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New England Patriots: Predicting 5 Surprise Starters in 2014

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New England Patriots: Predicting 5 Surprise Starters in 2014

Dominique Easley
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For you Patriots die-hards, the number you need to know is 79. That's how many days it is from this article being published until the 2014 Patriots take the field for their season opener at the division rival Dolphins. Last season, the Phish upset the division champion Patriots 24-20 in Miami, but this season, the Patriots will have a few contrasting names lining up as starters, which very well could lead to the franchise's fourth crown.

5. TE-Michael Hoomanawanui

Michael Hoomanawanui
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5. TE-Michael Hoomanawanui

Michael Hoomanawanui
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Rob Gronkowski may be on the sidelines nursing an ACL tear when Week 1 rolls around, so into the starting lineup comes "Hooman." The four-year vet had his best season since his rookie campaign a year ago, but those figures were not exactly groundbreaking. Just 12 catches for 136 yards and one score, down from his first year numbers of 13, 146 and three. However, Gronk will likely get injured later in the slate and Hooman will be back.

4. S-Duron Harmon

Duron Harmon
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4. S-Duron Harmon

Duron Harmon
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The two-year run of Steve Gregory at safety ended in February when the Patriots released Gregory and his .6 million salary. A spot on the starting defense is now vacant among the likes of Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, the former Patriot who spent one-year hiatus in Philadelphia. Harmon, the 2013 third-round pick from Rugters, is the front-runner, after starting three games a year ago in Gregory's place.

3. DE-Will Smith

Will Smith Tony Romo
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3. DE-Will Smith

Will Smith Tony Romo
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The 2004 first-round pick was one of the most stable defensive ends in the NFL, missing just three games in his first nine years until a torn ACL last preseason made 2013 a lost year. If Smith, who turns 33 before the season starts, can muster anywhere close to his old production (67.5 career sacks), coupled with the rehabbing Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, he could force Rob Ninkovich to outside linebacker.

2. WR-Brandon LaFell

Brandon LaFell
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2. WR-Brandon Lafell

Brandon LaFell
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LaFell may be trailing Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson on the Patriots' depth chart, but the sizable import from Carolina could emerge to be the deepest of threats with Tom Brady throwing the ball, a positional asset the signal caller has missed since Randy Moss departed four years ago. With Cam Newton throwing to him, LaFell caught a respectable 93 passes the last two seasons, and that figure could go up with Brady's trust.

1. DT-Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley Johnny Manziel
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1. DT-Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley Johnny Manziel
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Easley may be undersized for a defensive tackle (6-foot-2, 284 pounds), watch Nickelodeon instead of ESPN and be another Patriot recovering from an ACL tear, but later in the season, expect the rookie to see more time for the aging Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. He certainly represents more upside than Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, the undrafted rookie duo from a season ago that combined to start 19 games.