- Nate Solder
Solder’s importance was evident last season for the Patriots, as the pass protection was never the same after he was lost for the season with a torn bicep muscle against the Cowboys in October. The tackle spot would become a revolving door for the Patriots and culminate in an AFC Championship game beatdown by the Broncos pass rush and the eventual Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller. Although he is not as popular as his predecessor, Matt Light, Solder is a good tackle who will be a major boost for the Patriots offensive line when he returns.
- Malcolm Butler
In his second full season as a pro in 2016, Butler shined for the Patriots. He, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Devin McCourty have become a formidable core of a defense that already have Super Bowl experience and continue to get better. The Patriots will need Butler to play at the same level as he did in 2015 to contend for a Super Bowl. Also, Butler is one good season away from earning a monsterous new contract, which will give him an added edge in 2016. The Patriots have games against high flying passing offenses including Arizona, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Seattle. Butler will no doubt have the most difficult assignments those weeks and be critical for New England’s chances in those games as well their overall playoff position once the season ends.
- Jimmy Garoppolo
Garoppolo is in one of the most unique positions in the NFL this decade. He’s getting a chance to be the opening day starter for the league’s premiere franchise and best coach. However, he has a time limit, only four games to showcase his skills before the team is handed back to it’s incumbent hall of famer, Tom Brady. Garoppolo will be thrown into the fire immediately on the road against Arizona to open the season and will have to play his first three games in an eleven day span. Having thrown 31 passes in his career, no one can be sure what to expect from Garoppolo. If he plays well, New England could end September 3-1 or 4-0. If not, the Patriots could find themselves trailing in the AFC East once Brady returns in October.
- Tom Brady
Once week five rolls around, Tom Brady will return the field to New England. In order for the Patriots to win their fifth Super Bowl, Brady will need to adjust quickly to his return and play at his customary elite level. If he has a healthy Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, Brady should be able to return to form quickly and propel the Patriots on a strong stretch run. The most important thing in New England is championships, and 2016 might be Brady’s best shot for the remainder of his career to win one.
- Bill Belichick
Belichick could be at the top of the list any year, but in 2016 his brilliance will be as critical as ever. Transitioning to Garoppolo at the start of the season and then back to Brady in week five will not be easy, neither will managing the health of Gronkowski, Edelman, Dion Lewis and the assimilation of Martellus Bennett. The Patriots defense is coming back mostly intact, but Belichick the GM will have some tough decisions to make for Belichick the coach when it comes to extensions for Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler and Jamie Collins.
Belichick’s strategy in 2015 was questioned after the Patriots lost a home game against Philadelphia and then mismanaged a week 17 game against Miami that ultimately prevented the Patriots from getting home field advantage for the postseason. Coming into 2016, Belichick has a loaded squad that is a Super Bowl favorite, but he has some difficult situations to manage, especially in the first two months of the season. If Belichick turns in another hall of fame season, the Patriots could very well be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.