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Roster decisions: Time to get a clue

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / August 18, 2011

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TAMPA - Now the fun begins.

Unfortunately for the high-paying patrons who go to Gillette Stadium, they will only get to see it on television.

They got the no-name show against the Jaguars, and will get a cameo appearance by Tom Brady & Co. in the exhibition finale against the Giants Sept. 1.

If that.

With just five days between the final two exhibitions, Patriots fans might not see Brady throw a pass in person until the Week 2 matchup with the Chargers.

Welcome back, NFL.

In between, the roster will be settled on the road. First up, the Buccaneers tonight at Raymond James Stadium. Then a trip to Detroit to take on the Lions.

Two good tests for the Patriots against young and improving teams that need to prove their mettle.

Bill Belichick and his assistants should have their roster settled by the end of this stretch, but there is still much uncertainty.

Injuries have clouded the futures of several players behind the Great Blue Curtain. Only those on the inside know exactly what will unfold.

The rest of us are left to guess whether the likes of receiver Brandon Tate will ever see the field again to prove worthy of a roster spot.

Two of the Patriots’ top three draft picks, cornerback Ras-I Dowling and running back Shane Vereen, lasted all of one practice before heading to the sideline.

For Dowling, this is nothing new. He played five games in 2010 at Virginia and has a lengthy injury history that stretches back at least until his junior year in high school.

Vereen never missed a game at Cal. But a guy with sprinter-type speed has missed out on a chance to take the kick return position, among other things. Dowling and Vereen have lost invaluable practice time, and lessened their chances of having a big impact this season.

But green or not, they’re undoubtedly headed onto the 53-man roster. Since they practiced, albeit briefly, they are not eligible for the physically unable to perform list, which would allow them to get back on the roster after Week 6. It’s either injured reserve or the roster.

The jury is also out on veterans Ryan Wendell (guard/center), Mike Wright (defensive line), and James Sanders (safety). They also practiced.

Wouldn’t worry much about big Albert Haynesworth. The Patriots saw what he could do, and are likely just getting him fit for the season. It wouldn’t be a shock if they kept him out the entire preseason, a la Randy Moss in 2007. Why put on film what you can keep hidden from opponents? It’s not like one-gapping on a four-man line is rocket science.

As far as the players who are still on the field, the competition ratchets up tonight. Here’s a look at the positions that will be in the spotlight:

Defensive line. This is going to be a chore to sort out, and other teams will be salivating for the scraps. Assuming Wright, Shaun Ellis, Ron Brace, and Brandon Deaderick get healthy and take the field, all 20 players could play in this league. Expect the Patriots to try to be active on the trade front as the two cutdown days (Aug. 30, to 75, and Sept. 3, to 53) approach. Hard to see the Patriots parting with Myron Pryor or Kyle Love, which means it will be difficult, but not impossible, for Gerard Warren to have a spot. Brace, Deaderick, Kade Weston, Landon Cohen, and Darryl Richard could all contribute somewhere. Undrafted ends Aaron Lavarias and Alex Silvestro have shown promise, as has sixth-round pick Markell Carter. But the Patriots certainly can’t keep everyone. They’ll have to hope those three make it through waivers.

Receiver. Taylor Price has locked up a roster spot, and it looks like Julian Edelman (injured) will be on it as well since he’s the only punt returner. That leaves Matthew Slater, Tate, undrafted Jeremy Ross, and Darnell Jenkins fighting for one or possibly two spots. Tate’s injury woes and his dramatic dropoff in kickoff production the second half of last season put him at risk. Will the new kickoff rules do the same for Slater? “I think, really, you’ve got to think about it,’’ Belichick said this week about special teamers in general. “If, instead of covering 60 kickoffs in a year, you think you’re only going to be covering 30, then is that coverage player as important?’’

Tight end. This one appears to be getting tighter. Fifth-round pick Lee Smith, who was drafted solely for his blocking, appeared to have the third spot nailed down when Alge Crumpler was released. But undrafted Will Yeatman has shown up just as well in blocking, and offers more in the passing game. The Patriots could keep both, but the numbers seem too tight. They could choose to go with just two to save a roster spot, even with Aaron Hernandez’s injury history. And then the Patriots could think about bringing Crumpler back when his shoulder is healed. If the Patriots need another blocking tight end badly enough, tackles Nate Solder and/or Steve Maneri could probably manage. Carson Butler seems to be on the outside after missing two kickoff blocks against Jacksonville.

Offensive line. Maneri won the No. 4 tackle spot when Mark LeVoir was released yesterday. Wendell being healthy to back up both guard and center could open up a spot for Marcus Cannon once his cancer treatments are over, although the PUP list seems like a logical landing spot. Rich Ohrnberger is the only other player with versatility, but his consistency is maddening. When he puts it together, he is a tough hombre at the point of attack. If the Ohrnberger era comes to an end, Thomas Austin would be the next man up. The Patriots would have to feel good about Wendell’s health for that to happen.

Cornerback. If Dowling gets healthy, he is one of the top four players. That would leave former second-round pick Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite, and seventh-round pick Malcolm Williams fighting for one or two spots. The Patriots really like Williams on special teams, but he is also injured and didn’t flash against Jacksonville. Butler could be fighting hard for a roster spot. He gives more than Wilhite on special teams at the moment.

Safety. Is this the end of line for Brandon Meriweather, who is in the final year of his contract? We’re not willing to say that yet, but if the Patriots give Sergio Brown a shot at a starting spot against the Buccaneers, things could get interesting. If Meriweather is cut or traded, that would open a spot for Brett Lockett, who has good special teams value, or Josh Barrett. He’s also an injury enigma.

Linebacker. How many the Patriots keep will be intertwined with what transpires on the line. It appears veterans Tracy White and Niko Koutouvides are fighting with young upstarts Jeff Tarpinian (injured) and Marques Murrell for one to three spots. The versatility and special teams value of the veterans make it easier to go lighter than normal at linebacker.

How will the numbers game shake out? We’ll start to get some answers tonight.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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