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New England Patriots Training Camp: Depth Chart Predictions

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New England Patriots Training Camp: Depth Chart Predictions

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

2013 has been a year of transition for the New England Patriots.

For the first time in a long time, the defense heads into training camp with less question marks than the offense does. The Patriots have spent the last few drafts focusing on defense, and because of that they have young players not only on the roster but in starting spots.

And the offense, which has been the team's calling card the last few years, comes into camp with plenty of issues. They still have Tom Brady, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and that will go a long way towards masking some of those issues. But even Tom Brady can't do it all. If they can't find some playmakers around him he'll have a hard time repeating the kind of years he's used to having.

So I wanted to go through the roster and try to forecast the opening day depth chart. First I went through and picked a 53-man roster, and then I sorted the groups in first, second and if needed third string.

The Patriots want to win now, that's for certain. Their championship window will stay open as long as Brady stays elite, but he's 35 and who knows how much longer that will be. That means depth is important, but I don't believe in giving backup roster spots to veterans if you can help it. That means those spots go to younger players if the Patriots have the choice.

Some positions were relatively easy, mostly on defense. Some were harder. Receiver is deep but not defined, running back could be a position in transition this year and backup quarterback is going to be very much up for grabs. In fact there are so many legitimate position battles this year that earlier this week I posted the Five Training Camp Battles To Watch.

It's going to be an interesting summer in Foxboro, and this is how I see the depth chart shaking out.

Ben Sullivan is an NFL writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on twitter @bensullivan52, "Like" him on Facebook and add him to your network on Google.

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Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

First String - Tom Brady

Second String - Ryan Mallett

Third String - Tim Tebow

Possibly the easiest call in all of sports is that Tom Brady is the starter in New England, no need in going further on that one.

But the backup job is an actual battle this year. The team brought Tim Tebow into camp, and said he's going to be a quarterback. I don't know if I believe them, unless of course it's to use him on as a Red Zone Closer.

For now I'm going to give the backup job to Ryan Mallett, but don't be surprised if it's really a time share at backup in New England this year.

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Running Backs/Fullbacks

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

First String - Stevan Ridley

Second String - Shane Vereen

Third String - LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden

Stevan Ridley had a breakout year in 2012 when the Patriots made an effort to get back to the ground game. Ridley finished the year sixth in the league in rushing attempts, and with the loss of so many weapons in the passing game I don't see any reason that should change this year.

Shane Vereen has been an interesting guy for a while now. He's shown plenty of glimpses of his potential, but something keeps him off the field. Maybe it's my conspiracy theory about Bill Belichick hiding him so he can sign him to a cheap second contract when Ridley inevitably gets overpaid in free agency. You know, probably not, but what else explains his place on the bench the last couple of years?

This should be the year Vereen takes over as the lightning to Ridley's thunder, but we said that last year too.

Those should be the two main guys sharing carries, but LeGarette Blount and Brandon Bolden both have shown they're serviceable NFL ball carriers.

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Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

First String - Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Second String - Aaron Dobson, Donald Jones, Josh Boyce, Jake Ballard

Third String - Matthew Slater, Michael Hoomanawanui.

Alright, now things are getting good. Or bad depending on how you look at it. It's interesting at least. The Patriots have so many new faces in the passing game we're all going to need to have Google at the ready this summer to tell them apart.

Amendola is the leader in the clubhouse to be the number one guy, but he has serious injury concerns. Michael Jenkins could be a pleasant surprise, but the Patriots have had bad luck with bringing in veteran receivers in the past. Julian Edelman has been pretty good in the past, but when you're counting on him as an every game contributor you've got to be worried.

Basically, there are too many buts and what ifs with this group to be too confident. Time will tell if the Pats can put together a good squad from this collection, they've done it before in the Brady/Belichick era, but this is where the concerns start for New England.

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Offensive Line

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

First String - Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer

Second String- Will Svitek, Marcus Cannon, Nick McDonald, Chris McDonald

Offensive line has been a position of strength for the Patriots during their dynasty run. This group isn't necessarily a weakness, but its lack of depth is a real concern.

Logan Mankins is still one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league, Wendell and Connolly are solid, and Solder and Vollmer have shown real potential at the tackle spots. But if any of those players misses significant time with injury you only have two reliable backups, Cannon on the inside of the line and Sviteck at tackle.

If the starting five play all year this line is good enough to get the job done, but if they have to go to the bench too much things could get back in front of Tom Brady.

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Defensive Line

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

First String - Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich

Second String - Jermaine Cunningham, Armond Armstead, Marcus Forston, Jake Bequette

Vince Wilfork anchors the Patriots defensive line in the middle, and he is flanked by the underrated Rob Ninkovich and the impressive second year man Chandler Jones at defensive end.

New England technically made the switch to a 4-3 scheme from their traditional 3-4 last year, but in reality they don't have a base defense. When they want to go to a 4-3 they can use former Oakland Raider Tommy Kelly at the other tackle position, and when they want to go to a 3-4 all they need to do is take Ninkovich and stand him up as an outside linebacker.

The Pats also have some good young players providing the depth on the line in third year player Jake Bequette and second year guys Armond Armstead and Marcus Forston. If perpetually underachieving Jermaine Cunningham can put it together, defensive line could be a real position of strength for this team.

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Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

First String - Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower

Second String- Jaime Collins, Dane Fletcher, Jeff Tarpinian

Third String - Mike Rivera, Steve Beauharnais

The linebackers on the Patriots have been a young group on the verge of breaking out for a while now. And this could be the year they do.

Jerod Mayo is already a really good NFL player. Maybe not great, but the former first round pick is getting better every year. Brandon Spikes is the emotional leader of the group as a big hitter who patrols the middle of the field. He's a true throwback at middle linebacker.

The key for this position is going to be the play of second year man Dont'a Hightower. Hightower had a promising rookie season. That's not been easy to do for rookie defenders in Bill Belichick's system, so his play last year gives every indication that he has the football IQ to be a difference maker this year.

They have other young players Jaime Collins, Mike Rivera and Steve Beauharnais to provide depth with Dane Fletcher and Jeff Tarpinian.

Overall this is a group ready to take the next step and be a real bright spot in New England.

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Defensive Backs

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

First String - Aqib Talib, Ras-I Dowling, Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson

Second String - Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon

2013 will be another frustrating year in the defensive backfield of New England. Aqib Talib is a really, really good cover corner. The way he took Andre Johnson out of the game against the Houston Texans in the playoffs is something you just don't see anymore in the NFL. But Talib has plenty of off the field issues, and that could derail him at any moment.

Speaking of off the field issues, the other corner the Patriots were planning on using as Talib's counterpart, Alfonzo Dennard, may not even be on the team this year because he just can't stay out of trouble with the law. Literally as I'm putting this roster together the news is coming out that he may have violated his probation by being arrested for DUI.

Whether or not Dennard is on the opening day roster remains to be seen, but I'm going to err on the side of caution and just anticipate that he won't be. Even if it's not this most recent DUI that takes him off the field, it's starting to look like something will.

His spot goes to Ras-I Dowling, if he can stay healthy. If not, Kyle Arrington gets the nod by default.

Devin McCourty lines up next to newcomer Adrian Wilson at safety, with Tavon Wilson and rookie Duron Harmon backing them up.

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Special Teams

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Kicker - Stephen Gostkowski

Punter - Zoltan Mesko

Long Snapper - Danny Aiken

No real surprises on the special teams front. The Patriots have one of the most reliable kicker/punter combos in the league. Well, reliable because they're always there. Mesko has a really strong leg, but Gostkowski has been surprisingly unreliable.

His career field goal percentage of 84.2% isn't terrible, but it's not really that good either. Last year he finished 19th overall in the league. I wouldn't be worried about it, but I would be taking a look at other options for kicker.

Oh, and while we're talking about special teams, because we rarely ever do, one quick rant about long snappers. Why can't teams just teach a backup offensive lineman how to long snap? It's a learned skill; I know people who have taught themselves. You just need to put in the time to practice. They could find a way for a young player to earn a roster spot and not waste one on a guy who wouldn’t be in the league if he couldn't spin a football through his legs in a straight line. The Patriots are all about versatility and depth so it seems like a waste of a valuable roster spot to me.