After the Patriots' second preseason game, here is a look at what the Patriots' starting lineup and depth chart on offense might look like.
Quarterback: Tom Brady
Analysis: Easiest position to assess. Brady is the clear-cut starter on this team.
The real question for New England is who is the backup?
One would think that Brian Hoyer would get the nod as the No. 2 option on the depth chart, as he has been the second-string quarterback for the last three years.
However, Brian Hoyer was clearly outplayed by second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett in the Patriots' second preseason game, so it will be a storyline to monitor.
Running Back: Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead (Third-Down)
Analysis: As long as Ridley is healthy, he will be the team’s starting running back for the 2012 season. Ridley rushed for 441 yards as a rookie last year and averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry. Danny Woodhead, the team’s third-down back for the past two seasons, will definitely keep his job as the third-down back.
He is a solid pass catcher who is small and shifty. He fits the Patriots' offense well and knows the playbook better than any other running back on the roster.
Also, running back Shane Vereen has impressed in training camp and preseason games and there is no doubt he will make the final roster. He will get reps in regular season games and get more chances to carve out a role on this offense as the season progresses.
The team also looks ready to give recently signed running back Jeff Demps (undrafted rookie out of Florida) a chance to make the roster by giving him $211,000 in guaranteed money – the second highest guaranteed amount given to any undrafted rookie this year.
Demps won a silver medal in this summer’s Olympic Games, but the Patriots seemed to be high on him before that. He runs a 4.18 40-yard dash and will probably not play much at the running back position. Instead, he will be a contributor on special teams and will hope to make an impact as a return man.
The final running back on the depth chart is Brandon Bolden, who was an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss. Bolden has had an impressive training camp and has caught many people's eye, but over the last few weeks he has started to decline.
He had a very porous showing during the team’s second preseason game, only gaining eight yards rushing on five attempts as well fumbling the ball in the opponent’s red-zone. This changed the momentum of the game in Philadelphia’s favor and led to a Patriots loss. There is still a chance he could make the final roster, but his chances are looking slimmer every day.
Wide Receiver: Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch (No. 3), Jabar Gaffney (No. 4)
Analysis: It is safe to say that Welker and Lloyd are locks to make the final roster. They have been consistent playmakers in the NFL over the last few seasons and will carry that momentum into the 2012 season. After those two players, things get tricky.
I have Deion Branch listed as the team's No. 3 receiver, which may come as a shock to some people because he was fighting for a roster spot before the second preseason game. However, Coach Bill Belichick started him in the game and he played 73 out of the total 74 snaps on the offensive side of the ball (the only snap he did not play was on a two-point conversion attempt).
Branch made the most of his opportunity, catching three passes for 51 yards (on only four targets), and he was the team’s leading receiver. He secured his spot on the roster last night (barring an injury during the next few days), and may have even jumped into the No. 3 spot.
I put Jabar Gaffney at the No. 4 spot. Gaffney has been in the No. 3 spot for nearly all of training camp but has yet to really make a statement this preseason. He suffered a leg injury in practice last week that has kept him off the field. Now all of a sudden his spot on the depth chart is up for grabs. I think Branch has done enough to take over that third spot, bumping Gaffney back to No. 4.
Other receivers who seem to be sure-fire assumptions to make the final roster are Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman. Slater is the team's special teams captian, and Edelman is the team's punt returner. Edelman has also had a nice training camp playing in the slot, so keeping him is a must.
The only receiver whose status with the team seems to be in question is Donte Stallworth. Stallworth had a chance Monday night to lock down his roster spot, but only caught one pass on six targets. He has also had problems with some drops throughout practice so far. If I had to guess right now, I would say Stallworth does not make the final cut.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells (No. 3)
Analysis: Gronkowski and Hernandez are two of the game’s best tight ends, so they will definitely be starting for this team. Fells is reportedly coming off of the PUP list the week, and after signing a three-year deal with the team this offseason he looks like a lock to make the final roster.
Jake Ballard is on the Active/PUP list and will most likely not play this season as he recovers from a torn ACL, so the team does not have to worry about him so much.
Alex Silvestro, the team’s starting tight end in their second preseason game, did a very nice job filling on for Gronkowski. He did some nice things blocking-wise, and caught two passes for 18 yards – including a nice snag from Mallett for a touchdown.
With that being said, I do not think it is enough to make the final cut. If he clears waivers, he could be a nice addition to the team's practice squad, but there just isn’t enough room for him on the final roster.
Visanthe Shiancoe signed a one-year deal with the Patriots earlier this offseason for $1.2 million, so it looked like he was going to make the final cut for sure. However, Shiancoe has been sidelined with an injury for most of training camp, so the chances of him making the final roster seem slim.
Offensive line: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer
Analysis: I am assuming that Mankins and Vollmer are healthy enough to start for the team in Week 1. For the Patriots to be Super Bowl contenders, they must play better across the line, and those two players will help this unit in a lot of ways.
Solder needs to play better, plain and simple. So far, he has been disappointing, and he is playing the most important position on this front (Brady’s blindside protector). Connolly and Wendell have done a nice job so far, so I think that they should get the starting job over players like Dan Koppen, Marcus Cannon, and Daniel Thomas.
I expect the Patriots to keep 8-9 players on the offensive line on the final roster because they are so thin at that position.
Like I said, the Patriots' season rides on whether this group can get it together or not. With Mankins and Vollmer back they should be better, and if Solder improves that could help this unit drastically.
Let us not forget, it is not totally unrealistic to think guard Brian Waters will return to the team. He was arguably the team’s best free-agent pickup of the 2011 season, and if he returns the team could plug him back in to the right guard position and shift Connolly back over to center.
They could even keep Wendell at center and use Connolly as the team’s primary backup in case of injury.
My gut says that Waters will not be back this season, and if he is he will not be the same player he was last season (missing an entire training camp hurts older players who are trying to stay in shape, but it does keep them away from little, nagging injuries that seem to pile on as players grow older).
Over the next few weeks it will be interesting to see whether or not Waters returns to the team, and if he does how his impact will affect this unit’s chemistry.
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