At the moment, the Patriots have nearly 100 players on the roster, and that number must be reduced down to 53 by August 31. High-profile veteran will be cut and inexperienced rookies will get their first taste of failure in the NFL.
But for the 53 men who survive the fight for a roster spot, the reward couldn't be greater.
Here is the projected final 53-man roster for the New England Patriots.
1) Tom Brady
2) Brian Hoyer
3) Ryan Mallett
Quarterback is one of the positions that is as clear-cut as they come. Tom Brady has been the face of the Patriots for the last decade. Brian Hoyer has been Brady's backup for a few years, ever since Matt Cassel was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, and Ryan Mallett was drafted last year to be Brady's successor.
Continuity is important at the quarterback position, and the Patriots should have no problem keeping it. All three quarterbacks will be with the team in 2012.
The only thing to keep an eye on is the order of Hoyer and Mallett on the depth chart. It seemed as though Mallett was creeping up on Hoyer in training camp. But he was too inconsistent in Thursday's preseason game against the New Orleans Saints to become Brady's backup just yet.
1) Stevan Ridley
2) Danny Woodhead
3) Shane Vereen
4) Brandon Bolden
With Joseph Addai gone, Stevan Ridley is the unquestioned leader of the Patriots' group of running backs. He showed great explosiveness last year as a rookie, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and recording every 20+-yard run for the Pats (five). He also showed tremendous burst off the edge on Thursday night.
With more experience and time to get familiar with the offense, Ridley should be one of the top rushers in the AFC.
Danny Woodhead will remain the change-of-pace/third-down back. Woodhead is also a receiving threat when leaking out of the backfield. The 27-year-old may see time on special teams. His versatility will make him a mainstay on the roster for years to come.
After only appearing minimally least year, scoring one touchdown in garbage time against the Chiefs, Shane Vereen will see an expanded role in 2012. Vereen was drafted in the second round last year, but dealt with injuries throughout last season.
One area of concern was that Vereen was the last of the Patriots running backs to make it into the Pats' first preseason game. However, when he got in the game, he was exceptional, rushing for well over half the team's yards on its only scoring drive. He should definitely see more playing time this season.
Brandon Bolden has been one of the biggest surprises in training camp. Signed as an undrafted free agent, Bolden has displayed a nice power run game and good hands out of the backfield. The Pats will likely keep Bolden to see how he pans out. He'll see a ton of playing time in the preseason.
1) Rob Gronkowski
2) Aaron Hernandez
When the Pats signed veteran TE Visanthe Shiancoe late last month, it seemed as though the Patriots might keep three tight ends. However, Shiancoe has been out with a hamstring injury that has kept coaches from seeing him play in training camp.
Holding on to a third tight end would be difficult, as the roster is jam-packed with talent at that position.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, dubbed the Boston TE Party, are both going to make the cut by a healthy margin. The dynamic duo combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Gronk may still be feeling some effects from an injury sustained in a January playoff game, but he should be all set by the time the season opener rolls around.
1) Wes Welker
2) Brandon Lloyd
3) Jabar Gaffney
4) Donte' Stallworth
5) Julian Edelman
6) Matthew Slater
The Pats loaded up on wide receivers over the offseason, bringing in several names, the most notable being Brandon Lloyd.
Lloyd will join Wes Welker at the top of the depth chart and will likely become one of Brady's favorite targets. He brings an ability to make spectacular catches. He is the deep threat that the Pats have missed since Randy Moss was shipped to Minnesota in early 2010.
Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth were also signed recently, both returning to the Patriots after playing in New England from 2006-2008 and in 2007, respectively.
Last year, Gaffney caught 68 passes for nearly 950 yards and five touchdowns, while Stallworth saw less action with 22 receptions for 309 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The two will likely fill the No. 3 and 4 spots on the depth chart.
Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater will both play big roles on special teams, Edelman as a punt returner and Slater as a do-it-all special-teamer.
Edelman also saw playing time at wide receiver and defensive back. He also emulated Tim Tebow in practices last year, allowing the defense to adjust to a left-handed passer. Slater was a Pro-Bowler and a team captain. Both players are invaluable to the team.
Deion Branch will be the odd man out, as the Pats will be forced to cut ties with the fan favorite. Branch was getting older and more talent came along through free agency. Branch didn't suit up for the game against the Saints due to injury. Unfortunately, Branch won't be starting the season with the team. However, he may be brought aboard in case of an injury if he is not signed by another team.
1) Logan Mankins
2) Dan Connolly
3) Ryan Wendell
4) Brian Waters
5) Donald Thomas
6) Nick McDonald
There is a lot of uncertainty at the guard position. Last year, both guards, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters, were elected to the Pro Bowl.
This year, Brian Waters still has not reported to training camp, and Mankins is recovering from an ACL tear. He participated in limited action in Monday's practice. It remains unclear when Waters will return.
Ryan Wendell will be the starting center, as veteran Dan Koppen will get cut. Koppen has looked shaky throughout training camp. In addition, Koppen only plays one position, which will leave him on the outside looking in.
Connolly, Thomas and McDonald fill out the rest of the spots, one of which was left open when Robert Gallery unexpectedly retired. Connolly also has the ability to move to center should anything happen to Wendell.
The line looked pretty weak on Thursday night without either Mankins or Waters, as expected. The Saints consistently got good pressure on the quarterback from the inside.
The success of this group of guards hinges on Mankins' full recovery and Waters' return to camp. They are undoubtedly the anchors of the offensive line. Their return is imperative if the Patriots are to contend for a title in 2012.
1) Nate Solder
2) Sebastian Vollmer
3) Marcus Cannon
After his 11th year with the Patriots, left tackle Matt Light decided to retire, allowing the talented Nate Solder to step into the role of protecting Tom Brady. As a rookie, Solder appeared in all 16 games and started 13. Solder played almost exclusively at right tackle, but Sebastian Vollmer could occupy right tackle while Solder moves to the left side.
Solder was very inconsistent against the Saints, allowing DE Will Smith to get strong penetration off the edge. At times, though, he made great plays. Vollmer did not play against New Orleans.
Marcus Cannon is in his second year with the Patriots after getting drafted late in last year's draft. Cannon appeared in seven games last year and will likely see some more playing time at tackle, although he is capable of playing guard.
The Pats also found a diamond in the rough in undrafted free agent Markus Zusevics. Once considered a potential second-rounder, Zusevics' stock plummeted after a pectoral injury at the NFL Combine.
The Pats will want to hold onto the former Iowa tackle. He could become a good player in a few years. Zusevics could start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
1) Vince Wilfork
2) Kyle Love
3) Jonathan Fanene
4) Brandon Deaderick
Vince Wilfork is basically guaranteed a spot on the roster, as he had arguably his best season last year. Wilfork is considered one of the elite defensive tackles in the game.
Kyle Love is another feared defensive tackle who is a fearsome run-stopper. Last season, he amassed 33 tackles and three sacks. When paired with Wilfork, the two are one of the best duos when up against the run. Love has worked hard, and that hard work has paid off. Look for Love to start at DT to begin the season.
Jonathan Fanene was brought aboard via free agency from the Cincinnati Bengals. Fanene is the kind of inside pass-rusher that Pats needed all of last year. He is replacing Mike Wright, who was cut by the Pats in February. In his last two full seasons with the Bengals, Fanene recorded 60 tackles and 12.5 sacks, numbers which will be of great value in New England.
The fourth and final spot on this group of defensive tackles came down to Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick. Brace had a very strong start to camp, but has since been injured. Deaderick has shown good improvement over the course of his short career, and the Pats should look to allow him to continue that improvement this season.
1) Chandler Jones
2) Rob Ninkovich
3) Jermaine Cunningham
4) Jake Bequette
5) Justin Francis
6) Trevor Scott
Last year, the Patriots had two players with double-digit sacks in Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, both recording 10 sacks. However, it is likely that neither will be back to New England. Carter sustained a quad injury late in the season, and he is still recovering from surgery, and Anderson signed in free agency with the new-look Buffalo Bills.
Chandler Jones was drafted in the first round with the 21st pick. It appeared as though the Pats would try to nurture Jones and let him loose in his second year. But it now looks like Jones is ready to go. He has looked very impressive at training camp and was the talk of the town in his NFL debut in the preseason.
He got great pressure on a Pro Bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod, and he utilized his physical tools very well. The coaching staff is comfortable with him starting and going all out in his rookie year.
Rob Ninkovich played the bulk of last year at outside linebacker, but he has been playing through training camp at defensive end. He will likely be playing there more often and could end up being a formidable pass-rusher.
Jermaine Cunningham had a nice rookie season, recording 34 tackles and one sack in 15 games. However, he took a huge step back in 2011, making only one tackle in nine games. Nonetheless, he has shown some potential in camp, which will eventually be enough to allow him to stay aboard as one of the last players to make the final cut.
Jake Bequette was taken in the third round of the draft this year as a pass-rusher, but he hasn't done much to stand out in training camp. He'll make the team, but he must do a lot more to move up the depth chart.
Justin Francis, an undrafted free agent rookie, has been another one of the surprises in camp. He has shown great energy and has impressed the coaching staff. He'll make the team, but he needs to still show a little more to get good playing time.
Trevor Scott, a free agent signed this year, will be the last name to make the list. He hasn't done too much in camp, but he made some nice plays in the game Thursday. The Patriots will try to go in a more youthful direction with the five players previously mentioned, but they will keep Scott on the roster for experience.
1) Jerod Mayo
2) Brandon Spikes
3) Dont'a Hightower
4) Bobby Carpenter
5) Niko Koutouvides
6) Tracy White
The top three guys in this group are all extremely talented. The talent drops off with Bobby Carpenter and Niko Koutouvides. Tracy White will end up being an emergency option, while Dane Fletcher is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the Saints game.
Jerod Mayo has been the anchor of the linebackers for his entire four-year career. He led the league in tackles in 2010 with 175 and has recorded 501 tackles for his career. What concerns some is Mayo's lack of pass-rushing skills; he's averaged a little more than one sack a year. If he can improve that aspect of his game, he'll become truly elite.
Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower are similar players. Both are built like trees, Spikes standing 6'2" and weighing in at 255 pounds and Hightower at 6'3" and 265.
Hightower was brought in to bolster the run defense. He lacks fluidity, but he makes the grade when covering tight ends, although he is just barely adequate. Both players should be integral parts of the defense in 2012.
In Fletcher's absence, Carpenter and Koutouvides will see a lot more playing time than expected. White will take Fletcher's spot on the roster.
Jeff Tarpinian is a notable name who will be left out. Tarpinian started one game last year, but he missed significant time due to an illness. He should be signed to the practice squad.
1) Devin McCourty
2) Kyle Arrington
3) Ras-I Dowling
4) Sterling Moore
5) Alfonzo Dennard
Along with the offensive line, the cornerback position is another big area of concern for the Patriots.
Devin McCourty had an outstanding rookie season in 2010, but he saw a massive drop in production last year. He was consistently burned, and he struggled with nagging injuries throughout the campaign. He'll look to bounce back and lead the group of cornerbacks. His play will determine how good or bad the pass defense will be.
Kyle Arrington went in a different direction than McCourty. Arrington was considered the best cornerback on the team last year, making 88 tackles and intercepting seven passes. He'll definitely look to continue that success. The key for him is to not allow himself to take it easy. A bad season for Arrington could leave him looking for a job next summer.
Rookie CB Ras-I Dowling was hampered by injuries all season and barely played in any games. Dowling was taken in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, but he has failed to show any sort of positive signs on the playing field. Dowling is often injured, but for now, his job is safe.
Sterling Moore and Alfonzo Dennard will fill the final two cornerback spots. Moore showed great potential at the end of last season, breaking up key passes late in games. He swatted the ball out of Baltimore Ravens receiver Lee Evans' hands in the AFC Championship to save the Pats from elimination.
Dennard was drafted in the last round of this year's draft. He was once considered a potential first- rounder before he was arrested just days before the draft. He has been sidelined with a hamstring injury in camp as of late, but his talent is too much to pass up.
Marquice Cole and Will Allen are two big names left off the roster. Cole had value on special teams and Allen brought experience to the table, but there were too many qualified players for not enough roster spots. The talent level was too much for either of them to overcome.
1) Pat Chung
2) Steve Gregory
3) Tavon Wilson
4) James Ihedigbo
5) Nate Ebner
What was once considered a weakness for the Pats could end up being a big strength.
Pat Chung, one of the play-making stars of the defense, displayed some of the skills that he was known for last year. Chung was dazzling at times, but he dealt with recurring injury problems.
In regard to what he did in the preseason game, Chung's highlight was an interception on a poorly thrown pass from Saints QB Sean Canfield. The 24-year-old safety should be the unquestioned starter at strong safety.
One of the more underrated signings this offseason was Steve Gregory. The former Charger brings experience, but is still fairly young at 29. Gregory was a solid contributor to the Chargers over the past few years, playing next to Eric Weddle, one of the elite safeties in the league. With an interception in Thursday's game, Gregory further solidified his spot as starting free safety.
The last three safeties to make the squad will be Tavon Wilson, the team's second-round draft pick, James Ihedigbo, whose name appeared unexpectedly in the Pats' rotation last year, and Nate Ebner, a former rugby player taken in the late rounds of this year's draft.
Many considered Wilson to be a reach in the second round, as many analysts saw him going in the late rounds. Obviously, Bill Belichick and company saw something in this guy that others didn't. It'll take some time to see how he pans out.
Ihedigbo will see a good amount of playing time in his second year with the Pats, whereas Ebner will likely be used more as a special teams player.
1) Stephen Gostkowski (K)
2) Zoltan Mesko (P)
3) Danny Aiken (LS)
The Pats will look to keep their core of major special-teams players in kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Zoltan Mesko and long-snapper Danny Aiken.
Gostkowski is considered one of the premier kickers in the league, while Mesko has been above-average as a young punter. There is really no way to evaluate an NFL long-snapper, other than how many times the player makes a mistake. Aiken has looked fine as a member of the Pats.
Barring injury, these players are locks to make the roster.