TRAINING CAMP has progressed from fitness tests, to lighter workouts, to padded practices with full-scale football - and now it's time for the Patriots to start seeing how they stack up against someone else.
Mr. Belichick goes to Washington this week, first for joint practices with the Redskins, then for Thursday night's exhibition opener. It's unlikely that many of the players who'll be relied upon heavily in the regular-season opener will have much of a role in this game, though the opportunity is plenty important for the second-, third- and fourth-teamers who are fighting to catch the eye of their coach, Bill Belichick, and find a way to stick around as part of the 53-man group that goes to Miami in early September.
Who has the inside track on those spots at this point? Position by position, here's one projection of what the Pats' roster could ultimately look like:
Quarterbacks - 3
Jimmy Garoppolo has by all accounts experienced some struggles adjusting to the significant leap in level of competition between Eastern Illinois and the NFL - but he was the team's second-round draft pick in May. He's not going anywhere. It's Ryan Mallett who's competing for a roster spot, and with Garoppolo looking unlikely to prove himself ready to take over as Tom Brady's primary backup before the opener, Mallett appears a safe bet to retain that role.
Running backs - 5
Realistically, there's as little competition for jobs here as anywhere on the roster. Stevan Ridley, with one year left on his contract, is a legitimate feature back when he can avoid fumbling. Shane Vereen is a dangerous dual-purpose threat, given his abilities in the passing game. A fourth-round pick was this year invested in rookie James White, who takes LeGarrette Blount's vacated slot, while Brandon Bolden is a solid any-role reserve who contributes to special teams. Then there's James Develin, who is a dying breed as a fullback - though had some value at that position last season, when the Patriots reincorporated it into their gameplan, and he also provides some emergency insurance at tight end
Tight ends - 2
The Patriots opened last season with four tight ends on the roster, and finished with three. Assuming Rob Gronkowski is fully healthy, however, he is a player who typically plays almost every offensive snap for New England, so this could be one spot where the club looks to trim in order to create a spot elsewhere. Develin helps in that regard, as do receivers Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola, both of whom align on the inside of formations frequently. Offensive tackle Nate Solder has reported eligible in goal-line sets, too. The coaches love Michael Hoomanawanui, so D.J. Williams would likely be the odd man out if the Pats opt to go with just two players here.
Wide receivers - 7
Amendola's contract would make it difficult for him to be cut, even if the Patriots were inclined to do so. Julian Edelman, fresh off a 1,000-yard campaign, re-signed over the offseason. LaFell received a $3 million signing bonus this spring, when he was lured from Carolina. Then there are Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, a couple of players who started to prove they can play at this level as rookies last season. And finally there's Matthew Slater, a receiver in title but really an indispensable member of New England's core special teams unit. That's six - which is as many as the Pats kept last season, which leaves some doubt about whether second-year receiver Josh Boyce might fit. However, given the issue of Dobson's lingering foot injury, and Boyce's ability as a kick returner, he could wind up on the right side of the bubble at the start.
Offensive linemen - 9
Sebastian Vollmer is back, which should solidify the right side of the line, where Dan Connolly figures to start at guard. The left side remains intact, with Logan Mankins inside of Nate Solder. Belichick spoke highly of incumbent center Ryan Wendell, who could be pushed by rookie Bryan Stork among the starting group, and at the least joins Josh Kline as the Pats' top interior backups. That's seven linemen, and last year they broke camp with nine, then finished with eight, but given some age and injury concerns they may err on the side of depth this time. Marcus Cannon is decent and experienced, while rookie Cameron Fleming was taken shortly after Stork in this year's draft. Rookie Jon Halapio and second-year guard Chris Barker appear the odd men out, barring injury or the release of Wendell.
Defensive linemen - 10
The Pats entered last year with eight defensive linemen, and entered the AFC title game with nine. It would make sense to keep 10 now, though, given the durability issues. Vince Wilfork, Will Smith, and Tommy Kelly are all older and have been through injury. Top pick Dominique Easley is coming off an ACL tear and his availability is in doubt, while ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich each played too many snaps last season so the Pats may want to protect themselves with depth. Tackles Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones both earned spots last season (heck, either could start next to Wilfork), while Michael Buchanan showed flashes as a rookie as a rusher. He and fellow end Zach Moore should complete the group.
Linebackers - 6
With Brandon Spikes in Buffalo, the starters are relatively cut-and-dry: Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins will get the bulk of the snaps, with newly acquired James Anderson slotting in situationally. Beyond that, linebacker is a spot where the Pats will likely emphasize kick coverage roles, and both Chris White and Steve Beauharnais capably filled special teams roles in 2013.
Cornerbacks - 4 + 1
Things could get more complicated when Brandon Browner returns from a four-game drug suspension, since he doesn't initially count against the roster's 53-man limit - but even when he returns, the Pats are likely to make room for him by trimming elsewhere. Darrelle Revis isn't going anywhere, and the coaches like Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington, too. With Browner, the Pats appear to have depth at cornerback for the first time in a while.
Safeties - 4
Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon appear on track to be the starters, which thrusts the rest of the group into a fight for two spots - likely to be decided by their abilities on special teams. That gives Nate Ebner an edge, so the choice could come down to giving up on 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson or ending Patrick Chung's return engagement before it really begins. The winner should be whoever plays better during the preseason games.
Kicking game - 3
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen are locks, while long snapper Danny Aiken should retain his job with a dependable camp.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.