The New England Patriots still have one preseason game left to play, versus the New York Giants on Wednesday, but the team’s roster cutdown to 53 players is also fast approaching, with that deadline being on Friday.
The Patriots have begun making cuts to meet the 80-man roster deadline on Monday, but with only 85 active players on the roster as of Saturday, the much more important deadline is the upcoming mass cutdown that will take place on Thursday or Friday.
Many of the team’s returning veterans, major free-agent signings and early draft picks should have spots locked up on the final roster, but for many other players, there looms a large cloud of uncertainty as to whether they can survive the final cuts.
In this slideshow, we take a look at every player on the roster, ranking players from 1 to 83 for their odds of being on the Patriots’ final squad. An additional player included in these rankings is veteran right guard Brian Waters, a Pro Bowler last year who has not yet reported to Patriots training camp.
Note: As of the time of publication, three Patriots players—defensive tackle Gerard Warren, cornerback Ross Ventrone and safety Josh Barrett—have been unofficially reported as released by Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe (via Twitter). They were not included in the rankings.
The New England Patriots still have one preseason game left to play, versus the New York Giants on Wednesday, but the team’s roster cutdown to 53 players is also fast approaching, with that deadline being on Friday.
Marcus Harrison was a 2008 third-round pick by the Chicago Bears, and actually started nine games in 2009. He has been nothing more than a camp body, however, for the Patriots, and it would be absolutely stunning to see him on the final roster.
On a team with plenty of depth on the defensive line, Harrison is buried at the back end of the depth chart.
The Patriots drafted Malcolm Williams in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL draft with hopes of him contributing as cornerback depth and on special teams.
Williams, however, has failed to make any significant impact, and even on a team who emphasizes special teams heavily and is fairly weak at cornerback, he has virtually no chance of being on the final roster.
Had it not been for an unfortunate torn pectoral muscle that Markus Zusevics suffered during the bench press at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, he likely would have been a draft pick. Instead, he went undrafted, where the Patriots decided to claim him.
Zusevics, however, has yet to be activated from the non-football injury list. At this point, expect the Patriots to keep him on that list for the entire 2012 season, and bring him back for another opportunity when he is healthy in 2013. He has the skill set to provide solid depth on the offensive line, but without a chance to compete in training camp, that will not be this year.
The Patriots may be desperate for offensive tackle depth, but not desperate enough to keep Matt Kopa.
Kopa has never appeared in an NFL game, and has received no significant work this preseason. He appears to be nothing more than a camp body.
Undrafted rookie guard Derek Dennis was released at the start of Miami Dolphins training camp, and the Patriots decided to take a chance on him for offensive line depth.
Dennis has received no significant reps this preseason, and it does not appear that going undrafted then released by his first team is a case of slipping through the cracks. Dennis could be among the team’s first cuts.
Aaron Lavarias is a “tweener” in the truest sense. He is too small to play defensive end in the NFL, but not athletic enough to play outside linebacker.
Lavarias also has displayed no special abilities that make him worth keeping on the Patriots’ final roster. He has been a solid camp body for two consecutive seasons in New England, but he should be nothing more than that.
Darrion Weems was claimed off of waivers at the start of training camp for more depth at offensive tackle. Since then, however, Weems has received no significant work in the preseason, and appears to be nothing more than a camp body.
Weems is another undrafted rookie whose best-case scenario is likely to be on the Patriots practice squad, but a spot on the roster will not be coming his way.
See Derek Dennis. An undrafted rookie, he was brought in by the Patriots as offensive line depth after being waived by the Miami Dolphins. However, he has received no significant reps this preseason.
The Patriots may be thin at offensive tackle, but they have not looked to Waldron to be much rectification to that problem.
Like the Patriots, Derrick Martin went to Super Bowl XLVI last season, as a member of the New York Giants. In fact, he may be worth keeping for the good vibes he apparently brings his teams: Martin was also on the Packers’ injured reserve the previous year, when they won the Super Bowl.
That would be about the only reason, however, that Martin would be on the final roster. Signed in early August, he has done nothing to make a name for himself this preseason, and even on a team with little depth in the secondary, there appears to be no roster spot for him.
Best known as the winner of Michael Irvin’s “4th and Long” reality show, Jesse Holley made some decent contributions as a wide receiver and on special teams in his time with the Dallas Cowboys in 2010-2011. Holley, however, is at the bottom of a deep wide receiver depth chart.
The Patriots already have two wide receivers who are special teams standouts (more to come on them later), and Holley is the least talented wideout still on the team’s roster.
Tyler Urban is a big tight end who can use his size to block and is also an adequate receiver, but he has done nothing to stand out this preseason. Even with injuries to veteran tight ends Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe and Jake Ballard, Urban still has seen the field only minimally this preseason.
The Patriots are always looking for players who can help them at tight end, but it does not appear Urban will be one of them.
Mike Rivera has been working to make an NFL roster since 2009, but has yet to appear in a regular-season NFL game.
There is a reason for that: Rivera does not quite have the talent to make it as an NFL linebacker. Even though the Patriots seriously lack depth at linebacker, Rivera is an extreme long-shot to be on the final 53.
The Patriots have had a number of fullbacks in training camp this year, but that does not mean that they will necessarily keep one on the final roster. Even if they do, it is unlikely that player will be Spencer Larsen.
Larsen has not done anything of significance for the Patriots this preseason, and it is hard to see what role he would play in the regular season for a Patriots team that only uses fullbacks in short-yardage situations.
Jeremiah Warren received the largest contract of any of the Patriots’ undrafted free-agent signings, leading to the belief that he could be the most likely of any of them to make the final 53. With that said, he has not received significant reps in the preseason, even with the Patriots’ lack of depth on the offensive line.
It does not appear that Warren will continue to be in the team’s plans going forward to the regular season, even with the $10,000 guaranteed salary he received.
Marcus Forston may have the most potential of any undrafted free agent the Patriots signed this offseason, but not much of that showed in training camp this year. Forston failed to make a name for himself, and is buried deep on the defensive tackle depth chart.
Forston would be a logical choice to bring back to the practice squad, and potentially be elevated to the active roster if injuries occur on the defensive line, but for now, he should not have a roster spot.
Tim Bulman has appeared in regular-season games in six different NFL seasons, but he has never emerged as more than a back-of-the-rotation player on the defensive line.
His size makes him a good fit for the scheme-versatile Patriots defense, as he could line up at defensive tackle or defensive end, but he does not have the talent to crack a deep unit, and should end up being released.
Josh Barrett started four games at safety last year, but he was already released on Sunday. James Ihedigbo actually started twelve games, but like Barrett, Ihedigbo’s playing time was a result of the team’s lack of talent at the position, and less an indicator of his talent.
Ihedigbo is a solid tackler who plays well in run support, but coverage is a major issue for him. While he managed to catch on with the Patriots last year, he has not been able to do so with any other team for significant playing time, and with better safeties in place, he should be among the players released.
If Jake Ballard was healthy, he would be much higher on this list. Ballard was the starting tight end for the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants last season, and had a breakout year, catching 38 passes for 604 yards.
Ballard became available to the Patriots, however, when he was placed on the waived-injured list by the New York Giants, an effort to place him on injured reserve due to a torn ACL suffered in last year’s Super Bowl. The Patriots claimed him, but then placed him on the physically unable to perform list.
At the very least, Ballard should remain on PUP through the first 6-10 weeks of the season, but it is most likely that he will eventually end up on injured reserve once the season begins. Ballard would be a tremendous asset to the Patriots as their tight end, but he is not healthy enough to do so this season.
Alex Silvestro has made solid progress this preseason in his transition from defensive end to tight end. However, he lacks the athletic ability, natural hands or blocking skills to have much success in the NFL, and it is likely that the Silvestro experiment will come to a halt with cuts.
SIlvestro is a very likely candidate to end up on the Patriots practice squad, where they could continue to develop him as a tight end, but he is not worth saving a roster spot for.
Another safety in the revolving door in the middle of the Patriots secondary last season was Sergio Brown. Brown, who was originally with the Patriots in 2010 for his ability to contribute on special teams, actually started three games last season.
Like Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo, however, Brown is not of the caliber to be starting at safety in the NFL. The Patriots have at least four better safeties on their roster this year, and many better special teams players. It is unlikely they will have a roster spot still available for Brown this season.
Myron Pryor showed some impressive glimpses of his ability to be a disruptive defensive tackle in his first two seasons, but he has had serious trouble staying on the field. He missed seven games in 2010, was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury after Week 2 last season, and remains on the physically unable to perform list.
Even if Pryor were ready to return, the Patriots’ best plan for Pryor would be to keep him on the physically unable to perform list, giving them the option to bring him back between Weeks 6-10 if defensive line injuries occur. As a result of his lack of play, Pryor has fallen well back on the defensive line depth chart, and it is hard to see how he would currently crack the 53-man roster if active.
A seventh-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, rookie Jeremy Ebert has shown glimpses of potential as a wide receiver and special teams contributor this preseason. Ebert, however, is a likely victim of a roster that is already loaded with wide receivers and special teams contributors.
Ebert is a perfect candidate to be retained on the practice squad, assuming another team does not sign him away, to be developed for 2013. There is not a spot for him now, but he may be able to contribute in the future.
When the Patriots signed Visanthe Shiancoe in July, he immediately became the leading candidate to be the team’s third tight end. Shiancoe, however, has yet to play in the preseason due to injury, and that could cost him a roster spot.
Additionally, while Shiancoe is a skilled and athletic receiving tight end, he does not provide much at the position as a blocker. For the Patriots, who already have two tremendous offensive playmakers at tight end, a non-blocker in Shiancoe may not have a roster spot.
The Patriots brought back Dan Koppen with the intention of him starting at center, or at least being a steady backup at center who could start if Dan Connolly had to kick outside to guard due to injuries. This preseason, Koppen has been neither.
After suffering a season-ending ankle injury in last year’s season opener, Koppen has not looked like the Pro Bowl center he once was in his return. Koppen has fallen behind Connolly and Ryan Wendell on the center depth chart, and it is highly unlikely that the Patriots will keep a 32-year-old third-team center making nearly $6 million.
Niko Koutouvides is a decent linebacker with some special teams ability, and on a Patriots team that lacks depth in the linebacker corps, he has a chance to sneak into a roster spot.
There are better options, however, than Koutouvides, a 31-year-old journeyman who has never been able to establish himself as a player worthy of significant playing time on defense.
If the Patriots decide to keep a fullback on their roster, that player will likely be Eric Kettani. Kettani is a hard-nosed player who has some ability as a runner and receiver, and is a decent lead blocker and special teams player.
That said, there are certainly more than 53 players more deserving of a roster spot than Kettani, and although the Patriots have experimented with fullbacks this preseason, they should not need to keep one on their final roster. If they do, Kettani could have a roster spot by default, but he is most likely to end up back on the team’s practice squad.
Donte Stallworth’s blazing speed made him an attractive option for the Patriots to bring in to compete at the wide receiver position. Stallworth, however, has likely lost the competition.
Stallworth has not necessarily had a bad preseason, but he has had some issues with drops, and has done nothing to stand out. If he was going to steal a roster spot from anyone, it likely would have been Deion Branch, but Branch has clearly outperformed Stallworth this preseason.
Undrafted free agent Justin Francis has made an impression this preseason. He has received significant playing time in every preseason game, including some work with the first-team defense, and it appears that the Patriots could have him in their plans.
That said, there are at least five other defensive ends ahead of Francis on the depth chart. While it seems the Patriots would like to have a spot for him, there may just not be enough room. That said, if Francis is released and does not catch on with another team, he will certainly be brought back on the practice squad.
The Patriots took a chance well worth taking when they selected Alfonzo Dennard, a talented cornerback who starred at Nebraska but had off-field concerns, in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL draft. However, while Dennard may have the talent to be a solid NFL cornerback, the low-risk use of a seventh-round pick means the Patriots may not be inclined to keep him on their roster.
Dennard has played very little this preseason due to a hamstring injury, and without having the chance to prove himself, the Patriots may not be able to afford to hold a roster spot for him. The Patriots need all the cornerback depth they can get, but Dennard may end up on the short end of the equation in comparison to players who have made a bigger impression this preseason.
With the Patriots likely to keep four running backs on their 53-man roster, undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden started out training camp in very good position. He made a big impression in training camp, often receiving reps as the team’s No. 2 running back early in camp.
Bolden’s roster spot was put into serious jeopardy, however, by the team’s signing of another undrafted free agent, Jeff Demps. There is only a spot for one of the two running backs, and Bolden could end up on the short end of the equation.
Bolden has not been particularly explosive in preseason action, with 69 yards on 21 carries, and while he is a solid situational back with good receiving skills, it is appearing more likely that he may not have a spot. That said, if he does not catch on with another team, which he very likely could, he should certainly have at least a spot on the Patriots’ practice squad.
Not one tight end has stood out among the five competing to be the third tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the Patriots’ roster this season. My projection, however, would be that Daniel Fells will win that competition.
Fells has the most blocking ability of any of the five tight ends who could earn that spot, which should give him the edge. He has yet to play this preseason, which hurts his chances, but considering Visanthe Shiancoe and Jake Ballard have also not played, it is not a major setback for him.
The secondary was undoubtedly the weakest area of the Patriots’ roster last year, so chances are good that the Patriots will keep ten defensive backs on their roster this year for depth. 11-year NFL veteran Will Allen may be coming up on the tail end of his career, but his experience and skills that are still there make him a good candidate for that final spot.
Allen’s speed has diminished slightly, but he is still an instinctive, physical cornerback who tackles well. He has had a very solid preseason, and would provide good experience and depth in a still-shaky secondary.
Marquice Cole has been one of the brightest surprises of the Patriots preseason. Cole is known best for his ability as a special teams contributor, where he stood out in training camp and in preseason, but has also received significant reps at cornerback.
Cole’s best game was his most recent game, on Friday versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he had five tackles and two nice pass breakups. He was receiving reps with the first-team defense at nickel cornerback, and held his own.
Cole is unlikely to be anything more than the fifth cornerback on the Patriots unless injuries occur, but he is also a very effective player on kickoff and punt teams. Cole’s added special teams value make him a very good candidate for one of the final roster spots.
The Patriots’ signing of Jeff Demps may be the most overhyped undrafted free agent signing of all time. Nonetheless, the 2012 Olympic 4x100-meter sprint relay silver medalist may have earned himself a roster spot with a strong showing in Friday’s preseason game.
Demps’ Olympic sprinting performance certainly shows that he has incredible speed, and that is a huge asset for him on the football field. In limited action in the fourth quarter on Friday, Demps made a quick impression, including an explosive 29-yard run.
Demps’ performance came up against second and third-team defenders, so it is important not to get too excited about him yet. Nonetheless, he could be a real asset to the offense if he lives up to his potential, and he would be worth keeping as a fourth running back to hone and develop his talent.
Even after two seasons with the New England Patriots, Tracy White’s roster spot is far from safe this preseason. However, a season-ending injury suffered by linebacker Dane Fletcher in the first preseason game created a serious lack of depth in the unit, which should save White his roster spot.
White’s contributions to the Patriots over two seasons have come nearly entirely on special teams, and as one of the roster’s best special teams players, it will likely continue to be that way. That said, he is the best choice to provide depth as the team’s sixth linebacker among the players they have on their roster.
Another linebacker whose chances of making the roster benefited significantly from Fletcher’s injury is Jeff Tarpinian.
Last season, Tarpinian originally made the cutdown to 53 players, then was released, later re-signed and eventually ended up on injured reserve. This year, he is in good position to be the team’s fifth linebacker on the depth chart.
If Tarpinian has to start at linebacker, the Patriots’ defense could be in trouble, but he has looked solid in limited preseason action, and is a valuable special teams contributor. Tarpinian is a good choice to provide depth at linebacker, which should keep a roster spot open for him.
The biggest wild-card of any player in the cutdown to 53 players is right guard Brian Waters. Last season, Waters made the Pro Bowl as the Patriots’ starting right guard, but this year, he has yet to report to training camp, and it remains unclear whether he will be back to play this season.
Given the Patriots’ immense struggles on the interior offensive line this preseason, it would seem the Patriots should bring Waters back for the regular season if he is ready to play on Week 1. However, the Patriots could decide to part ways with him due to his lack of commitment, or he could choose not to return on his own.
The Patriots would be best suited if Waters is in their lineup on Week 1, but there is a certain chance that he will not be back, which would open up another roster spot.
With the versatility to line up as both a defensive tackle and defensive end in the Patriots’ scheme, Brandon Deaderick is a great fit to provide depth in New England. Deaderick is no lock to make the roster, but he has started nine games in his first two NFL seasons, and he should be in position to stay on the roster for a third season.
Deaderick has had a solid preseason, and is a great fit to come in from the back end of the Patriots’ defensive line rotation. It would be a surprise if he is not on the final roster.
Interior line depth has proven to be a huge issue for the Patriots this preseason. Because of that, every young interior lineman who has at least proven to add adequate depth should have a fairly safe roster spot.
That puts Nick McDonald in a good position to make the final roster. He has received work in training camp and the preseason as a first-team guard, and can play center as well. McDonald is certainly not starting-caliber, but he has played decently when pressed into action and started two games last regular season.
Like Nick McDonald, Donald Thomas should have a safe roster spot as a backup guard. Depending on what happens with the Brian Waters situation, Thomas could even be pressed into starting duty at right guard.
In Friday’s preseason game, Thomas started at right guard and played well, but when he was shifted to left guard once Logan Mankins was taken out of the game, he struggled. That said, Thomas should at least be kept as a backup interior lineman, and he will likely see the field for some playing time at guard this year.
Nate Ebner has been a pleasant surprise this preseason. Ebner was drafted to be a special teams standout, having primarily played only special teams at Ohio State, but he has done much more, receiving reps with the first-team defense and establishing himself as the Patriots’ fourth safety.
Ebner is certainly still a work in progress, but he has made incredible progress this August. Ebner shows good instincts for a player not used to playing the safety position, and he is certainly an asset on special teams.
Ebner has been successful in outperforming and taking reps away from Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo and Josh Barrett, all of whom started games at safety for the Patriots last season. It appears the Patriots may have found a surprise gem in Ebner.
With the additions of Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth via free agency this offseason, veteran Deion Branch’s job was certainly put in jeopardy. Branch has responded to the competition, performing well this preseason to prove he can still be a significant contributor in the Patriots’ offensive attack.
Branch does not have the explosive downfield playmaking ability that those receivers have, but he is a reliable possession receiver. His route-running skill and reliable hands continue to make him an effective intermediate receiver and favored target for Brady.
The Patriots would be making a smart move by bringing Branch back for his seventh season with the franchise.
One of many additions to the defensive end rotation this offseason, Trevor Scott appears unlikely to win the battle for a starting spot, but should have a safe roster spot in the rotation.
Scott started out training camp receiving the bulk of first-team reps, but in the preseason, he has been the fourth man in the rotation. Nonetheless, he is a solid pass-rusher who can make plays on the edge and contribute in a defensive end rotation that has suddenly become quite deep.
Since he was selected in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft, Ron Brace has been a disappointment, as injuries have limited his play while he has not lived up to his potential. Brace, however, has had a strong preseason, and should have secured himself a roster spot.
Brace has done a good job of penetrating inside and filling up gaps in the middle of the Patriots defense. He has worked primarily with the second-team defense, but he is capable of providing solid depth as the third defensive tackle behind starters Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love.
Sterling Moore made a name for himself last postseason when he broke up what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass for the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game. After joining the Patriots in the midst of last season, Moore made consistent improvement, and he has continued to have a solid training camp and preseason.
Moore is an instinctive, physical cornerback who works hard to get better, and is deserving of being the Patriots’ fourth cornerback this season. Barring any major surprise, he will be on the team’s roster in 2012.
The preseason has been an atrocious one for right tackle Marcus Cannon. Starting in place of Sebastian Vollmer, who has yet to play this preseason, Cannon has been dominated repeatedly by opposing pass rushers.
Nonetheless, Cannon’s spot on the Patriots roster remains solid. The Patriots have a complete lack of depth at offensive tackle, and Cannon could actually play guard as well, which may be his better fit. For this season, however, the team will likely to be forced to keep Cannon as the third offensive tackle, due to the lack of talent at the position.
Brian Hoyer appears to have dropped to third-string on the quarterback depth chart, but barring a trade, he should remain on the Patriots’ roster this season.
Hoyer has been a steady backup for the Patriots over the past three seasons, and the Patriots should keep him in the fold for one more year before he becomes a free agent following the season.
Danny Woodhead is a tremendous fit as a situational back on the New England Patriots. Woodhead is a hard-running back with good quickness, an effective receiver out of the backfield and is tremendous in blitz-pickup blocking.
Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and even Jeff Demps or Brandon Bolden could move ahead of Woodhead on the depth chart, but with his situational skill set, he should always have a role as a third-down back and special teams contributor.
Jake Bequette has not received much work with the first-team defense in training camp and the preseason, meaning that he is unlikely to play significantly in his rookie season. He has, however, looked decent in second-team defensive work, and as a third-round pick, he will be kept in the fold to develop this season.
Teams rarely release a player selected in the first three rounds of the draft, and there is no reason for Bequette to be any exception. He can provide solid depth this year, and possibly contribute in a more significant role as the season progresses.
At the start of training camp, Jermaine Cunningham would have been much lower in these rankings. A 2010 second-round pick, his first two NFL seasons were a major letdown. This preseason, however, he has really stepped up his game.
Cunningham seems to finally be blossoming as a defensive end, and has made a challenge for a starting spot. Even if he does not start, he should be able to contribute in a rotational role this season, and hopefully start to make the Patriots’ investment in him pay off.
Much of Jabar Gaffney’s best success in his career has come while playing for Josh McDaniels, both from 2006-2008 when McDaniels was the Patriots’ offensive coordinator and 2009-2010 when McDaniels was the Broncos’ head coach. Now, coming off of his best career season with the Washington Redskins last year, he is reunited with McDaniels in New England.
The Patriots needed to add weapons at wide receiver, and Gaffney can certainly help them. He is a productive wideout with downfield receiving ability and consistent hands, and he will likely line up as the split end in three-receiver sets.
There are more than two wide receivers on the Patriots’ roster who have spots locked up before Gaffney, but there are not more than two better pure receivers on the team.
A 2011 second-round pick, Shane Vereen’s injury-riddled rookie season was a major disappointment, in which he only had 15 carries. In this preseason alone, Vereen has had much better numbers, and appears ready to be one of the Patriots’ top two running backs this season.
Vereen has good speed and lateral quickness, and is a very good receiver out of the backfield. With the Patriots’ top running back having a game based on power running, Vereen can be a very good complement with his speed and ability to run outside the tackles.
If Brian Waters returns for the start of the season, Ryan Wendell will not be a starter on the Patriots offensive line, as Dan Connolly will presumably take over the starting center position. Wendell’s role, however, is likely to be crucial this season.
Wendell quickly moved ahead of Dan Koppen on the center depth chart this preseason, and if Connolly ends up having to play at right guard, Wendell will likely start at center. He is a steady young player who has provided depth for the Patriots for at least part of the past three seasons, and he should brought back for more in 2012.
Through three preseason games, it appears that returning veteran Rob Ninkovich has the inside track on a starting spot at defensive end. Ninkovich is not as natural of a fit for defensive end in the 4-3 scheme as he is to play outside linebacker in the 3-4, but he is a skilled pass-rusher who has had a solid training camp and preseason.
Whether Ninkovich, who started all 16 games for the Patriots last year, is a starter or not, he should be a definite factor in the team’s defensive end rotation, and his roster spot is not in jeopardy.
Behind the three starting linebackers, the only other linebacker the Patriots are likely to feel comfortable giving significant playing time to is Bobby Carpenter. Carpenter never lived up to the expectations as a 2006 first-round pick, but he is a steady outside linebacker coming off of two solid seasons with the Detroit Lions.
Carpenter is well-suited to be the team’s fourth linebacker, and should be able to give the Patriots good reps in a role coming off of the bench. Without any competition for that role, Carpenter is a virtual lock to make the roster.
Danny Aiken is the only long snapper the Patriots have on the roster this preseason.
Aiken had no issues with the position last year as a rookie, and he has been steady in his job. The Patriots have no reason to make a change.
Tavon Wilson was a surprising choice as a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, but he has started to validate that choice with a strong preseason. Wilson has looked very comfortable as the Patriots’ third safety, and it appears he is in line for significant playing time as a rookie.
Wilson, who also played cornerback at Illinois, could end up being the Patriots’ best cover safety, and has adjusted to the Patriots’ defensive scheme very quickly.
Ryan Mallett has been getting the bulk of reps as the second-string quarterback this preseason, and appears to have eclipsed Brian Hoyer as the Patriots’ primary backup at the position.
Mallett is still very raw with his accuracy, but he has a very strong arm that can make every throw on the field. He has made gradual progress this preseason, and the Patriots seem comfortable elevating the young quarterback as the next in line under center.
Matt Slater has only one career catch in four NFL seasons, but the wide receiver next to his name is more a placeholder than a regular position. Slater is on the Patriots for one reason only: He is the team’s best special teams player, and possibly the league’s best.
Slater is an absolutely fantastic gunner on kickoff and punt coverage teams, and as a result, he earned a berth on the AP All-Pro first-team last season as its special teams player. Slater is extremely valuable to the Patriots for his abilities on special teams as well as being an emergency wideout.
Another wide receiver whose roster spot is safe for reasons other than his receiving ability is Julian Edelman.
Edelman has potential as a slot receiver, and may be groomed as a potential replacement to Wes Welker at the position, but like Slater, he is also a special teams standout. Edelman is the team’s best punt returner, plays on every special teams unit, and as he proved last year, he can also be emergency depth in the secondary.
The Patriots’ defensive backfield became so decimated last season that Edelman had to take some snaps at cornerback and safety, and he really held his own. Edelman’s incredible versatility makes him a tremendous asset to the Patriots, and keeps his roster spot very safe.
Part of revamping last season’s revolving door at safety was the free-agent signing of Steve Gregory, who is expected to start at free safety this season.
Gregory has started 31 games for the San Diego Chargers over the past four years, and is a solid all-around safety who will be a significant improvement over any safety not named Patrick Chung that the Patriots had last year.
Ras-I Dowling started the first two games of the season last year for the Patriots as a rookie, before suffering a hip injury that put him on injured reserve for the rest of the season. If healthy, Dowling is expected to be a very important player in the Patriots secondary this year.
Dowling, a 2011 second-round pick, is in position to be the Patriots’ third cornerback. When the Patriots use a three-cornerback set, he will likely line up outside, with starter Kyle Arrington shifting inside to play nickel cornerback.
In a secondary that was otherwise awful last season, Kyle Arrington was a breakout star. Arrington had seven interceptions last year, which tied for the NFL lead, and was by far the Patriots’ most steady defensive back.
That does not mean that Arrington will be the team’s No. 1 cornerback this season, but he is a steady starter with a safe roster spot, and the Patriots should rely on him heavily this year.
For all the offensive weapons the Patriots had last season, the one thing they lacked was a serious deep threat at wide receiver. The Patriots have fixed that problem this offseason, bringing in free agent Brandon Lloyd to fill that void.
Lloyd should line up as the team’s No. 1 flanker, and be the Patriots’ biggest threat for big plays in the passing game. He was brought in to play a big role in the team’s offense.
Devin McCourty had a fantastic rookie season, which earned him a second-team All-Pro berth. Last season, his play dropped off horribly, which included giving up 1,004 yards in the passing game, according to Pro Football Focus premium statistics.
McCourty’s inconsistent play has continued this preseason, but the Patriots will be hoping that he can rebound back to his rookie-season form. McCourty is the No. 1 cornerback on the depth chart, and his play will be a major factor in the Patriots’ pass defense success this year.
Chances are very good that Dan Connolly will start for the Patriots this season, but it remains unclear which spot he will start at. He should be in line to be the starting center, but if Brian Waters does not return, he will likely shift to right guard.
Nonetheless, Connolly is the Patriots’ most versatile interior offensive lineman, making him a very important cog in what is currently a very thin unit for the team.
With the departure of last year’s feature back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis via free agency, Stevan Ridley is in line to take over as the Patriots’ feature back. He appears ready to take on this role.
Ridley is a well-rounded back, with good power in between the tackles and the explosive burst to beat defenders outside as well. He has been impressive in preseason action, and as he has received most reps with the first-team offense, the focus is clearly on him to lead their rushing offense this season.
In 2010, Kyle Love was just an undrafted free agent fighting for a roster spot. Two years later, Love has entrenched himself as a very good starting defensive tackle.
Love is a big, powerful run-stopper whose strong play from last season has continued into this preseason. He will be a key player on the Patriots defense this year.
The Patriots have three very good starting linebackers, but Brandon Spikes is the only true middle linebacker of the trio. That makes Spikes’ role very important to the team’s defense.
Spikes is a fantastic run-stopping linebacker, and a player very important to the Patriots’ success in working with the 4-3 defensive scheme. There is no clear replacement on the roster should he be injured with Dane Fletcher out for the season, so he is currently one of the team’s most indispensable players.
Expectations were high coming into this preseason for Nate Solder, a 2011 first-round pick drafted to be the Patriots’ franchise left tackle.
Those expectations have been tempered, as he is having a shaky preseason, but nonetheless, he is going to be a starting offensive tackle this season. The Patriots have no depth at offensive tackle, and even if Solder is playing poorly, he is still better than anyone who could take his starting spot.
Patrick Chung has not quite lived up to expectations since being a second-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft, but that said, he is still the best all-around safety that the Patriots have on their roster, and by far the best among returning safeties on the Patriots.
Chung’s status with the team for 2013 may not be safe, as he is an unrestricted free agent, but he is certainly a part of the team for 2012.
The Patriots were looking for another playmaker to team up with Spikes and Jerod Mayo at linebacker, so they used one of two first-round draft picks this year to select Dont’a Hightower. Hightower has played very well this preseason, and looks ready to make a big impact right away.
Hightower is expected to be a big part of the Patriots defense for many years to come, and he should start right away.
Dont’a Hightower was not the only defensive player selected by the Patriots in the first round this year. The other was Chandler Jones, who has received more first-team reps than any other defensive end on the team, and is in line to start right away.
Jones has already been wreaking havoc at defensive end this preseason, and looks ready to be an impact performer on the Patriots defense as a rookie.
The steadiest offensive tackle that the Patriots have is veteran Sebastian Vollmer. The Patriots will likely keep Vollmer at right tackle, but whether he plays on the right or left side, he will be a starter and a very important part of the Patriots offensive line if healthy.
Vollmer has yet to play this preseason as he recovers from back surgery, after missing most of last season due to injuries as well. His health is a concern, but he is one of the few linemen whose play will not be if he is on the field.
Zoltan Mesko’s punting job is in no jeopardy, as he was the only punter with the Patriots this preseason.
Mesko ranked 11th in the NFL last season in punting average, and third in net punting coverage. He has been very solid with the Patriots in his first two NFL seasons, and should continue to be among the league’s best punters in 2012.
The Patriots released training camp kicker Chris Koepplin on Tuesday, leaving Stephen Gostkowski as the only placekicker on the Patriots’ roster.
This should come as no surprise, as Gostkowski is among the NFL’s elite placekickers. The Patriots should feel very confident having him to kick field goals and kickoffs.
Since being drafted by the Patriots in 2008, Jerod Mayo has been the star of the team’s linebacker corps. Even with Dont’a Hightower joining the unit this year, Mayo should continue to be a leader and pivotal player on their defense.
Mayo was signed to a contract extension through 2017 last December, so he is expected to be a key player on the team for many years to come.
Unlike Mayo, the Patriots were unable to sign wide receiver Wes Welker to a long-term contract this offseason, instead signing him to a one-year tender under the franchise tag. Nonetheless, Welker will be a huge factor in the Patriots offense this year, having led the NFL in receptions last season.
Without the contract extension, it is a looming possibility that 2012 could be Welker’s final year with the Patriots, but they certainly expect to make the most of it this season.
Since being a fourth-round pick in 2010, Aaron Hernandez has become one of the NFL’s most dynamic playmakers. Hernandez had a tremendous second season last year, catching 79 passes for 910 yards and seven touchdowns, and his versatility makes him an absolutely crucial player on the Patriots offense.
Hernandez is technically a tight end, but he can also line up as a wide receiver or even at running back. He fits no prototype, but he is a tremendous athlete and route-runner who adds a versatile dimension to the Patriots offense.
Logan Mankins proved in the Patriots’ last preseason game on Friday just how important he is to their success. The team’s interior offensive line woes have been well-noted this preseason, but when Mankins played his first quarter of the preseason versus the Buccaneers, he brought some much-needed stability to that unit.
Mankins is arguably the NFL’s best guard, and is the leader and star of the Patriots offensive line. He has had a remarkably quick recovery from ACL surgery in February, and they need him to be healthy and on the field to keep their offense moving in the right direction.
Rob Gronkowski led all tight ends, and was sixth among all players, with 1,327 receiving yards last season. The Patriots rewarded their new star’s breakout season this offseason by signing him to a six-year, $54 million contract extension.
Gronkowski may have his share of off-field antics, but is the NFL’s best tight end, both a tremendous receiving threat and a skilled blocker. He is going to be a part of the Patriots’ plans for many years to come, and rightfully so.
Even though the Patriots no longer run the 3-4 defense in which Vince Wilfork was the pivotal cog at nose tackle, he is still the team’s most important defensive player. Wilfork is a tremendous space-eater with the penetrating ability to dominate the line of scrimmage, and his ability to disrupt the middle of the line allows everyone else on the Patriots defense to make plays.
Wilfork, a four-time Pro Bowler, could be on track for a Hall of Fame career, and he is certainly going to be a crucial part of the Patriots defense once again this year.
Obviously, there was never any question as to whether Tom Brady would be on the Patriots’ roster this season. Brady is an elite NFL quarterback, future Hall of Famer and three-time Super Bowl champion and he makes the Patriots offense arguably the best in the league.
Brady, who had a tremendous season last year by throwing for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns, will be going for his third NFL MVP award this season.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots gameday correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.