The New England Patriots open training camp on July 25 with 90 players on the roster, and everything that happens from that point on will bring us closer and closer to the final 53-man roster.
A lot has changed since we last saw this team in action six months ago, leaving many open spots on the roster that may not otherwise be available. Thus, while practices will shape the roster, here's where things stand as we speak.
A huge hat tip goes to PatsFans.com for the always useful Pats Picker tool.
QB (2): Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett
If Tim Tebow is going to make the roster, it's going to have to be at quarterback. At present, the roster spot is simply too valuable to spend on a player who will likely never see the field. If Tebow shows a good deal of improvement as a quarterback, and gives any hint that he might one day develop into a legitimate passer, he could earn the spot, but it won't come easily.
RB (4): Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Leon Washington
Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount are essentially competing for one spot here. Bolden's experience in the offense and solid performance in 2012 earns him the nod for now. Leon Washington adds a missing dynamic in the return game, averaging 29 yards per return (third-highest in the NFL).
WR (6): Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Josh Boyce, Michael Jenkins
One of the Patriots biggest questions headed into the 2013 season is the dramatic turnover of the wide receiver position. Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson are locks, and Matthew Slater is invaluable for his special teams work as a gunner. Julian Edelman has the most experience in the Patriots offense of any receiver on the roster. Michael Jenkins' veteran savvy fits the mold of Patriots receivers in the past, and his size (6'4" and 215 lbs.) presents a missing element at the position.
TE (4): Jake Ballard, Zach Sudfeld, Daniel Fells, Brandon Ford
Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Rob Gronkowski will start training camp on the physically unable to perform list, which opens up a spot for another tight end. Jake Ballard looks like the de facto Gronkowski understudy, but Zach Sudfeld had an impressive offseason to this point, and has the right size for the part as well.
Brandon Ford could fill the Aaron Hernandez role as a versatile pass-catching tight end, and although his short-area quickness isn't as elite as Hernandez's, he could still find a role in the offense.
C (2): Ryan Wendell, Nick McDonald
As the starting center from last season, Ryan Wendell is a shoe-in for a roster spot this year. Both Wendell and Nick McDonald are regarded for their versatility between guard and center, which helps the Patriots greatly if they're ever in a pinch, but both have played center in the NFL and it will likely stay that way.
G (3): Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon
As of right now, Marcus Cannon is listed as an offensive linemen on the Patriots' official website, but with the loss of Donald Thomas to free-agency, the Patriots could probably use more depth on the interior. Cannon has long been considered a candidate to move inside, and his versatility between tackle and guard makes him a perfect backup.
T (3): Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Will Svitek
Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are firmly entrenched as the starting duo at offensive tackle, and rightly so, as they anchored a line that allowed Brady to be pressured on 25 percent of his drop-backs, the second-lowest average in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
Will Svitek adds great insurance in the event of injury, as he can play both tackle spots and has stepped up following an injury to a starter in the past with the Falcons. He's not much of a finesse blocker, but that fits the mold for this group.
DE (6): Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan
Six defensive ends may seem like a lot, but it's only one more than they had at the start of the 2012 season.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are the only locks.
Jermaine Cunningham earned a lot of good will last year by playing an unfamiliar role as a sub-package defensive tackle, rushing the passer from the inside. He also filled in at defensive end when Jones was injured for a pair of games. All in all, though, he still has something to prove.
Justin Francis came on strong at the end of the year, and really made his impact felt in the final game of the season with three sacks of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Word on the street is that Jake Bequette looked solid at OTAs, with Jones still recovering and not on the field. Bequette could find a role similar to Cunningham's, playing all over the line as a primary backup.
Michael Buchanan logged a gaudy 13.5 sacks in 2011, but his production nearly slipped to half that with just seven sacks in 2012. His 6'6", 255-pound frame is surely enticing at defensive end, with the quickness to get around blockers, but there's still a way to go before Buchanan proves himself worthy of the roster.
DT (4): Vince Wilfork, Armond Armstead, Tommy Kelly, Marcus Forston
With four defensive tackles, the Patriots still have plenty of options between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes â€” despite moving on from both Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick this offseason. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both have extensive NFL experience in both fronts, and are the locks at the spot.
Armond Armstead showed a ton of potential for the Grey Cup Champion Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, primarily as a 4-3 defensive tackle, but he has the skill set to play in a two-gap 3-4 as well.
Marcus Forston was added as an undrafted free-agent last year. Now that Love and Deaderick are out of the picture, the door has opened for significant snaps on the inside of the Patriots defensive line. For now, Forston gets the nod for his experience.
ILB (3): Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Niko Koutouvides
The Patriots have some long-term questions ahead at middle linebacker. Brandon Spikes is in a contract year, so they'll need to decide how they feel about him, both in terms of his dominance against the run and tendency to get beaten in pass coverage.
Dane Fletcher returns from ACL surgery as the backup on a one-year deal. One, both or neither could be gone next year.
Niko Koutouvides has been a core special teams player for years; it's always been his meal ticket, and that should continue in 2013.
OLB (3): Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo
No surprises here. The Patriots first pick of the 2013 draft joins two former first-round picks at outside linebacker, where the Patriots are probably hoping to get a bit better pass coverage at the position.
CB (5): Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Ras-I Dowling
Colleague Ben Volin reported that the Patriots will not cut Alfonzo Dennard, but they are ready for him to be suspended. If that's the case, they may be able to fit someone else onto the roster in the meantime, but this process could take awhile to play out, which would delay his suspension.
Ras-I Dowling is entering a make-or-break training camp. He'll not only have to stay healthy but also prove that he has improved since his rookie year, despite not playing very much due to injuries. Dowling always struck me as more of an outside corner, so he may compete with Dennard in that sense, but he could be competing with Logan Ryan for the final roster spot at cornerback. Here, I have both making the roster.
SS (2): Tavon Wilson, Adrian Wilson
Nate Ebner adds some value on special teams, but he played just 36 snaps on defense last year.
Tavon Wilson started five games in the middle of the season last year, after starters went down with injuries. This year, he will be in a tight race with Adrian Wilson for the starting role, and the two could be involved in a rotation with Wilson filling the role of a safety/linebacker "Money" defensive back.
FS (3): Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, Duron Harmon
Devin McCourty finally gets to spend a full offseason at safety to hone his skills at the position. He's always been very good with his eyes on the quarterback, and he could grow into a great safety if this summer goes swimmingly for him.
Some folks are torn on Steve Gregory, but his versatility between the two safety spots is a huge plus for me, and he has played cornerback in his career as well (played in the slot in 2009 with the Chargers).
Duron Harmon fills the special teams safety role left vacant by Nate Ebner, and considering his billing as a third-round pic, it's hard not to consider him a lock for the roster.
ST (3) Stephen Gostkowski, Danny Aiken, Zoltan Mesko
Despite young additions at kicker and punter, the Patriots look ready to return the same trio that's been together for three years. Zoltan Mesko has improved every year in the league, and has been one of the league's deadliest and landing opponents inside the 20-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski will be looking to rebound after a tougher year than usual, in which he made 82.9 percent of his field goal tries (career average of 84.2)
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