FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have an ever-evolving offense, so narrowing things down to one starting lineup is a challenging task. Nonetheless, here’s a starting lineup projection:
Quarterback (Tom Brady): Well, at least this part is easy. Brady, who will turn 40 on Aug. 3, clearly looked like the team’s best signal-caller in spring practices. One area where Brady continues to improve at a time when most others in his age range decline (or simply aren’t playing anymore) is his deep-ball accuracy.
Running back (Mike Gillislee/James White): This gets split into two distinct categories: early-down traditional rusher and passing back. Gillislee, who was signed as a restricted free agent from the Buffalo Bills, is the leading candidate to replace LeGarrette Blount (now with the Philadelphia Eagles) in a group effort that should also include Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. White, who inked a three-year extension in the offseason, is the reliable back the Patriots want on the field in most passing situations. James Develin is the leading candidate to return as the lead-blocking fullback.
Wide receiver (Brandin Cooks): After three receivers went in the top 10 of this year's NFL draft, the Patriots’ decision to trade their first-round pick (No. 32 overall) as part of a package for Cooks looked even more shrewd than it did at the time the deal went down. When a team such as the Patriots is consistently picking at the bottom of the first round, it must look for different opportunities to add elite talent. This qualifies.
Wide receiver (Julian Edelman): Fresh off his cover shoot for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue this summer, in which Edelman spoke about how proud he was to come back from a foot injury in 2015 and play every game last season, he remains Brady’s go-to option in “got to have it” situations. With more depth at receiver, Edelman could potentially see a long-term benefit from a slight reduction in playing time.
Wide receiver (Chris Hogan): Averaging 17.9 yards per reception last season, he showed the ability to get behind defensive backs and create significant windows in which Brady could find him on deep balls. Signed as a restricted free agent from the Bills, his acquisition was a coup in 2016, and there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t continue along that path in 2017.
Tight end (Rob Gronkowski): This is a big year for Gronkowski, who was limited to eight games last season with a back injury. His career has had ebbs and flows with injuries. He played in every game his first two seasons, missed notable time the following two years, then had a two-year stretch in which he hardly missed any time -- before last season’s dip. Will he be available for all 16 games? Dwayne Allen, acquired from the Colts, is projected as the top backup.
Left tackle (Nate Solder): The 2011 first-round draft pick enters the final year of his contract and is coming off a Super Bowl performance in which he had some struggles, particularly against speed rusher Dwight Freeney. Solder deserves credit for coming back from a torn biceps that limited him to four games in 2015, as he played every game but one last season. He is still a capable, effective blindside protector.
Left guard (Joe Thuney): The 2016 third-round pick out of NC State was one of the top rookies in the NFL last season. A team can’t ask for much more than 99.6 percent playing time.
Center (David Andrews): Smart, scrappy and reliable, Andrews has settled into a full-time starting role after initially making the team as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia in 2015. He has had some trouble with edge rushers, such as Houston’s Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, moving inside on passing situations.
Right guard (Shaq Mason): After playing in a run-based option offense at Georgia Tech, the 2015 fourth-round pick was ahead of the curve as a run-blocker but more raw as a pass-blocker when he first joined the Patriots. He has grown into a complete lineman.
Right tackle (Marcus Cannon): Two years ago, he was arguably the most vilified player among Patriots fans. His turnaround to become one of the NFL’s best players at the position has been impressive.
Defensive end (Rob Ninkovich): The 33-year-old Ninkovich, who first signed with the Patriots in 2009, has been with the club as long as any player other than Brady, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and special-teams captain Matthew Slater. At this stage of his career, he has been taking a year-to-year approach in deciding whether he wants to play.
Defensive tackle (Alan Branch): Branch, 32, has been playing arguably the best football of his 10-year career as of late. Coach Bill Belichick noted that he was the team’s most consistent interior defensive lineman in 2016 and that others at the position were trying to measure up to him. He is opening training camp on the physically unable to perform list.
Defensive tackle (Malcom Brown): The 2015 first-round pick out of Texas (No. 32 overall) didn’t make the second-year jump to elite status, but he has a dual skill set that is valuable in terms of being able to hold his ground and play the run, while also having the athleticism to pressure at times with the pass rush.
Defensive end (Trey Flowers): A breakout player in 2016, Flowers led the Patriots with seven sacks. He could be on the verge of adding his name to the NFL’s list of upper-echelon edge rushers. His unusually long arms make him tough for interior offensive linemen to handle when he moves inside in passing situations.
Linebacker (Dont'a Hightower): After visiting the Jets and Steelers as an unrestricted free agent, Hightower re-signed in New England. He is the team’s lone true three-down linebacker in coordinator Matt Patricia’s multiple-scheme defense. One of the strengths of Hightower’s game is pressuring up the middle. He is opening training camp on the PUP list.
Linebacker (David Harris): The 33-year-old Harris is likely more of a two-down-type option, as his lack of speed could be a detriment in obvious passing situations. But his instincts and professionalism are two areas that make him a good fit. Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Jonathan Freeny, Harvey Langi and Trevor Bates also are on the depth chart.
Cornerback (Stephon Gilmore): The Patriots paid him at the top of the free-agent market because they view corners with his combination of size and athleticism as rare. With more offenses having multiple bigger receivers to defend, the 6-foot-1 Gilmore gives the Patriots a longer corner to match up.
Cornerback (Malcolm Butler): His willingness to compete is similar to what made longtime Panthers and Ravens receiver Steve Smith such a respected player. Butler’s ability to match a receiver at the stem of his route is top-notch and among the reasons he has grown into one of the game’s better players at the position.
Safety (Patrick Chung): When the Patriots are looking for matchup options against some of the NFL’s better tight ends, the 29-year-old Chung is usually the pick. He has had a career revival in his second go-around with the Patriots (2009-2012 and 2014-present).
Safety (Devin McCourty): A steadying presence with the range to play sideline to sideline, McCourty is a longtime captain who is at the heart of the all-important communication in the secondary. He also is one of the team’s best tacklers.
Safety (Duron Harmon): The 4-2-5 nickel has, in some ways, become the Patriots’ base defense, and that’s why Harmon (48.6 percent playing time in 2016) lands as a “starter.” He is smart and has off-the-charts intangibles.
Kicker (Stephen Gostkowski): He was 27-of-32 on field goal attempts during the 2016 regular season and 46-of-49 on extra points. In the playoffs, he was 7-on-7 on field goals and 7-of-9 on PATs. The misses on extra points are a concern, but his knack for helping pin opponents deep on kickoffs remains a valuable weapon.
Punter (Ryan Allen): He also doubles as the team’s holder, a job he has grown into since joining the team as an undrafted player in 2013. Allen finished with a 44.7-yard average and 41.4 net in 2016, with five touchbacks and 23 attempts inside the 20.
Snapper (Joe Cardona): A third-year player out of Navy, he is cool under pressure and continues to grow into a critical responsibility that often goes overlooked.