Patriots trying experienced route

CHELSEA, Mass. -- At the end of a grueling practice off a typical NFL training camp, veterans will shed their helmets and shoulder pads, walking off the practice field a bit lighter than when they arrived.

Rookies will follow behind, hauling the veterans' cargo back to the locker room. Some find creative ways to tote the added equipment.

It's familiar sight across the league, but it may not be seen too often this summer in New England.

The New England Patriots enter training camp with 13 rookies on their roster, by far the fewest of any NFL team. It's also the fewest rookies the team will carry into camp in at least the previous five seasons.

Despite the NFL expanding the offseason roster limit to 90 players, the Patriots have chosen to create competition among veteran players instead of bringing in upward of a dozen undrafted free agents to camp, as most other NFL teams have done.

Indeed, the Patriots boast the smallest undrafted free agent class in 2012: as of Friday, it was just six players. The Buffalo Bills, with 10 undrafted rookies, have the second-fewest.

And the lack of undrafted rookies is not because the Patriots drafted more players than most or because they have more holdovers from their previous two draft classes. The Patriots drafted seven players in 2012 (only five teams drafted fewer), and they have 14 of their 2010 and 2011 picks remaining (the league average is 13).

Instead, the Patriots splurged this offseason on low-cost veteran free agents. There may be no better example of this than at fullback, where New England signed two players (Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta) to battle for a roster spot that did not even exist for much of last season.

Along the offensive line, the Patriots brought back both of their starters at center in 2011, Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen, while adding another veteran (Robert Gallery) for good measure. At wide receiver, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth all joined the party, despite the top two pass-catchers from last season, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, still being with the team.

When undrafted free agents come into camp, often their best shot of making the team is by contributing on special teams. Yet rookies passed over in the draft were, in many cases, standout college players who weren't asked to play a role on fourth down.

At the NFL level, these players get lost in the shuffle and typically are among the easier cuts to make when teams trim their roster to 53 players by Labor Day weekend.

Instead of populating their roster with these players, the Patriots have gone a different route this offseason. There are more than a dozen established NFL players battling for just a handful of spots on special teams.

The increased competition likely will cause the cream to rise to the top, but what impact will the NFL's smallest undrafted rookie class have on the Patriots?

In 2010, defensive tackle Kyle Love was passed over in the draft and was one of 19 rookies in training camp for the Patriots that season. He made the 53-man roster, and last season, started 13 games, including Super Bowl XLVI. It was a tough path to forge, but Love takes pride in the accomplishment.

"I was always told that's the longest route in, [being] an undrafted guy," Love said on Saturday. "You have to be determined, have heart. Don't give coaches any reason to doubt you or have something against you. I've always had a chip on my shoulder and I play like that."

Love conceded that a veteran-heavy roster ramps up competition. He pointed to the wide receiver position as an example.

"There's a lot of competition there," he said. "I know that [quarterback Tom Brady] is going to have a lot of weapons, a lot of people to throw to, so it definitely just amps up our offense a whole lot more."

Cornerback Kyle Arrington also can appreciate the uphill battle faced by an undrafted free agent. Passed over in the 2008 draft, Arrington began on the Eagles' practice squad before landing on the Patriots' active roster in 2009. Last season, he was tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions.

"Everything you have, it takes it. I've been in that situation, and it's like every day you are fighting for your life," Arrington said. "It's the little things that go a long way. Every day when you wake up you're putting on an interview for your boss."

For the Patriots' six undrafted free agents -- running back Brandon Bolden, tight end Tyler Urban, tackle Markus Zusevics, guard Jeremiah Warren, defensive end Justin Francis and defensive tackle Marcus Forston -- their interviews begin this week.

Can they beat the odds?