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Fab Five: The most underrated Patriots

While the Patriots have their share of high-profile superstars, each man in the locker room will tell you that it takes 53 players — and sometimes more, when you add in the practice squadders — to make a team. To that end, here’€™s our pick for the five most underrated Patriots — the unheralded guys who don’€™t get the headlines like some of their counterparts, but who are just as integral to the success of the franchise on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis.

Tight end Daniel Fells: The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has assumed the same role that Alge Crumpler [1] had in 2010 — an older tight end who has served as something of a steadying, veteran presence for younger Rob Gronkowski [2] and Aaron Hernandez [3]. And while he hasn’€™t had much of a statistical impact (he has three catches on nine targets for 77 yards this season), with the recent injury to Gronkowski, he has seen a sizable uptick in his playing time. He was on the field for 103 of a possible 151 snaps over the last two weeks, and while he didn’€™t have the same impact that Gronkowski has, he was essentially doing his job as an end of the line blocker. Most importantly, he was a consistent presence on the field during New England’€™s 16-play series in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins, the best offensive sequence of the season for the Patriots.

Running back Danny Woodhead [4]: Woodhead appears so often on these types of underrated lists, he might actually be perfectly rated, but there are few more versatile options in the New England offense. He’€™s the only guy on the team with at least 25 carries and 25 receptions — he has 58 rushes and 26 catches through 12 games. (The last Patriots player to go over 25/25 in the same year was Kevin Faulk [5] in 2009 — he finished that year with 62 carries and 37 receptions.) He’€™s also the most dependable receiver on the team — he has 26 catches on 32 targets, and his 81 percent reception rate is the best on the team among pass catchers with at least 10 receptions. He’€™s seen a recent downturn in snaps (particularly with the recent emergence of Shane Vereen [6] as an option in the passing game), but he remains a steady third-down option. In the wake of the injury to Julian Edelman [7], the 5-foot-8, 200-pounder could see more action as the regular-season comes to a close.

Center Ryan Wendell: A part-time interior offensive lineman over the course of his first three seasons with the Patriots, the undrafted free agent out of Fresno State stepped into a starting role for the first time this year and has become one of New England’€™s most dependable offensive linemen. Taking over for veteran Dan Koppen [8] (who was released shortly before the start of the regular season), Wendell has been the centerpiece of one of the best offensive lines in football. Pro Football Focus says the 6-foot-2, 300-pounder is one of the best centers in the league — his grade of +16.2 when it comes to run blocking is best in the league, and his overall grade of +14.4 through the first 12 games of the season is third on the New England offense (he trails only Tom Brady [9] and Gronkowski). In addition, on an offensive line that’€™s seen it’€™s share of injury, Wendell has held up very nicely. His 924 offensive snaps this season is second on the offense to left tackle Nate Solder [10] (927).

Special teamer Matthew Slater [11]: He’€™s listed as a wide receiver on the roster, but that’€™s just because they can’€™t list in as a pure special teamer. One of the singular nicest people you will ever meet, Slater has carved out an impressive niche as an elite special teamer, using his speed and moxie to become a Pro Bowler. The UCLA product, in his fourth season with the Patriots, was voted as a special teams captain, and a closer look at the tape this season reveals why. A former college track star, the 6-foot, 210-pounder consistently one of the first downfield when it comes to coverage. His special teams skills, his willingness to do just about anything (he’€™s worked as a defensive back and wide receiver in his time with New England) and his speed make him an integral part of the Patriots’€™ special teams unit.

Quarterback Ryan Mallett [12]: The backup quarterback is in charge of running the scout team offense each week in hopes of getting the starting defense a good look at what to expect. That means Mallett has over the course of the 2012 season, Mallett has imitated Peyton Manning [13], Andrew Luck [14], Jake Locker [15] and Joe Flacco [16]. It’€™s a job Bill Belichick [17] takes very seriously — following the 2003 AFC championship game, Belichick awarded a game ball to backup quarterback Damon Huard [18], who spent all week working as Manning to try and get the New England defense ready. (One other thing worth mentioning when it comes to Mallett: The quarterback was tainted by the whiff of scandal and character issues when he was taken in the third round of the draft out of Arkansas, but has been nothing but an exemplary teammate while he’€™s been with the Patriots.)