COMMENTARY | Despite persistent problems of one nature or another, the New England Patriots have jumped out to a 5-2 start this season. To do so, they have had a lot of contributors, but who have been the unsung heroes?
The team has suffered through a spate of injuries to key players while simultaneously breaking in a nearly unheard of dozen rookies. However, no matter the problem, New England has kept rolling.
Here are the players who have given the most unexpected contributions:
Defensive Tackle Joe Vellano: Undrafted this year out of the University of Maryland, it was a long shot he would even make the team. He survived the roster cuts thanks to a strong preseason, and has become a valuable player.
Losing defensive tackle and team captain Vince Wilfork for the year because of injury thrust Vellano into a starting position. He has more than held his own, accumulating 28 tackles and a sack. Most impressively, he hasn't done or not done anything to stand out in a negative way.
The Patriots would undoubtedly rather have Wilfork in their lineup, but since they can't, the way the rookie has filled in has been quite admirable.
Defensive Tackle Chris Jones: Another rookie who has been pressed into action because of injuries, Jones has also made the most of his opportunities.
He was very productive in college, amassing 28 sacks and 46.5 tackles for loss during his career with Bowling Green, according to NESN.com's Doug Kyed.
The Houston Texans made Jones their sixth-round draft choice of this year but waived him before the start of the season. He was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and waived again before being signed by the Patriots.
The loss of Wilfork and lingering injuries to defensive tackle Tommy Kelly opened up immediate playing time for Jones. He responded with 1.5 sacks in Week 5 against the Cincinnati Bengals, and two more sacks in Week 7 against the New York Jets. On the season, he has accumulated 18 tackles to go along with 3.5 sacks.
Unfortunately, a controversial penalty in overtime by Jones against the Jets allowed New York to get in position for what turned out to be the game-winning field goal.
ESPN's Mike Reiss reported that Jones played every defensive snap in the Week 6 victory against the New Orleans Saints. That is something that is not only nearly unheard of by a defensive lineman, but certainly from a rookie who has been with their team for barely a month.
Jones was paid the ultimate compliment by head coach Bill Belichick, who told Reiss, "In a short amount of time, he's become a pretty dependable guy for us. He's a hard-working kid that has some skills."
The Patriots will need Jones to forget his recent mistake and continue to play hard if they are to remain in the playoff hunt.
Wide Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins: The undrafted rookie out of the University of Cincinnati has gotten his fair share of press, but perhaps not nearly enough for what he has brought to the team.
After a modest college career that saw him catch 78 passes and four touchdowns, there are few who could have imagined Thompkins making an NFL roster, much less taking on the prominent role he has in New England.
Through six games, he has combined for 23 catches, 334 yards and four scores. His production has been even more important because of various injuries to Danny Amendola, who was supposed to be the top guy in the receiving unit.
Thompkins has been the only receiver to reliably get open down the field, which has led to a fast-growing chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady.
On pace for 52 receptions, 763 yards and nine touchdowns, Thompkins is not only the team's most explosive weapon, but is also on pace for one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history.
To call his first season with New England disappointing would be an understatement. In 12 games, he had just 37 tackles and three interceptions, and was consistently beaten on plays.
MassLive.com's Nick Underhill wrote that the football statistics web site ProFootballFocus.com determined the safety missed a tackle for every 5.7 attempts last year, which was among the worst of all players at his position.
Gregory will never be a star but has become a very dependable performer this season. His 45 tackles through seven games have already bested last year's total. Although he hasn't picked off a pass yet, he has looked much more comfortable in coverage and even been a surprise contributor in supporting the run defense.
With veterans like Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo out for the year, Gregory's experience will be an important attribute for the remainder of the season.
Conclusion: During the reign of Belichick and Brady, the Patriots have often relied on production from unsung heroes. Thus far in 2013, things have been no different, as the team has leaned heavily on players who were barely on the radar just a few months ago. If this can be sustained, there's a very good chance New England will be able to build off their early success and make some noise in the playoffs.
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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