Each week, theScore will go division by division, highlighting which three players’ performance will most impact their team’s season in 2017.

Tom Brady

Sometimes the obvious choice is also the right one.

The Patriots are an intricate machine; crafted, put together piece by piece, and maintained by Bill Belichick. But despite the hype surrounding a certain backup, Brady is the key cog in the New England behemoth.

No one else can make the wheels spin like him, and Belichick has ensured the Patriots are prepared for any decline from Brady, however unlikely, by giving him arguably the most diverse set of weapons in his illustrious 17-year career.

Until Father Time takes Brady down, no New England player comes close to bearing the same weight of responsibility for the team’s success as the five-time champ.

Brandin Cooks


(Photo courtesy: Action Images)

When the Patriots give up a first-round pick for a player, you know they have big plans for him. Brandin Cooks flashed superstar potential in his first two years in the league, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the New Orleans Saints, and will fully realize his potential under the guidance of Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

While the Patriots’ offense is bursting at the seams with weapons, Cooks will be the X-factor – a weapon that can win games in a split second thanks to his lightning-quick speed. He should also reinvigorate New England’s deep passing game, which jolted back to life last season thanks to Chris Hogan, but is still an underutilized part of the offense.

Cooks was likely brought in to be the Patriots’ go-to guy whenever the team transitions from Brady to Garoppolo (or whoever his successor eventually is). But make no mistake, the 23-year-old is primed to become one of New England’s indispensable players right now.

Kony Ealy

Another player acquired via trade this offseason, Ealy may not be the most talented edge rusher in the league. His career peaked in Super Bowl 50, when he put on a historic performance for the Carolina Panthers, finishing the game with three sacks. However, he failed to make a leap in 2016, posting five sacks in 16 games – the same as his 2015 numbers.

But the Patriots have a way of pulling every last bit of potential out of players, and they desperately need Ealy to raise his game. While New England often seems invincible, they do have weaknesses – their pass rush being chief among them.

The Patriots posted 34 sacks as a team in 2016, tied for 16th in the league, and they lack a player capable of consistently winning one-on-one matchups. If Ealy turns into a force, the Patriots could truly become unstoppable.

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