COMMENTARY| Despite nearly a quarter of their roster being rookies, the New England Patriots have come together as a team to fashion a perfect 4-0 record to start the season. Many of the young players have played important roles, but the improved play of some returners has had a significant impact on the early-season success.
The 12 rookies on New England's active roster is a departure for a team that has relied so heavily on veterans over the past decade. Although there may not be as many of them, returning players are still leading the way, especially these four who have never been better than the way they are playing this season:
Although he has a troubled past that includes an arrest and a suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, the Patriots decided to take a chance that his talent would shine through. So far, it's a gamble that has paid off handsomely.
NESN.com's Doug Kyed wrote that Talib has a great argument for being the best defensive player in the NFL through the first quarter of the season. He has permitted a total of just five receptions on 19 targets, for 81 yards and no touchdowns. Throw in his four interceptions and the fact he routinely covers the opposing teams' best receiver, and it's safe to say he has embodied the definition of a shutdown cornerback.
Since Talib is currently playing on a one-year contract, his stellar play is certainly adding zeroes to the next deal he inks.
Offensive Tackle Nate Solder: The massive 2011 first-round draft pick has steadily improved in each season with New England.
Kyed cited Pro Football Focus in explaining how Solder has yet to allow his man to hit quarterback Tom Brady this year, while also only surrendering a total of seven hurries. With the team playing three rookie wide receivers, the lineman's outstanding pass protection has been vital to the success of the offense.
A college tight end, he has even lined up at his old position on a few plays.
The fine play of Solder hasn't gone unnoticed by head coach Bill Belichick, who uncharacteristically gushed about his tackle at a recent press conference. "Nate is a very, very smart kid. You tell him something once and he has it. He also can do it, he's very athletic. He has the physical ability to do what you ask him to do and change techniques and that type of thing."
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski: The 29-year-old was very dependable during his first seven seasons with the Patriots, even earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2008. However, he is having his best season to date this year, and has accounted for 41 of his team's 89 points.
He has nailed all eight of his extra point attempts while being successful on 11 of 12 field goals.
He has been equally good from all distances, as he has converted five of his six field goal attempts from 40 yards or longer, including tying a career-high with a 53-yarder against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3.
In addition to his barrage of scoring, Gostkowski has controlled field position on kickoffs. According to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, only two of his 22 kicks have been able to be returned. That's been good for an NFL-best 90.9 percent touchback percentage and has given opponents a long field to work with on nearly every drive.
Gostkowski's only mistake on the season was a missed 43-yard field goal attempt against the New York Jets in Week 2 that hit the goal post; the smallest of blemishes on another-wise perfect season.
Defensive End Chandler Jones: As New England's top draft pick last year, expectations were heaped on Jones from the moment he hit Foxboro. While he struggled through injuries and inconsistency, he still finished with 45 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles in 14 games.
Jones looks much more comfortable this season. He has been the team's best pass rusher and has consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The 16 tackles and three sacks he has through the first four games indicate he is making a strong push to be considered among the best young sack artists in the game; something the Patriots could sorely use.
Conclusion: A youth movement is clearly afoot in New England. The growth and development of the youngsters will be important to the future of the team, but in the meantime, a number of veterans have taken their games to a new level and helped ease what could have been a very painful transition.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
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