back, so that Tom can step up and avoid the rush and make the throw."
Belichick expounded on Mankins' important role in the running game as well.
"A lot of times Logan is at the point of attack in the running game regardless of where the play is called."
Hopefully, the team can come to an agreement with their former first-round pick because this is one player definitely worth keeping.
But Mankins is only one of the X-Factors for the 2011 New England Patriots.
Patrick Chung made waves in 2010 by breaking out in a big way.
The second year safety went from playing just 20 percent of the defensive snaps in 2009 to 70 percent in 2010 and he made good use of his time on the field.
Chung compiled 96 tackles, three interceptions, nine pass defends, two blocked kicks and a touchdown.
The 23-year-old has earned praise from a wide array of analysts including former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
"He continues to remind me of a young Lawyer Milloy, making plays that a Patriots safety has to make," said Bruschi. "I'm starting to see the big three on defense—along the front line you have Vince Wilfork, at the linebacker level it's Jerod Mayo and at the safety position it's Chung."
ESPN's Mike Reiss believes Chung has the potential to be a top safety in the league and I'd be inclined to agree with him.
The Patriots selected Ras-I Dowling with the 33rd overall pick nearly two months ago and there are a lot of reasons to be excited about this kid.
Dowling has the size, strength, and speed to make a big impact on New England's defense. His position coach in college, Chip West, has compared him Eric Allen, a former six-time Pro Bowler with New Orleans and Philadelphia.
"He likes to play a physical brand of corner," said West of Dowling. "We play a lot of man-coverage at the line of scrimmage, asking our corners to bump-and-run, get in the receiver's face."
Dowling, a surefire first-round talent prior to his senior season, fell to the Patriots in the second round after injuries ruined his draft stock. He's 100 percent healthy now and has the potential to be a real weapon on defense.
At 6'1'' he has the height to compete for jump balls against nearly any receiver and Dowling runs a 4.4 flat in the 40-yard dash which will allow him to keep up with some of his fastest opponents.
Leigh Bodden's inclusion in this ranking makes him the third member of the Patriots secondary and he's here for good reason.
New England ranked 30th against the pass-rush in 2010 despite the efforts of rookie sensation Devin McCourty. One player can't do everything, not even McCourty.
The veteran led the team in interceptions in 2009 and his return to the secondary this season will be a much welcomed addition to a very young group.
Bodden is 29 years old and entering the final phase of his career and, even if he can't play at the highest level going forward, his presence can only help the inexperienced core around him. Chances are good that Bodden has more than enough left in the tank to be a very productive member of the Patriots defense going forward—the team extended him through 2013.
Shane Vereen, New England's third-round pick, ranks second based on his sky high potential.
Vereen is a very strong, solid, and smart ball carrier. ESPN's Mike Reiss considers him to be the long all-around back in the Patriots crowded backfield and goes as far to label Vereen his favorite out of all New England's picks.
His high football IQ and ability to play in any situation likely improved his draft stock with Bill Belichick, for he is a known proponent of versatility.
Vereen has solid hands and was considered the top pass-blocking back to come out of the draft. His impact on offense should be broad and quick because he will not struggle to get on the field.
He's not the quickest or most elusive runner, but he does have great strength, leg-drive, vision and a low center of gravity. A team captain at Cal, Vereen appears to be everything the Patriots could ask for at the running back position.
Jermaine Cunningham is the Patriots No. 1 X-Factor in 2011 because his development and production will likely determine the direction the team heads in.
New England's defensive pass-rush ranked among the leagues worst in Cunningham's rookie season and he'd like to be a bigger factor in 2011 and beyond.
Cunningham played only 50 percent of the defensive snaps last season and was still credited with 41 tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack and one pass defended. For a 22-year-old learning a complicating defensive system, it was a pretty darn good season.
He's anything but content though and has spent the offseason working out with teammate Jerod Mayo which certainly can't hinder his progression. The biggest question is whether he can progress like he did in Florida.
Cunningham started seven games during a very quiet freshman season, but he went to post 19.5 sacks over the next three seasons which tied him for 10th on the Gators all-time list.