Impacting the future of Patriots-Colts

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts faced off 14 times from 2000-2009, and some of those contests were epic battles with high stakes. Now comes a new decade of the rivalry and a chance for new stars to emerge.

Here are five players from each team -- all of whom are within their first few years in the NFL -- who are in position to play major roles in the next decade of the rivalry:


S Patrick Chung -- The 2009 second-round draft choice, who was selected with the draft choice acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel, looks like a star in the making. The former Oregon standout returned to the lineup Sunday night in Pittsburgh and added an immediate spark. Despite missing two games, and the second half of another, coaches have credited him with 55 tackles, the third-highest total on the club.

TE Rob Gronkowski -- At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, he is the Mark Bavaro-type tight end that coach Bill Belichick covets -- big enough to be a blocking presence at the line, but athletic enough to be a matchup problem for defenses downfield in the passing game. The 2010 second-round draft choice exploded Sunday night in Pittsburgh with three touchdown receptions, becoming just the sixth rookie tight end since 1960 to record three touchdown catches in one game.

TE Aaron Hernandez -- Although his official position is tight end, the Patriots most often utilize him like a receiver by splitting him out wide and sometimes handing him the ball on end-around running plays. The 2010 fourth-round draft choice out of Florida has 34 receptions for 436 yards, both of which rank second on the team, and he has been especially productive after the catch.

CB Devin McCourty -- The team's 2010 first-round draft choice out of Rutgers, he has been one of the team's most consistent defenders, missing just one snap all season. McCourty's selection was initially unpopular in New England -- analysts and fans were calling for more pass-rush help and a player like Texas Christian's Jerry Hughes -- but few are complaining now. McCourty has shown signs of developing into a potential shutdown-type cover man.

RB Danny Woodhead -- Technically a third-year player, the shifty, tough running back is getting his first chance at extended snaps on offense and is making the most of it. Cut by the Jets, Woodhead was signed after veteran Patriots RB Kevin Faulk tore his ACL. The 5-foot-8, 195-pound Woodhead has added a spark to the offense, rushing for 243 yards and two touchdowns while adding 18 catches for 196 yards and a touchdown. New England officials have already approached his representatives about a contract extension.


RB Donald Brown -- The 2009 first-round draft choice out of Connecticut has battled injuries since entering the league, limiting him to 17 of a possible 25 games, and he hasn't seized the top job when healthy. Yet when projecting the future of the rivalry between the teams, Brown should be given the opportunity to emerge as both a runner and pass-catcher, especially considering that running back Joseph Addai could depart in 2011 free agency.

WR Austin Collie -- Prior to being sidelined the past two games, the 2009 fourth-round draft choice from Brigham Young was on fire, having totaled 45 receptions for 502 yards and six touchdowns. He has become a weapon to be accounted for alongside Reggie Wayne. Collie already has 13 career touchdowns, a total that figures to grow as he continues to develop more chemistry with QB Peyton Manning.

DE Jerry Hughes -- Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can't play forever, so the Colts were thinking of the future when they made Hughes their 2010 first-round draft choice. The former Texas Christian pass-rusher was considered a natural fit at defensive end in the Colts' 4-3 scheme. Hughes is off to a slow start in his rookie season -- with just two tackles and no sacks -- but it's hard to imagine he won't be more of a factor in the future.

DT Fili Moala -- The Colts aren't known for their size up front, but the 2009 second-round pick out of Southern Cal gives them some bulk in the middle, and it looks like he'll be a fixture for years to come between the team's high-energy ends. After contributing sparingly in his rookie campaign, Moala (6-3, 303) has been a consistent starter this year.

CB Jerraud Powers -- The 2009 third-round draft choice out of Auburn was one of the NFL's better rookies last season, starting 12 regular-season games at right cornerback. In the playoffs, he added two interceptions. With Patriots QB Tom Brady signed through 2014 -- which means at least another five years of his presence in the New England/Indianapolis rivalry -- the Colts will need their youngsters in the secondary to rise up, and Powers is one of their best.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.