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7 Patriots make ESPN's list of players and coaches that will define the 2018 NFL season

Once again, New England is projected to play a big role in shaping the NFL landscape.

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

No team has been as consistent since the dawn of the 21st century as the New England Patriots: The team has won 15 AFC East titles, eight conference championships, and five Super Bowls during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. Naturally, the team is again among the favorites to win it all in 2018 or at least play a vital role in shaping the NFL's landscape once more.

It is therefore not surprise to see seven members of the Patriots make ESPN's recent list of “99 NFL players, coaches and themes that will define 2018”. Let's take a look at who made the cut.

Veteran stars returning from injury

5. Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots: Edelman’s return will no doubt be of comfort to Tom Brady, who completed 356 passes to him from 2013 to 2016 – fifth most in the league during that time. But the Patriots always find ways to move past injuries. They scored an NFL-high 28.6 points per game after Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason last year.

Edelman was the Patriots' number one wide receiver in 2016 but missed all of last season due to a knee injury. The team is carefully bringing him back – he was limited during the two open OTA practices so far – but there is little doubt the veteran will again play a big role in New England's offense this year due to his experience, proven ability and leadership.

As important as Edelman is, there is a veteran returning from injury that might be even more vital to the Patriots' success: Dont'a Hightower. The linebacker ended his 2017 campaign on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury. The Patriots defense, after not seeing any high-profile additions to the linebacker corps this offseason, is undoubtedly better with its signal caller in the lineup.

Backup quarterbacks who could make a difference

41. Brian Hoyer, Patriots: Hey, he’s getting more May and June first-team reps than Patriots backup QBs usually get, right? As long as Tom Brady stays away, Hoyer gets the work he needs to get in order to be ready in case the soon-to-be 41-year-old Brady goes down at some point during the season.

While the Patriots invested a seventh-round draft pick in LSU quarterback Danny Etling, veteran Brian Hoyer is still the favorite to earn the top depth role behind Tom Brady. One of the most experienced backups in the NFL, Hoyer is not as exciting a number two as Jimmy Garoppolo was until last year but certainly one that should be capable to run New England's offense if need be – something the Patriots have to hope will never happen, though.

Most exciting offenses to watch

47. Gronk and the GOAT keep things rolling in New England: Julian Edelman’s return from injury will help the offense look more the way the Patriots want it to look. So long as Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady are on the field, the Pats retain the ability to score from just about anywhere. Sony Michel adds a fun element to the running game.

Even after moving on from Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, the Patriots are projected to have one of the most potent offenses in all of football. Led by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the unit has plenty of depth at wide receiver and running back as well. The biggest questions at the moment are at left tackle – will Isaiah Wynn or Trent Brown or LaAdrian Waddle replace long-time starter Nate Solder – and at the various depth spots.

Veteran non-QBs who need to prove it

73. Danny Shelton, DT, Patriots: The 2015 first-round pick is in a contract year with New England after the Browns declined to pick up his fifth-year option.

New England acquired Shelton via trade earlier this offseason. Considering what the team sent to the Cleveland Browns in order to add him, the former first-rounder is expected to make the 53-man roster and see considerable playing time along the defensive line. Shelton will play in a rotation together with Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy and be given every chance to set himself up well for free agency.

Potentially volatile situations

80. Brady-Belichick alliance: It will not last forever. Signs of strain are showing, making the Patriots the most intriguing soap opera in the league.

There have been plenty of rumors surrounding the Patriots this offseason, and the team's quarterback and head coach have been right in the middle of them. Ultimately, though, everything but both being their usual professional and productive selves once the season starts would be a huge surprise. The end will eventually come, sure, but it is doubtful it will happen in 2018.

Potential trade bait

90. Jeremy Hill, RB, Patriots: Just kind of a wild guess here, as the Patriots have more running backs than they can use, and it’s possible first-rounder Sony Michel carves out a significant role for himself early in the season. Rex Burkhead and James White appear set in their own roles, and if Hill shows he’s healthy and performs well, he could bring back something of value midseason.

New England signed Hill in March to add depth to a running back group that had just lost last year's number one option, Dion Lewis, to a multi-year offer by the Tennessee Titans. Fast forward three months, and the ex-Cincinnati Bengals runner finds himself fighting for one of what appears to be at best two roster spots behind the top trio consisting of Rex Burkhead, James White, and Sony Michel.

Hill's roster fate might very well be tied to Michel: If the first-round rookie needs some additional time to adjust to life in the NFL, Hill might start the year on the Patriots' 53-man roster. But the sooner Michel is ready to get regular snaps, the sooner New England might be willing to move on from Hill – potentially via trade, as ESPN believes.