The Patriots have been perhaps the most consistent team in the NFL over the past 10 seasons, but since Feb. 6, 2005, seven different teams have won championships, none of whom reside in Foxborough. Another promising year in 2013 came to an abrupt halt in the AFC Championship, as key players Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo could only watch their Patriots succumb to the Broncos in a rout that wasn’t as close as the final score of 26-16 would indicate.
With the regular season kickoff now less than a week away, here’s a rundown of the top-10 players the Pats can ill-afford to lose if they wish to end the year with blue and red confetti falling at University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 1.
10. Shane Vereen
In the Patriots’ pass-first offense that will continue to do the same in 2014, Shane Vereen will return as one of Tom Brady’s best options to move the chains. Vereen had a huge Week 1 of the 2013 season, combining for 159 total yards, but then missed more than two months recovering from a broken wrist he suffered in the contest. He returned on Nov. 18 against the Panthers and was solid the rest of the way for the Patriots, ending the year with 208 rushing yards and 427 receiving yards.
Vereen’s talent was on full display in the Pats preseason game against the Panthers, catching five passes for 57 yards and two touchdowns, including one that he caught on a check down from Brady and ran almost 40 yards into the end zone. If he suffers another serious injury, however, it would leave one less reliable weapon for the quarterback looking for that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring.
9. Rob Ninkovich
While also taking reps at long snapper during the preseason, Ninkovich will be quite valuable to the Pats defensive line that looks to do big things in 2014. Paired with fellow defensive end Chandler Jones, Ninkovich had 91 combined tackles in 2013 to along with eight sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries, making this defensive end combo a force to be reckoned with that will only get better this season.
That is, of course, if Ninkovich doesn’t end up on the injured list, say getting bowled over after snapping the ball on an all-but-meaningless extra point attempt, which would leave the Pats weak on one side of the D-line, a hole that opposing offenses could exploit.
8. Sebastian Vollmer
With Logan Mankins now in Tampa, Vollmer becomes the rock on the offensive line that has the most important job on the field: protect Tom Brady. Vollmer joined the growing list of Pats players to suffer season-ending injuries in 2013, as he broke his leg against the Dolphins on Oct. 27 and was placed on the IR two days later.
The Globe’s Ben Volin reported on Aug. 30 that the Patriots are considering moving Vollmer to left guard formally occupied by Mankins, an interesting proposition for the 6-8, 320-pounder that has done a heck of a job cementing the outside of the line. Either way, if Vollmer goes down again, things could get perilous for the guy slinging the pigskin.
7. Darrelle Revis
Sure, he hasn’t actually played a meaningful snap for the Pats yet, but a defense without Revis on the field is little better than what they have been sending out there for the past few years. Revis is a game changer, which he proved in the preseason when you could count on one hand how many times opposing quarterbacks even attempted a pass in his direction.
With the increase in passing offenses throughout the league, Bill Belichick knew he needed someone like Revis in his secondary, someone who could completely take away half the field, and he went out and shelled out the big bucks to get him. Now it’s time for Revis to show what he can do when it counts; otherwise, how is this Pats secondary much better than the one that got shredded by Peyton Manning last January?
6. Vince Wilfork
Simply put, there is no replacing Vince Wilfork. The Patriots Pro Bowl tackle is the best at what he does when he is healthy: doing the job that it normally takes two linemen to accomplish. Things never seemed right for Wilfork last year, as it appeared he must have had something going on health-wise through the first few weeks of the season. That suspicion was confirmed Week 4 against the Falcons, when Wilfork’s right Achilles’ tendon gave way, forcing him out for the rest of the season.
Joe Vellano and Chris Jones filled in valiantly at tackle for Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, but the Pats defense was not the same, as the combination of Vellano and Jones could not replicate the pressure of a healthy Wilfork.
5. Julian Edelman
After Wes Welker left for the Rocky Mountains, someone had to fill the void as Tom Brady’s favorite target. As Danny Amendola proved to have a disappointing season as Welker’s replacement, Julian Edelman had a breakout season as the most reliable arrow in Brady’s receiving quiver. In his fifth season in New England, Edelman played all 16 games for the first time in his career, catching 105 balls for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns, while also showing off his flexibility as the team’s primary punt returner.
Young pass catchers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will undoubtedly have better years than their first seasons in Foxborough, while newcomer Brandon LaFell will add another threat and Amendola should improve, but it will be a tall hill to climb if Brady has to find a third favorite target in as many seasons.
4. Jerod Mayo
Just like the Patriots offense began to stall with the loss of Gronkowski, the absence of Mayo directing the defense gave the Pats little hope of slowing down opposing offensive attacks, most notably the Denver Broncos, who did whatever they felt like in their AFC Championship dismantling of the Boys of Belichick. Mayo didn’t play a snap during the preseason, but once the games start for real, Pats fans had better hope that their Pro Bowl linebacker in on the field calling the shots.
3. Chandler Jones
Yes, you read that right: Chandler Jones is No. 3 on this list. The third year defensive end has the potential for a monster year, coming off a sophomore season where he recorded 79 combined tackles, 11.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and even scored a defensive touchdown.
In the Pats’ preseason “dress rehearsal’’ against the Panthers on Aug. 22, Jones was all over Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, tackling the quick QB three times on third down, including two sacks, to force a punt. He finished the game with six tackles. Jones showed great speed and could be the key, along with fellow defensive end Rob Ninkovich, to a well-rounded defensive line, and there is no one on the Pats roster that would be able to replace what Jones brings to the table in the new-look New England defense.
2. Rob Gronkowski
The Patriots have showed that they can survive without arguably the most dangerous tight end in the game, but if they can’t count on Gronk for the playoffs, again, then they won’t be hosting the Lombardi Trophy come February . After missing the first six games of the 2013 season while recovering from arm and back surgeries, Gronk went right back to being Gronk, tearing it up for seven games before yet another devastating injury saw a promising season cut short before the final whistle.
Gronkowski’s 90-catch, 1,300-yard, 17 touchdown campaign of 2011 seems eons ago, and with how the Pats struggled in the red zone without him last season, it could be another bitter New England winter in if the Gronk Show gets put on hiatus… again.
1. Tom Brady
To (mis)quote the great Reggie Jackson and say that Tom Brady is the “straw that stirs the drink’’ for the Patriots would be an understatement. With all due respect to Matt Cassel, who led the Pats to an 11-5 record in 2008, this team doesn’t go anywhere without Brady, and it’s no coincidence that the last time the Patriots missed the playoffs was after Brady suffered a torn ACL in Week 1 of that season.
In the preseason, Jimmy Garappolo may have shown glimpses that he could one day take over the reins of the New England offense, fans can kiss their Super Bowl dreams “goodbye’’ if an injury forces Brady to watch from the sidelines.