Not everyone can make the roster.
Some guys will miss the cut by a mile, while others will only miss it by a hair. Those near-misses are placed in a metaphorical waiting room where they keep mentally and physically fit in preparation for that moment when their numbers are called.
That's what happened to former Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore. Upon his promotion, he ended up making the best play of New England's 2011 season with a game-saving strip on Baltimore's Lee Evans during the AFC Championship.
That strip swung the fate of overtime to a make-or-break field goal from Billy Cundiff. He blew the kick and sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
That game stands as concrete proof that an undrafted player like Moore can rise from the practice squad and dramatically alter the outcome of the entire NFL season.
The Patriots have a collection of young players with the same capability.
Here are five promising young players who might find themselves on the practice squad in 2013.
The thing is, the Patriots have a knack for suturing their own wounds and generating their own healing time on a superhuman level.
They shift players around in experimental ways to maximize everybody's talent through chemistry and great coaching. They won three world titles in four seasons by turning misfits into superstars and unwanted underdogs into sophisticated overachievers.
Between Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, there's a recipe here for another season of notching 34.8 points per game.
Kenbrell Thompkins and Lavelle Hawkins are long-shot contributors, but strangely enough, they've ranked among the most impressive players through the early stages of this team-building process, and they're both making legitimate runs at roster spots.
Somewhere in this unshaped pile of ball-catchers, you'll find Mark Harrison.
Though he dropped down the draft pike because of a foot injury, he was still selected as the fourth-best undrafted receiver by Gil Brandt, senior analyst for NFL.com.
It's easy to see why Brandt made that pick; Harrison is a speed demon, possessing a commanding mixture of length and bulk, which gives him the ability to fight for space and snatch incredibly tough balls out of the air.
Harrison is good enough to make this team. I'd like to see him grab a spot. But, given the cutthroat competition at receiver, nothing's guaranteed and he could find himself on the practice squad.
The Patriots ranked seventh in rushing last season with 2,184 ground yards. Amazingly, they have a great chance of topping that rank and number in 2013 with a mixture of returning talent and added depth.
Firmly stationed at the franchise spot is Stevan Ridley, who accounted for 1,263 of those rushing yards on 290 carries. He also chipped in a dozen touchdowns.
Number-two man Shane Vereen is an astute route-runner who creates nice mismatches and can easily moonlight as an effective pass-catcher.
Brandon Bolden also showed flashes of brilliance last year, most notably in Buffalo, where he rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
As if that wasn't enough power on the ground for 2013, the Patriots brought in LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington over the offseason. Both of these guys blend old-school toughness with awesome skill levels.
In the midst of all this depth, there's George Winn.
Recently released by the Texans and wisely scooped up by the Patriots, Winn accumulated 1,334 rushing yards and 13 scores on 243 carries in his senior year for the University of Cincinnati. In his 13 games that season, he tallied 90+ yards in seven different games, and peeled off a rush for 18+ yards in 10 different games.
Winn's opportunities for a roster spot might not come immediately, but some spots might be open in the near future.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of Blount and Washington remains hypothetical, as Blount is a bit of a mixed bag right now and Washington was primarily acquired for his skills on special teams.
For the early going, look for Winn to cut his teeth on the practice squad. But definitely keep your eye on him. There's something special about this kid.
Steve Beauharnais is a physical monster with a powerful interior presence.
He plugs the run at a high level, lays brutal hits of a timely nature and induces turnovers. He follows great plays with dramatic bursts of emotion. He electrifies a crowd and gets his team energized—the way a good captain should.
It's no wonder why the Patriots invested a precious draft selection in him. He's a smart kid and a clever player. He's got a young mind and an old soul. Plus, he's gritty; in 2012, he notched 83 tackles and was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award.
Beauharnais has a shot at making the roster, but some time on the practice squad would give him a chance to grow through the system and refine his game. It would make him a better player.
Beauharnais will get his shot to shine.
Michael Buchanan has beastly tendencies.
He's quick off the snap and brings an impressive grab bag of fluid moves to the table. He's a glass-eating tackler who breaks up passes and has a tremendous ability to derail the passer. At times, he's an unblockable menace.
Given the smoothness of Buchanan's skill, it's foreseeable that he'll carve a place for himself on this team at some point. But, like Beauharnais, he's up against stiff competition at his position and the numbers could force him to the perimeter of things.
Also, on a deeper level, his overall development and consistency as a player would benefit from some controlled growth on the practice squad.
One day soon, Buchanan will be a playmaker in this league.
In the post-draft/undrafted free agency haze, the spotlight landed firmly on rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and underdog T.J. Moe.
That initial excitement took a wicked punch in the mouth, as Dobson and Boyce dealt with physical hiccups all spring, while Moe tore his Achilles and cast a shadow on the hearts of countless fans who were pulling for him to make this team.
In the face of all this darkness, an unexpected stranger emerged from the shadows.
That stranger was Zach Sudfeld.
In New England's limited practices, Sudfeld has already astounded eyewitness with his fluid pass-catching skills, his reliable hands and his impressive footwork. ESPN Boston chose him as one of the top-six momentum-builders of the offseason.
Best of all, Sudfeld's a jovial character—which you can get a taste for in this interview.
He's the sort of player who becomes an instant fan-favorite. Everything about him is pointing in the right direction.
Except, of course, the multiple surgeries which compose his injury history.
His limited body of work from college is a major reason why he's been flying under the radar.
True, he's a tremendous talent and he's certainly the ideal character to compensate for Rob Gronkowski's potential/probable absence, but then again, we're talking about substituting one perennially-injured tight end with another perennially-injured tight end. This is dangerous business.
Still though, Sudfeld is too dynamic to ignore. He has the ability to impact this team in a profound way, especially if they're adopting a team-wide "underdog persona" this season.He could be a major part of that identity.
Positional conflict between Sudfeld and other tight ends, like fellow undrafted rookie Brandon Ford, will be something to monitor as camp unfolds.
The practice squad seems like a solid landing place for Sudfeld. Though, given this kid's heart, I wouldn't be surprised to see him rise through the food chain very quickly and eventually leave a dramatic imprint on the entire season.