Belichick: Mallett 'in the on-deck circle'

One of the more intriguing moves over the weekend was the New England Patriots cutting backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. The team could have demoted Hoyer to third on the depth chart. But the reigning AFC champs felt so comfortable with second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett that Hoyer became expendable.

Now, Mallett is just one play away from taking over one of the top teams and offenses in the NFL. Mallett worked on being more consistent this year and outperformed Hoyer in training camp and the preseason.

"He's in the on-deck circle," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters of Mallett Sunday. "He's the next guy, which he wasn’t really in that position before. He’s earned that spot now. His position is the same, his responsibility is the same. But he’s going to get more opportunities in practice to prepare and he’s closer to being in the game as a backup rather than as the third."

Mallett no longer has the luxury to know that he's holding the clipboard every week. Mallett is promoted to the No. 2 quarterback, where any big hit on Brady could mean New England's chances of winning could rest on Mallett's shoulders.

Will the Patriots have to count on Mallett in 2012?

Brady is 35 and already took a few hard shots in the preseason. The offensive line hasn't looked great in pass protection, and that's probably the Patriots' biggest worry entering the regular season.

Preparation will be key for Mallett. He may play zero games for the Patriots this season or he may play eight. But Mallett must stay ready at all times.