COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots are best known for their star leader, quarterback Tom Brady. Although his production undeniably drives the team, there are a number of underappreciated players who fly under the radar.
Brady is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career with 44,806 passing yards, 334 touchdowns, 136 regular-season wins and three Super Bowl victories to his name thus far. However, his gaudy stats and GQ persona have often unintentionally led to his teammates receding to the background, though they still played a big part in his and the team's successes.
Here are four current unsung players for the Patriots:
Wide Receiver/Kick Returner Julian Edelman: A college quarterback at Kent State University, the Patriots coveted Edelman's athletic ability instead of his arm when they drafted him in seventh round in 2009.
He has primarily played wide receiver in New England, hauling in 69 passes for 714 yards and four touchdowns during his career. He has also worked as a returner, averaging an impressive 13.2 yards per punt return (good for fourth all-time), including three scores. There was even a brief time when he was pressed into service as a defensive back.
Depending on whether the team utilizes new receiver Danny Amendola mostly in the slot or on the outside, Edelman may see an expanded role in the offense this season. He is the team's longest tenured player at the position, but it may come down to if he has fully recovered from an injured foot that will cause him to start training camp on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list.
Defensive End Rob Ninkovich: The 29-year-old has worked his way from being a journeyman picked by the New Orleans Saints in the fifth round of the 2006 draft to being one of the most indispensable players on the Patriots' defense.
He is versatile enough to play all along the line and still be able to drop back into coverage when needed. He had his best year as a professional last season, logging 58 tackles and career highs in sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (five), which also tied a team record.
Ninkovich will be a free agent after the upcoming season. With his ability to make plays all over the field, the potential of losing him should be a driving force for the Patriots in making every effort to keep him.
Wide Receiver/Special Teamer Matthew Slater: Officially listed as a receiver on the team's roster, Slater has tallied exactly one regular-season catch for 46 yards during his five years with the team.
The son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater, he has instead made a name for himself as a special teams force and athlete who has also seen time at safety. In addition to returning kicks, he operates as a gunner when New England is kicking, has been successful enough to have been named a team co-captain, and has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons.
Slater is a perfect example of a player who doesn't have his name appear prominently in the box score, yet is an integral member of the team.
Center Ryan Wendell: Wendell is as unassuming on the field as a 300-pound player can be but he has become invaluable in the way he has solidified the middle of New England's offensive line.
Undrafted out of Fresno State in 2009, Wendell spent his first three seasons with the Patriots as a bit player. He finally earned a full-time role last year, starting every game and leading the NFL with 1,379 snaps played, according to Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith.
According to Pro Football Focus, advanced statistics graded Wendell as the best run-blocking center in the NFL last year. While his pass blocking still needs some work, he has come a long way already during his career and established himself as a very solid lineman.
Conclusion: Individual player accolades are not a concern of the Patriots. Production on the field drives how they value those on their roster. Some players may be underappreciated but fans have enjoyed their contributions to team success, even if they haven't realized it at the time.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.
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