COMMENTARY| The New England Patriots enter their first game of the 2013 season with a whopping 13 rookies (six being undrafted) on their roster. These young players not only make up a significant portion of the team, but they will also be counted on to make big contributions, starting immediately.
Entering their game against the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots have already seen some of their rookies separate themselves, to the point where they could have major impact right out of the gate.
In descending order, here is a ranking of the top New England rookies heading into Week 1:
Wide Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins: The 25-year-old went undrafted out of the University of Cincinnati but played like a veteran this preseason, earning a starting spot. Able to play both inside and out, he could be used in a variety of ways against the Bills.
Buffalo's secondary is hurting heading into Sunday's matchup. Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd is doubtful with a foot injury, and starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore will miss the game with a fractured wrist.
Such conditions could give Thompkins an excellent opportunity to have a big first game and prove he belongs as an NFL starter.
Punter Ryan Allen: After unseating popular veteran Zoltan Mesko during preseason, the Louisiana Tech product has big shoes to fill.
There don't seem to be any questions about Allen's big leg, but he will also be responsible for holding on kicker Stephen Gostkowski's field goal and extra point attempts.
Since the youngster is so involved in New England's special teams, his ability to avoid mistakes will be an important factor in determining the outcome of the game.
Undrafted out of the University of Nevada, Sudfeld had a quiet, if not injury-marred college career. His size and ability to catch the ball caught the attention of the Patriots, who he has impressed since his first day with the team.
The only thing holding Sudfeld back from more playing time is that he is still getting his feet underneath him when it comes to blocking. If he continues to improve in that area, he will keep playing even after Gronkowski returns.
Linebacker Jamie Collins: The Patriots' second-round pick out of Southern Mississippi is one of the most athletic players on the defense. By that virtue alone, he will get some action, primarily on passing downs, backing up at linebacker and possibly seeing some time in play packages that utilize him as a safety of sorts.
Collins is still developing and adapting to the New England defense. However, even with the learning curve, his potential to make big plays cannot be understated.
With the Bills starting fellow rookie EJ Manuel at quarterback, there could be even more of an opportunity for Collins to capitalize on a mistake for a pivotal game changer.
Defensive Tackle Joe Vellano: The 300-pounder is all-but guaranteed to get a decent amount of playing time against Buffalo simply because of the position he plays. Although he backs up Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, two of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, the behemoths do need to get an occasional blow.
Undrafted out of the University of Maryland, Vellano had a nice camp, but made the team primarily because of a lack of good veteran depth on the line.
Former college teammate A.J. Francis is another defensive tackle backup, but signed a week before the first game. Vellano has the leg up with experience within the defense, and should have an opportunity to make an impact.
The Rest: Since the Patriots can only dress 46 players on game day, some of the remaining rookies may watch the game against Buffalo in street clothes.
If active, offensive lineman Chris Barker, receiver Josh Boyce, linebacker Steve Beauharnais, defensive end Michael Buchanan and cornerback Logan Ryan may see limited snaps as backups and/or on special teams.
Francis is a likely candidate to be deactivated for the game.
Wide receiver Aaron Dobson and safety Duron Harmon are both doubtful against the Bills because of injuries. Even if they suit up, they aren't likely to see significant time on the field, especially Dobson, who seems to currently be at the bottom of the team's depth chart.
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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