Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/2/12
Who is primed for a disappointing 2012 campaign? How about a better season than 2011?

It is tough to tell at this stage, but based on previous seasons and the first week of training camp let us take a closer look.

Five players poised for a better season in 2012:

1 Aaron Hernandez: According to multiple reports and sources, Hernandez has been absolutely spectacular in camp. He is a match-up nightmare for defenses. Last season, he was matched up against team's third best defensive back and put up over 900 yards receiving.

This year, thanks to the acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, he will be going against opponents’ fourth best DB. Talk about a mismatch. I expect Hernandez to catch close to (if not more than) 100 passes and amass nearly 1,200 yards receiving.

2 Ras-I Dowling: Dowling was plagued with injuries in his rookie season last year, but he looks to have come back with a fire and a will to prove something to his fellow teammates. He has been the team's best cornerback throughout training camp, and apparently has lockdown potential. My only concern is whether or not Dowling can stay healthy. If he can remain on the football field and off the sidelines, he could be a force for this secondary.

3 Nate Solder: Solder, the team's first-round pick in 2011, played some games at the right tackle position last season so that he would gain some experience in game-like situations. The goal with Solder was to mold him into a strong tackle that would eventually take over as quarterback Tom Brady’s blindside protector when Matt Light retired.

That day came one year sooner than the Patriots had hoped, so Solder will be making that switch to left tackle this season rather than next. So far, he has not disappointed. After an up-and-down 2011 season (which is natural for a rookie), Solder has seemed to find a way to utilize his strengths, particularly his freakish size, and is doing a decent job throughout camp.

He can become one of the league’s best offensive tackles, and this season he will take another step towards becoming just that.

4 Stevan Ridley: According to every Patriots scout, Ridley has been the Patriots' best running back at camp so far. It’s tough to put him in the “improve” category because he had such a great rookie campaign (rushing for a whopping 5.1 yards per attempt).

However, he ran the ball just 87 times last season and he fumbled the ball twice – once in the playoffs. This season he looks like he will be “the guy” for the Patriots, and to be that player it is obvious that Ridley will have to carry the ball more times this year.

Can he keep his average up with more carries? I think he can, maybe not quite 5.1 YPA, but a solid 4.5 YPA would be nice. Can he hold onto the football? Reports say that Ridley has yet to fumble in camp and that he has been working on that aspect of his game the most. Can he rush for 1,000 yards? It depends on how much the Patriots want to throw the football, but if they give him a chance then I think he can do it.

5 Brandon Spikes: After reading the article on ESPNBoston.com about how much more intense the defense is with Spikes on the field, it got me thinking – when was the Patriots' defense at its best last season? During the playoffs, when Spikes was on the field.

When was it the worst? When Spikes was not on the field due to injury. He sets the tone for the defense with his menacing presence and hard hits. I watched Spikes play in college at the University of Florida and knew he would be a stud. He has yet to disappoint. I put him in this category because he needs to stay healthy for a full 16 games. If he can do that, he will have his best season yet.

Five players poised for a worse season in 2012:

1 Rob Gronkowski: Do not hate me yet, Gronk fans, just hear me out. Gronkowski is a beast. Period. He is too fast for linebackers, and then he is too fast for safeties. But production has to drop at some point, right? Expecting another record-breaking campaign is expecting too much.

I am sure that teams are planning how to stop this guy right now, and someone will eventually succeed. Will he still be the best tight end in the league? Probably, and he will still probably have 12 or 13 touchdowns as well as 1,000-plus yards receiving. But Brady has other receivers this year; more options to throw to this season. That means that Gronk’s production should drop, even if it only drops a slight bit.

2 Vince WIlfork: Wilfork is the anchor of the Patriots' defense; his performance in the 2011 AFC Championship may have been the best I saw all season by a nose tackle.

Last season, he ended up playing just over 86 percent of the defensive snaps, which in turn made his production go up. That is too much for a big man like him. With the addition of Jonathan Fanene, as well as a few more healthy players like Ron Brace being back in the mix, I expect Wilfork’s production to take a slight dip in 2012.

3 Logan Mankins: Mankins has been to multiple Pro Bowls throughout his career and is consistently in the conversation for “best guard in the league". His toughness was displayed when he played though and ACL tear in last year's Super Bowl. But he did tear his ACL, and in turn has not been able to practice yet this season.

Everyone remembers when players like Tom Brady and Wes Welker returned from ACL tears in recent years– they were not quite the same the following season. Not bad, just not as good. Mankins will be no different. When he returns, he will not be the same player, at least during 2012. Not bad, just not the Pro Bowler that Patriots fans have come to love.

4 Deion Branch: Branch has been a favorite target of Brady’s for years, and still every season fans seem to doubt his ability. He has dealt with many injuries over his many years in the NFL, but yet he still seems to consistently produce solid stats. I think this is the year that it all catches up to Branch.

If Branch makes the roster, he will be fighting for time on the field with players such as Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Welker, and the tight ends. The only time we will probably see Branch is when they run four or five-wide receiver sets, so do not expect another 700 yard season like last year.

5 Kyle Arrington: Arrington led the NFL in interceptions last season [with seven], but do not expect that again. Arrington also had his share of problems that [through the start of training camp] do not seem to be fixed. He is beaten in coverage a lot, especially over the top.

He misreads plays often, and jumps at the opportunity to get an interception–which only sometimes pays off. He will not get another seven interceptions this season, and could hinder this secondary if he is forced to play on the outside and not in the slot during the 2012 season.
 

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