FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At this point of the preseason, the New England Patriots' picture starts to come into sharper focus. For 12 years now, coach Bill Belichick has stressed the importance of consistency and this is often the time that players distinguish themselves while others fall back in the pack.
Belichick is using the early part of this week to focus on situations that might come up in games, which reflects the standard training-camp progression and how the Patriots are almost at the finish line, ready to shift into more of a regular-season focus.
The season opener, after all, is now less than three weeks away.
With no offseason camps to evaluate, everything has been condensed into the last three-and-a-half weeks. In that shortened timeframe, who have done the most to solidify their standing and who have slipped based on expectations?
Capitalizing most on the opportunity
Andre Carter -- He has erased any doubt as to which player will be starting at right defensive end, proving to be the team's most lethal pass-rusher in practice and in the second preseason game, at Tampa Bay. While there has been plenty of discussion on how Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco will fit into the locker room, the 32-year-old Carter comes with no such questions. He has the potential to emerge in a leadership role. Signing Carter to a one-year, $2.25 million contract looks like a shrewd move, as the Patriots haven't had a player with his skill set in recent memory, which ties in to their scheme alterations.
Dane Fletcher -- Filling in at middle linebacker for the injured Brandon Spikes, Fletcher was one of the top performers in the team's preseason opener before hurting his right thumb in the second game. While it was unlikely that Fletcher was going to supplant Spikes, he was putting on a real charge to leapfrog Gary Guyton on the overall linebacker depth chart before the injury. Belichick noted that Fletcher has become a better coverage player in his second season, giving him a chance to become more than just a special teamer, but now the momentum he's built could be stunted by the thumb injury.
Ryan Mallett -- The Patriots' draft pick with the most sizzle, the 6-foot-6 quarterback has made quick strides and shown an impressive work ethic by staying late at practice to work on everything from holding field goals to improving his footwork when dropping back from center. His arm strength is undeniable and his performance in preseason games -- outside of one should-have-thrown-it-away interception -- has been anything but rookie-like. Mallett's preseason stats: 21-of-33 for 235 yards, with one touchdown, one interception and one sack.
Stevan Ridley -- The running back from LSU was viewed by a few scouts as a reach in the early third round, but no one is saying that after watching how hard he has run this preseason. He leads the team with 148 yards on 30 carries, showing he can be a hammer at the goal line, as well as someone who can make the first tackler miss in the middle of the field. Ridley (5-foot-11, 225) is a bigger back and he has benefitted from showing up to camp on time as one of the few running backs who could practice immediately.
Will Yeatman -- When the Patriots released veteran Alge Crumpler one day into camp, it cleared the path for either fifth-round draft choice Lee Smith or Yeatman, a rookie free agent out of Maryland, to emerge as the team's third tight end. Surprisingly, Yeatman has the upper hand. The coaching staff had him on the field for 21 first-half snaps with the starters Thursday in Tampa Bay, and while he's still developing, he shows promise as a blocker. Meanwhile, Smith has been held out of the past two practices, giving Yeatman even more of a chance to distance himself for the third spot.
Slipping based on expectations
Ron Brace -- For the second training camp in a row, the 2009 second-round draft choice has opened on the active/physically unable to perform list. His rookie season was almost like a redshirt campaign, with the team working him at nose tackle in the 3-4 alignment behind Vince Wilfork. It wasn't a fit, and when Brace moved to left end in 2010, it looked like a better spot for him as he played in 13 games (five starts). With the chance to take the next step this year, Brace has instead fallen behind and looks primed to start the season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list.
Jermaine Cunningham -- Belichick often talks about the biggest jump for players coming from their rookie to second seasons, and Cunningham appeared primed to build off a rookie campaign in which he played in 50 percent of the snaps at outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment. But with the Patriots playing more of a traditional four-man line in training camp, Cunningham didn't look like the answer at the pass-rushing right end spot. Carter is a more explosive option. Cunningham has been out of practice since the preseason opener.
Brandon Meriweather -- The first sign something wasn't right was when the Patriots kept all their Pro Bowl players out of the preseason opener except Meriweather. Then in the second preseason game, coaches subbed Meriweather out for former practice squad player Sergio Brown on the third series before adopting a three-man rotation the rest of the game. This looks like a case of the coaching staff attempting to push Meriweather's buttons. It wouldn't be a shocker if the Patriots traded the 2007 first-round draft choice if they find he can bring some value.
Shane Vereen -- After signing one week into training camp, the second-round draft choice looked extremely fast in his first practice before pulling up with a hamstring injury the next day. He hasn't practiced since. Vereen is considered a smart player, and he should pick up the offense quickly, but in missing almost all of training camp he's become a bit of a forgotten man in the running back corps.
Mike Wright -- The Patriots' sack leader in 2010, the super-sub defensive lineman has been out of practice for about three weeks. Over that time, roles have started to become solidified up front with Wilfork, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren and Myron Pryor the top interior linemen, all providing a good push up front. It's hard to imagine Wright not making the cut, but after missing the final seven games of 2010 with a severe concussion, and now missing a significant part of training camp, Wright's status isn't as clear as it was not too long ago.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.