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BOSTON (CBS) — It’s still the dead of summer, but it is nevertheless football season.
The Patriots are in Foxboro this week for the beginning of training camp, meaning we’re just a few weeks of practices and four mostly meaningless preseason games away from the real games getting under way.
But before we make it to the regular season, a lot of work must be done, and many jobs must be won.
While we’ll never be privy to all of Bill Belichick’s deepest thoughts, here’s an honest estimation of how the roster will look when it gets whittled down to 53.
Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Tim Tebow
Outside Of The Bubble: None
The only question here is whether or not Tim Tebow will make the team. You have to think that if the team was willing to invite him aboard – and, consequently, invite the circus to Foxboro – that it did so with reason. That reason may simply be to keep him third on the depth chart, teach him the game by having him in meeting rooms with Tom Brady and reset his career back on the right path after the Jets knocked it off the rails last year. (Plus, the Patriots Pro Shop has been full of Tebow No. 5 jerseys all summer. Selling those things for big money only to cut him in August would be a pretty cruel move.)
As for the other two guys, Mallett is the only capable backup ready right now, and I don’t imagine many teams would be interested in trading away any assets to acquire him (even though he looks like Jesse Pinkman). No. 12 has a decent shot to make it through cuts.
Running Backs (4)
Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Leon Washington
Outside Of The Bubble: LeGarrette Blount, James Develin, George Winn, Ben Bartholomew
It’s a huge year for Stevan Ridley, who stepped up in a big way last season, when he accounted for 58 percent of the Patriots’ total rushing yards while making 55 percent of the team’s rushing attempts. His season ended with him lying on the Gillette Stadium turf after Bernard Pollard knocked him out of the AFC Championship Game, so he’ll have to prove that didn’t set him back after the progress he made last year as a reliable top back. Offseason reports said he bulked up, indicating he’s ready for an even bigger role.
Shane Vereen figures to play a very prominent role with Danny Woodhead now gone, and the third-year back should be able to help make up for some of the 300 rushing yards and 400-plus receiving yards that went to San Diego in Woodhead. Brandon Bolden should also take an increased role, provided he catches up to speed quickly enough in camp after dealing with a sprained ankle in the offseason.
The final roster spot will be a battle between Leon Washington and LeGarrette Blount, but Washington’s veteran experience — and abilities as a punt returner — gives him a distinct advantage over Blount.
Wide Receiver (6)
Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Lavelle Hawkins
Outside Of The Bubble: Donald Jones (already released), Michael Jenkins, Kenbrell Thompkins, Quentin Sims, Kamar Aiken, Mark Harrison, Perez Ashford
Danny Amendola is the de facto top receiver to start the year, with Wes Welker gone, Aaron Hernandez in prison and Rob Gronkowski likely injured early on. Amendola will be the guy.
Matthew Slater is a special teams captain and isn’t going anywhere, even if he won’t factor into the offense, and Julian Edelman is likely too valuable as a punt returner to lose his spot. However, Edelman could lose that job to Leon Washington, so that’s something worth keeping an eye on throughout camp. (Edelman will begin camp on the PUP list, affording him some extra time to get back into playing shape after breaking his foot last season.)
You’d have to think that Belichick’s use of a second-round pick on Aaron Dobson and a fourth-rounder on Josh Boyce is an indication that the rookies are on a fast track to making the roster. Nothing is guaranteed, and they’ll have to show they are healthy and that they can understand the complex Patriots offense, but they will be given every opportunity to prove that before they’re in danger of losing a spot.
As for Hawkins, call it a hunch, but there’s a reason the Patriots acquired him. He could be the type of relatively unknown guy whom Belichick finds and turns into an important player. He’ll have to prove he’s better than veteran Michael Jenkins, who is the tallest (6-foot-4) of the bunch and is known as a great blocker but also has the nickname “Molasses Mike” due to his lack of speed.
Kenbrell Thompkins might not make the roster, but I have a feeling we’ll be hearing his name quite a bit in camp.
Tight End (3)
Rob Gronkowksi (PUP), Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld
Outside Of The Bubble: Brandon Ford, Daniel Fells
Rob Gronkowski, obviously, is going to be on the team and will be the central figure in the offense once he’s healthy. However, it would require an unhealthy level of optimism to expect Gronk, he of five surgeries since November, to be ready to go come Week 1. I believe having him start the season on the PUP list and sit out for the first six weeks is the best course of action. For one, the Patriots’ opponents aren’t great, but more importantly, rushing him back before he’s ready could lead to another wasted season. Just give it time, and in the meanwhile, give other guys their opportunities.
The best receiving option at tight end is Jake Ballard, who was initially placed on the PUP list on Tuesday but was taken off the list by the end of the day. He might still not be fully recovered 100 percent from his torn ACL and microfracture surgery from the end of the 2011 season but provided he is able to build strength in comfort in the coming weeks, he should be Brady’s top tight end target to start the year.
Michael Hoomanawanui did his job well last year, so he should be safe. Start practicing with me here: H-O-O-M-A-N-A-W-A-N-U-I.
Zach Sudfeld at 6-foot-7, 260 pounds is an interesting guy to watch, and he may be the beneficiary of the extra roster spot if Gronkowski does indeed begin the season on the PUP list for six weeks. Sudfeld caught eight touchdowns and had nearly 600 receiving yards in his senior year at Nevada in 2012, and he may be a sleeper to make the Patriots’ roster.
Offensive Line (8)
Ryan Wendell, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Nick McDonald, Will Svitek
Outside Of The Bubble: Kevin Haslam, Elvis Fisher, Josh Kline, Chris McDonald, Markus Zusevics, R.J. Mattes, Matt Stankiewitch
It would be pretty surprising to see a major change on the offensive line. Pro Football Focus ranked the Patriots’ O-line as the second-best group in the league last year, going so far as to say Sebastian Vollmer was the best right tackle if not for injury and calling Ryan Wendell a “secret superstar” poised to become a Pro Bowler.
Will Svitek will be added to the mix as an extra guy, and on the bubble, Markus Zusevics will be there in the event of any injuries.
Total offensive players: 24