- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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(Continuing a month-long series analyzing players who are on the roster bubble and where they may potentially fit in 2012.)
NAME: Jeff Tarpinian
2011 STATS: 7 games (1 start), 8 special teams tackles, 4 tackles on defense -- placed on injured reserve on Nov. 24
INJURY STATUS: No known injuries
CHANCE OF MAKING 53-MAN ROSTER: 65%
WHY HE SHOULD MAKE IT: Tarpinian came in last season as undrafted free agent and surprised some by making the 53-man roster out of the preseason. In the team's gutsy road win over the Jets in November, Tarpinian even got a starting nod on defense. However, an 'illness' landed him on injured reserve a few weeks later, with head coach Bill Belichick saying at the time that Tarpinian was "giving us solid play in the big four (special teams) phases." He was effectively replaced by veteran Niko Koutouvides on the roster, but seemingly having won the favor of Belichick in his rookie campaign, Tarpinian could have the inside track for a reserve linebacker/top special teams player role in 2012.
WHY HE SHOULD NOT MAKE IT: The Patriots were thin last season at linebacker, which in part allowed Tarpinian to both stick on the roster and have an opportunity to contribute on defense. Another special teams-focused player, veteran Tracy White, also saw time at linebacker in sub packages after Gary Guyton was phased out of the defense. This season, the additions of first-round pick Dont'a Hightower and free-agent Bobby Carpenter may change the landscape of the position. While there is still likely room for Tarpinian, there is a large group of players competing for roster spots based on special teams contributions. White and Koutouvides are part of this group, but other players such as fullback Spencer Larsen, and safeties Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, and Nate Ebner could create a clouded picture on special teams.
CLOSEST COMPETITION: LB Tracy White, LB Niko Koutouvides, FB Spencer Larsen