Ask any Pats fan or NFL fan or person who reads US Weekly on the regular who the most important player on the Patriots is and the response will of course be Tom Brady.
And beyond Brady, the obvious key cogs in the Pats machine, name like Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty and of course, this year, Darrelle Revis, are easy to identify as well, though perhaps not as easily as Brady to the non-fan/Us Weekly subscribers.
So with that in mind, let's try a little exercise. The Pats have plenty of players on their roster who will be vital contributors this upcoming season but may not come to mind as rapidly as the names mentioned above. So with football season officially underway, let's shine the light on a handful of the most sneaky important Pats in training camp.
James Anderson — He's not even been a Patriot two months so it's OK if Anderson doesn't quickly come to mind when you think about the team's linebacking corps. But the 30-year old ex-Bear and Panther may well prove to be as crucial to this defense as anyone in that group.
You've got to go back a few years to find a Pats linebacker who was even average at covering tight ends and running backs, particularly in the middle of the field, let alone excelled at it. Anderson, who started all 16 games and led the Bears in tackles last season, has the game and skill set to fill that role. He graded out well in that regard last year ProFootballFocus.com's measures and his presence in sub packages should take some pressure off second-year man Jamie Collins and a ton off of Dont'a Hightower, who is often finished before the ball is even snapped when asked to pick up a back out of the backfield or stay with a tight end. Anderson can also get after the quarterback if necessary, having registered a career high four sacks for the Bears in 2013. And given how thin the Pats are at linebacker after Mayo, Hightower and Collins, the veteran depth Anderson provides should prove to be huge.
Still, it's his ability to cover that makes for his most enticing attribute. The Pats have had so much trouble getting off the field on third down the past handful of years and having a faster, more fleet, quick backer on the field in those situations should give the defense a dimension it's glaringly lacked.
Bryan Stork and Jon Halapio — At the end of the day, the main crux of Sam Monson's now infamous post in regard to Tom Brady's perceived decline, was that Brady wasn't protected well enough last season. Enter Stork and Halapio, two rookie, interior offensive linemen who are already challenging veteran incumbents Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly for playing time both in camp and into the regular season.
Actually, a small caveat should come with that last statement because Connolly is no lock to break camp with the Pats. He's in the last year of his contract before he hits unrestricted free agency and counts for more than $4 million against this year's salary cap. Cutting him would cost the Pats far less and if both Stork and Halapio prove adept enough to take his place — Stork is a natural center but given the Pats interest in versatile, moving parts up front, it's easy to see him getting some reps at right guard, Connolly's regular spot and the position Halapio played at Florida — while each outperform him over the next month, it could be curtains for Connolly.
Things are a little trickier with Wendell, who signed a new two-year extension in the offseason that could net him up to $4.55 million should he reach a variety of incentives. Still, this doesn't change the fact that the worst of the pressure Brady felt last year came from where he and Connolly line up.
It's tough to imagine both of them getting the ax but Wendell and Connolly vs. Stork and Halapio remains one of the more intriguing positional battles in camp and both rookies are in position to makes themselves into key contributors when the real games begin.
James White — Minus the AFC Championship against Denver, LeGarrette Blount's late season explosion last year made it a little tougher to take when the Pats decided to let him walk in free agency. But the drafting of White, who at 5-9 and 204 pounds is far smaller than Blount, but is known for a similar, physical running style, may go a long way toward not only replacing him but sending some ripples down the depth chart.
White ran for more than 4,000 yards on 643 attempts (6.2 YPA) in three years at Wisconsin. He fumbled just twice as a Badger and never missed significant time with an injury. He's a skilled pass catcher out of the backfield and despite his size, had a solid reputation in college for his pass protection ability.
White's command when it comes to ball security and his durability make him an ideal candidate to share time in the Pats backfield with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen who have each had their problems with those issues, respectively. He may not be terribly sneaky given some of the rave reviews sent his way from members of the Pats coaching staff, but White looks like a keeper who will deepen the team's already powerful ground attack.