FOXBOROUGH, MASS. - Every year a team has unsung heroes or x-factors that help play a major role in winning a championship.
Last year for the New England Patriots, it was guys like Kyle Van Noy, Trent Brown, and JC Jackson who helped push the team to the next level. Without players like these, the team never wins their second Super Bowl in three years.
Whether they are rookies, free agent acquisitions, or veterans coming off an injury, these players essentially make-or-break seasons for NFL franchises. That is why getting the best out of those types of players can lead to a championship for an NFL team.
Here are four players that could make-or-break the Patriots' pursuit for Super Bowl number seven.
1.) Josh Gordon
After Tom Brady posted a picture working out with Josh Gordon last week, the idea of the former All-Pro receiver returning this upcoming season has begun to seem like a realistic possibility. And after the strong season in 2018, it's easy to see why this would be a very exciting development for Patriots fans.
In 11 games with New England, Gordon recorded 40 receptions for 720 yards and three touchdowns. With that type of production, Gordon would be welcomed back with open arms if he was reinstated by the league during the 2019 season.
The Patriots currently have three receivers who are presumed locks to make the final 53-man roster (Julian Edelman, N'keal Harry, and Phillip Dorsett). Free agent acquisition Demaryius Thomas is likely to begin the season on the PUP.
With Rob Gronkowski retiring, this isn't a receiving core that should exactly strike fear into opposing defenses. Add Gordon into the mix and it's a completely different story.
2.) Demaryius Thomas
Could you imagine a receiver group that features Edelman, Gordon, a healthy Thomas, and Harry? That would be one of the more talented groups of receivers that Brady has played with in quite some time.
However, this all hinges on Thomas returning from an achilles tear that he suffered late last season. The injury occurred in late December which means there are just about eight months between his injury and the start of the regular season. If you remember correctly, Thomas suffered a torn achilles in 2011 and was lifted off the PUP just before the start of the season. In that instance, he only had from February to September to rehab and was still able to make it back.
If Thomas can make history repeat itself then he could be ready to go for the start of the 2019 season.
You might think that Thomas won't be the player he once was. But keep in mind that he put up 1434 yards and ten touchdowns just a season removed from his last achilles injury. If anybody can make this type of comeback, it's Thomas.
3.) Matt LaCosse
When Gronkowski retired, New England understood they needed to revamp the tight end position. They did so by signing Denver Broncos free agent Matt LaCosse.
Even with his signing, the Patriots were still expected to target a tight end early in the 2019 NFL Draft. Well, the draft came and went without the team using any of their selections to address the position.
Instead, they lured former Patriot Ben Watson out of retirement to help shoulder the load. Shortly after his signing, it was announced that Watson would serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, which meant all focus turned back to LaCosse once Austin Seferian-Jenkins was cut.
It's understandable for New England fans to not feel very enthusiastic about LaCosse entering the 2019 season as the team's starting tight end. Last season, he recorded just 24 receptions for 250 yards and a score. The season prior he failed to record a catch. That's a far cry from what an even hobbled Gronkowski was able to produce.
With that being said, Brady has turned virtual nobodies into pro-bowl receivers before, so there's no reason to think he won't be able to do it again. Also, the team would not have signed LaCosse if they didn't believe he could be a valued asset in their offense.
LaCosse is set up to have the best season of his young career.
4.) Michael Bennett
The Patriots pass-rush suffered a major hit when Trey Flowers signed a 5-year, $90 million contract with the Detroit Lions in free agency. What was New England losing? Just the guy who led the team in sacks each of the past three seasons.
Knowing they were likely going to lose out on Flowers, the Patriots went out and traded for veteran defensive end Michael Bennett just before the start of free agency.
The former Philadelphia Eagle enjoyed a successful 2018 campaign, recording nine sacks and 30 QB hits. His nine sacks would have put him above Flowers for most sacks on the team this past season.
All eyes will be on 33-year-old Bennett to help replace what they lost in free agency.