The Patriots will play their third preseason game in 10 days on Wednesday night when they travel to face the New York Giants, their traditional opponent during the exhibition season finale.
The talent on the field won't mirror what we saw in Super Bowl XLVI, but the game is nonetheless a pivotal final evaluative tool for Bill Belichick and the Patriots as they approach the Friday deadline to finalize their 53-man roster.
A host of players could essentially be playing for their future with the Patriots, as a solid performance on Wednesday could prove to be the final step in cementing a spot on the active roster or practice squad. For others, struggles against the Giants could lead to the end of the road.
With that in mind, here's a look at five positions worth closely monitoring on Wednesday night, as well as the players involved who could be fighting for their spot with the Patriots going forward.
We'll lump these two into a single position, as the Patriots currently have just one fullback, Eric Kettani, on the active roster. But the team is log-jammed with five running backs, and it seems plausible that all five could remain on the active roster. With Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead as solid bets to stick around, that could mean that a pair of undrafted rookies, Brandon Bolden and Jeff Demps, are competing along with Kettani for two final spots at the position. Bolden would appear to have the flexibility to align as an occasional fullback, and the Patriots could always turn to a defensive lineman or linebacker (like they did with Dane Fletcher in previous seasons) to serve as a short-yardage lead blocker. If the team believes Demps can be its primary kick returner this season, and that Bolden brings enough value as a running back, fullback and special-teamer, Kettani may prove to be the odd man out.
With the recent releases of Donte' Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney, the Patriots' wide-receiver position has further come into focus, raising the case that perhaps no positional competition is more compelling than the one that still exists at center. Here are the remaining players involved: Dan Connolly, a starter in 15 games in 2011; Dan Koppen, a veteran who was a primary starter from 2003 to 2011 (he was injured in week one last year); and Ryan Wendell, a youngster who has improved each season that he has been in New England. The competition could be directly tied into the status of guard Brian Waters, who has yet to report to camp, and the health of Nick McDonald, who was absent from practice on Monday. If Waters does not play in 2012, Connolly could be moved to the right guard spot, leaving the center position to Koppen or Wendell. While Wendell possesses the ability to play guard or center, Koppen is limited to the center spot, meaning he'll likely need to earn the starting role to stay on the active roster.
This position is more about who will fall in line as reserves, with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich firmly entrenched as starters. One could make a case for Trevor Scott, Jermaine Cunningham or even undrafted rookie Justin Francis as the third most impressive end in camp, while third-round pick Jake Bequette is likely to stick around as well. The question is, can the team afford to keep six ends? And if not, would the team opt for the experience and veteran leadership of Scott over the upside of a player like Francis? Or might the team attempt to keep Francis tucked away on the practice squad, while allowing Scott to help groom the youngsters? Cunningham was an offseason award winner who has flashed well at times during camp, but might not be a roster lock right now.
The Patriots' top five linebackers are all but set, with a projected starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower. Veteran Bobby Carpenter is likely next in line in case of an injury, and Niko Koutovides appears safe on the roster because of a core special-teams role. But two players who are likely to see a great deal of action on Wednesday, Mike Rivera and Jeff Tarpinian, as well as Tracy White (who may be out with an injury) could be in competition for a final spot at the position. Rivera isn't the move-in-space athlete of Tarpinian or White, but has been sturdy throughout camp and provides depth as a middle linebacker. Tarpinian and White, meanwhile, could be central special-teams players, but both are on the smaller size by linebacker measures.
When it comes to the cornerback position, it's the players that will serve as backups to Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling that could come into focus on Wednesday night. Sterling Moore, Marquice Cole and Alfonzo Dennard are the players under consideration, with the possibility of one of them not sticking around very long. Based off of last year's role, his ball skills and his versatility, Moore would seem like a safe bet, and Cole has impressed this preseason. Dennard has been limited in training camp, but is a player many considered a good value for the team in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. A release of Dennard followed by subsequently adding him to the practice squad would come as no surprise, although the team may not want to risk his being claimed by another squad on waivers. Wednesday night will likely help the team sort out its plan of attack as it relates to this trio.