COMMENTARY| In recent years, the New England Patriots have relied on veteran players to help sustain their success. While they will look to do the same in 2013, the team also has a number of candidates to be breakout players this upcoming season.
Obviously the Patriots have been led by star quarterback Tom Brady for more than a decade. The current team has also seen players like Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Logan Mankins emerge as leaders because of their play on the field. With a number of younger players and new faces on the roster, that leadership group could expand this season.
Here are four players who could have breakout years in 2013:
Wide Receiver Danny Amendola: This may seem like an obvious choice. After all, he was signed this offseason as the de facto replacement for the departed Wes Welker, who averaged a whopping 154 targets and 112 receptions per season during the past six seasons in New England.
Amendola has experienced injury issues in the past but is healthy now and already developing good chemistry with Brady, according to MassLive.com's Nick Underhill. He is also no stranger to putting up big numbers, having hauled in 63 passes for 666 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games last year with the St. Louis Rams.
There is no reason not to believe Amendola's injuries are in the past, so a big season could be in the cards for the Patriots most dynamic receiver.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard: A major talent coming out of the University of Nebraska, Dennard fell all the way to the seventh round and into the Patriots' laps in the 2012 draft because he faced charges of assault and resisting arrest. Now that those issues have been resolved, he can turn his entire focus to his playing career.
Even with the threat of jail hanging over his head, he still had a productive rookie season, with 34 tackles and three interceptions in 10 games last year.
His aggressive play in the secondary can lead to big plays but also injuries like the one he suffered to his shoulder during a recent practice. As one of the projected starting cornerbacks this season, he could really see his numbers rise and his career truly take off as long as he is healthy.
Tight End Jake Ballard: The 25-year-old looked like a rising star after being signed as an undrafted free agent by the New York Giants in 2011. As a rookie, he caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in the Super Bowl against the Patriots and hasn't played since.
Although Ballard needed microfracture surgery in addition to repairing his knee ligaments, the Patriots claimed him off waivers before last season and stashed him on the sidelines, with an eye to the future.
With the health of Gronkowski up in the air, Ballard could provide key production for the team. He may not be as talented as the First-Team Pro-Bowl player but he has shown he can play, and may be pressed into extensive duty in 2013.
Defensive End Chandler Jones: Last year's first-round draft pick flashed exceptional ability but was too inconsistent and faded down the stretch. Although he logged six sacks on the year, none came after Week 8. In total, he had just 12 tackles over the second half of the season, with seven of those coming in Game 16 against the Miami Dolphins.
Still just 23, Jones added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason and is hoping it will lead to a big jump in his production. He told NESN's Luke Hughes his new mass and a greater familiarity with the pro game should help him greatly, and even indicated he believes double-digit sacks are a reasonable expectation.
Summary: Even if these players don't all come through with breakout years, the team has many others who could step into the void and take major steps forward. However, these are the candidates who are most likely to takes their games to the next level and should be monitored closely as the 2013 season nears.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report, and also produces his own blog. He has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts, and written on the topics of sports and history for a number of print publications and websites.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew
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