For the New England Patriots to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five top players who can help make that happen:
Tom Brady, QB: The reigning NFL Most Valuable Players turns 41 on Aug. 3, and has shown little, if any, signs of slippage. While his importance to the Patriots on the field is obvious, the Jimmy Garoppolo-less depth chart behind him augments the level of that importance. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews perhaps said it best: "He's the greatest of all time, so obviously there's a presence that comes with him. At the same time, it's a calmness, too."
Stephon Gilmore, CB: The Patriots' top free-agent signing from 2017, he got off to a slower start in his first season with the team before finishing with authority. His length, athleticism and physicality were among the things the team liked in targeting him, as well as how he is a strong program guy. With Malcolm Butler now in Tennessee, Gilmore's role as the team's No. 1 corner will be crucial.
Rob Gronkowski, TE: After questioning his future in the immediate aftermath of a disappointing Super Bowl loss, Gronkowski is back for a ninth NFL season, and said in June that he feels great physically. In part because Gronkowski has endured pain and multiple surgeries, he's now in a year-to-year mindset in terms of his career, and his decision to return is good news for the Patriots because he remains one of the toughest players for defenders to match up against.
Dont'a Hightower, LB: After missing the second half of the 2017 season with a torn biceps, Hightower has vowed to do everything possible to be on the field for all 16 regular-season games. The defense benefits greatly from his presence in the middle, first from a communication and leadership standpoint, and then with his physical style of play. With the Patriots not making any major additions at linebacker in the offseason, it further highlights Hightower's importance.
Isaiah Wynn/Trent Brown, LT: Who replaces Nate Solder as Brady's blindside protector? The Patriots selected Wynn in the first round (No. 23) because they believe he's potentially capable, but they also traded for Brown to give themselves more options. In June's minicamp, Brown took more reps at left tackle, with Wynn at left guard, and the two have developed a quick rapport. They are both coming off shoulder injuries but are expected to be ready for when it counts.