- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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Examining the New England Patriots' roster:
The last time the Patriots kept three quarterbacks was in 2011, Mallett's rookie year. With Mallett entering the final year of his contract and likely to be playing elsewhere in 2015, the Patriots can groom his replacement, Garoppolo, one year early.
RUNNING BACKS (4)
As has been the case in recent years, the Patriots split their backs into two categories: 1) More traditional early-down backs who have size and run with power (Ridley/Bolden); 2) Passing backs whose work as pass-protectors and as pass-catchers thrusts them into a starter-like role (Vereen/White) based on the spread formations the club often employs. We'll see if rookie and first-year backs Stephen Houston (category 1), Roy Finch (2) and Jonas Gray (1) can do enough to make this a tough decision.
The hard-nosed former Brown Bear has carved out a niche as a lead-blocker and special-teams presence, adding a needed element of toughness to the attack. He's also been expanding his duties to include some tight-end work in spring practices.
TIGHT ENDS (2)
This is a bit lighter than the norm, and perhaps fifth-year veteran D.J. Williams (2010 Mackey Award winner) steps up as the "move" tight end or the team signs a free-agent like Dustin Keller. But in this scenario, with the club keeping an extra quarterback and possibly going a bit heavier on the offensive line than they have in the past, something has to give. Develin and a young offensive lineman would factor more into the tight end mix if this is the way it unfolds.
WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
This is a huge year for second-year pass-catchers Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce -- making it one of the top storylines for the club entering training camp. And will Amendola stay healthy and become the player the club envisioned when signing him to a big deal in the 2013 offseason?
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
After the initial locks (Solder, Mankins, Vollmer, Cannon), there will be a good competition for roster spots with rookies (Stork, Halapio, Fleming) and first-year players (Braxston Cave, Chris Barker) pressing the issue. Starting right guard Dan Connolly, who has played plenty of good football for the Patriots, is scheduled to earn $3 million in base salary and economics could play a factor if he ultimately sticks.
DEFENSIVE LINE (10)
There is a nice mix of experience, production and young upside at both spots. Of the group above, Wilfork (Achilles), Kelly (ACL), Easley (ACL) and Smith (ACL) are all coming off serious injuries, so monitoring their health will be a key.
Some good battles for the backup spots will be a nitty-gritty storyline to monitor in training camp as the starters are set with Mayo, Hightower and Collins. Special teams are always a significant consideration in that area and White, Anderson and Beauharnais will be challenged by the likes of veteran Josh Hull, first-year player Ja'Gared Davis, second-year player Darius Fleming and undrafted free agent Cameron Gordon, among others.
Because Browner is suspended for the first four regular-season games, he won't count against the initial 53-man roster limit. But he is included here because he is obviously a significant part of the team's overall planning for the 2014 season.
Veteran Patrick Chung and 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson would be the odd men out in this scenario, which assumes that Thomas -- the versatile sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech -- shows potential to grow into a role that includes a heavy emphasis in the kicking game. Logan Ryan, one of the team's smartest players who possibly has some cornerback/safety versatility, could ultimately be a factor here.
The one position battle to watch is at long-snapper, where undrafted free agent Tyler Ott of Harvard is challenging Aiken, the incumbent. If the competition is close, Ott would get the nod based on economics. (His salary is cheaper and the team controls his rights for three years while Aiken is on a one-year deal.)
Examining the New England Patriots' roster:QUARTERBACKS (3)Tom BradyRyan MallettJimmy GaroppoloThe last time the Patriots kept three quarterbacks was in 2011, Mallett's rookie year.