There are a variety of ways in which a player can be put on notice.
When a player is perpetually injured, he gives himself fewer and fewer opportunities to earn his stripes on the field, which puts him in danger of losing his job to a healthier prospect. Other times, a player can be extremely healthy, but still unable to establish himself in any profound way, which puts his job in equal jeopardy.
Players with short-term contracts are on notice, as well, especially when they're unproven, perennially injured or getting older. Other times, a player is placed on notice by an incoming rookie or free agent who threatens to steal his job.
The Patriots have a handful of guys who fall into one category or another.
Here are six Patriots players who have been put on notice this offseason.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman is at a crossroads. He's heading into 2013 on a one-year, incentive-heavy contract, which means he's playing for his job. He's been put on notice.
Maybe he'll have a long-term deal in 2014, or maybe he won't. It all depends upon whether or not he can shake the ghosts regarding his fragility.
Health, however, isn't the only reason he's at this fork in the road. There's also the subject of his identity and the uncertainty of how that identity will transform in a post-Wes Welker environment.
Edelman has a reputation as a do-it-all, crackerjack guy, a versatile weapon and a special teams ace. That identity, though incredibly admirable, is outdated when viewed through the lens of New England's current needs.
This team doesn't need an abstract Swiss Army knife to get over the hump, they need a healthy receiver who can score in the playoffs. Period, end of story. Thirteen points in the AFC Championship (with no points in the second half) is atrocious. Seventeen points in Super Bowl XLVI is grossly deficient.
The Patriots need Edelman to adjust his identity, just a little bit. He can still be a playmaker on special teams, but they really need his receiving skills. That's the key. If he can unlock that portion of his identity, he'll be in New England for the long haul.
Tight end Daniel Fells had a rough season. He tumbled down the depth chart and never really saw enough action to find his rhythm.
On the few occasions he did play, he underperformed, including a second-quarter drop against the Broncos and a pair of penalties against the Rams. He finished the season with four receptions, 85 yards and no scores.
With New England's superstar tight ends in a perpetual state of physical uncertainty, Fells could see some field time this season. Trouble is, he has more competition now; Jake Ballard projects to be healthy, Michael Hoomanawanui is back and the Patriots added undrafted rookies Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld.
Fells is on notice and time is running out.
Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham was on the fringe heading into the 2012 season, and he's on the fringe once again heading into 2013.
He's simply never been able to find any solid footing on this team. He's shown glimpses of versatility and animalism, followed by long stretches of one-dimensional passivity.
Last season was a perfect example. He drew some great penalties and provided nice pressure in spurts. He had a huge fumble recovery which sealed the Broncos game. And, along with Rob Ninkovich, Cunningham co-authored a glorious strip sack on Mark Sanchez, which iced the Jets game in October.
All in all, everything was rolling along beautifully for Cunningham, until he got suspended for four games. When he returned from his banishment, he was almost entirely unheard from.
It was the quintessential quiet-loud-quiet routine which has come to define him. One wonders when this routine will get stale. Though, with the recent additions of several rookie edge-rushers, there's a chance the routine has already expired.
Once again, Cunningham is hanging by a thread.
Cornerback Ras-I Dowling's body has been broken for two straight years. With only a handful of games played and 10 tackles on his professional resume, it's safe to say he's been inconsequential.
It's a bleak situation, but it really isn't so surprising. Dowling has dealt with a wide variety of injuries stretching back to high school and college. The Patriots drafted an injured player and now they have an injured player on their roster, simple as that.
If Dowling is ever going to contribute to the Patriots in a meaningful way, he'll need to find the magic which helped offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer overcome his chronic back issues to become one of the team's most important players.
The question is: Can Dowling find that same magic? It may not be in the cards for him.
He's on notice in a major way.
Safety Steve Gregory is coming off a solid season, having totaled 37 tackles, three interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.
On Thanksgiving night, he torched the Jets with an interception, a forced fumble, a fourth-down fumble recovery and a fumble return for a touchdown. And, last December, he changed the momentum of the Dolphins game with a key pick.
He was never the quickest guy on the field, but he was tough and tenacious. He seemed to fit the eclectic, misfit style of the secondary, which is what the Patriots seemed to be shooting for.
But now, heading into 2013, it seems that Bill Belichick is abandoning that mismatched style. The additions of safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Logan Ryan suggest that Belichick is assembling a stricter, more cohesive secondary in which every defensive back has a leadership mentality. The re-signing of cornerback Aqib Talib further serves this notion.
It remains to be seen whether or not Gregory fits into this new structure. It also remains to be seen whether or not he can stand out amongst a crowded lineup of defensive backs at camp. Ultimately, his intelligence and toughness should earn him a role on the team, but he'll need to go above and beyond to earn it.
New England's offense is in a sticky situation right now.
Wes Welker is gone. Julian Edelman and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are all in the midst of varying physical issues, despite the fact that it's only May. Added to that, the receiving group of T.J. Moe, Donald Jones, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Lavelle Hawkins and Michael Jenkins is a very unpredictable one at this point. Exciting, but unpredictable.
For me, Danny Amendola will be the ultimate barometer of this whole experiment. Even if he isn't the top receiving target, he's the launching point and the nucleus of everything the Patriots have constructed here in the offseason. He's directly tied to the Wes Welker situation. He's tied to everything. As he goes, the Patriots go.
His dismal injury history is a huge issue, but that makes him even more of a barometer for the team. If he stays healthy, it'll take on mythical overtones. His health will create unity and focus, even if Gronkowski and Hernandez miss time. Amendola's resilience will be the team's resilience.
Having inked a five-year contract, Amendola certainly isn't under the gun to keep his job. He is, however, under immense pressure to stay on the field and stand tall as the symbolic proof that the Patriots made the right moves this offseason.
In that sense, Amendola has been put on notice.
Let's hope he comes through.