Earning and keeping a job in the NFL is a year-round endeavor, but year to year, outside attention is most focused on the process after training camp begins.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has an idea of how he wants his team to look. But even he doesn't know what names will be on the roster he'll submit to the league Sept. 2.
Five weeks, some 25 practices, 53 full-time jobs.
With notable departures such as Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest, David Givens, Tom Ashworth, and Christian Fauria, who each posted double-digit starts last season, New England's 2006 entry will be significantly different from the 2005 AFC East champion.
Yet, aside from injuries, there are only a couple of starting positions open entering camp (kicker, right tackle), meaning the best competition under the August sun should be for backup positions and bottom-of-the-roster spots.
It wasn't that long ago that the Patriots won a Super Bowl -- 17 months to be exact -- and, surprisingly, only five players (Givens, McGinest, Vinatieri, Roman Phifer, and Joe Andruzzi) who started that game, including specialists , are no longer with the team.
Is this a team capable of climbing back into the hunt for the Super Bowl, or was last year's slip (tied for the 11th-best record in the league) a sign of things to come?
Before any games are won or lost, there are a couple of off-the-field items of concern -- the signing of first-round draft choice Laurence Maroney and getting No. 1 receiver Deion Branch into camp. A league source said Maroney's deal is likely to be done in short order. Though Branch asserts he will not be in Foxborough at the start of camp, it is highly unlikely that his holdout will extend into the season.
Those two are among the 91 players eligible to suit up for practice tomorrow, and whether they are there or not, they are certain to be among the 53 on the final roster.
Here's a look at what to watch for when camp begins.
Spots available: 2
Candidates: Tom Brady, Matt Cassel, Todd Mortensen, Corey Bramlet.
2005 starter: Brady.
Camp breakdown: Brady will be the starter for the foreseeable future. The Patriots are taking a chance Cassel is ready to be the No. 2. Are they willing to take a chance on just two QBs on the roster? Bramlet (or Mortensen) will have to show tremendous improvement from minicamp to earn a possible No. 3 spot.
Spots available: 4
Candidates: Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney, Patrick Pass, Heath Evans, Patrick Cobbs, Earl Charles.
2005 starters: Dillon and Faulk.
Camp breakdown: Belichick says the team will not go with just three running backs as it did a year ago, when injuries forced the Patriots to find players off the street at midseason. The drafting of Maroney not only provides the Patriots their back of the future and a quality backup for Dillon, but it probably means Pass and Evans will tussle for the final spot. Both were bothered by injuries last season, and Pass has been slowed throughout the summer with another injury.
RECEIVERS Spots available: 5
Candidates: Deion Branch, Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell, Chad Jackson, John Stone, Bam Childress, Erik Davis, Michael McGrew, Rich Musinski, Matt Shelton, Zuriel Smith.
2005 starters: Branch and Givens.
Camp breakdown: Questions, questions, and more questions. When will Branch come to camp? Can Caldwell fill Givens's shoes? Will Jackson, a rookie second-round pick, show enough of a grasp of the offense to be a key player? How long can Brown keep on ticking? Who is Stone, and why was he in most of the two-minute drills at minicamp? Is five wideouts enough? Does six make sense from such slim pickings?
TIGHT ENDS Spots available: 4
Candidates: Daniel Graham, Benjamin Watson, David Thomas, Garrett Mills.
2005 starters: Graham and Watson.
Camp breakdown: Perhaps the easiest position on the team to figure out entering camp. Graham and Watson remain a solid 1-2 punch in what should be a predominantly two-tight-end offense. Thomas, who will be in the mix early, has to learn a lot of positions and techniques. List Mills as the No. 4 tight end, but more accurately he is the No. 3 1/2 tight end and No. 4 1/2 running back, with duties including fullback and slotback. Expect him to shine on special teams in camp.
OFFENSIVE LINE Spots available: 8
Candidates: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal, Nick Kaczur, Brandon Gorin, Russ Hochstein, Billy Yates, Gene Mruczkowski, Ross Tucker, Wesley Britt, Ryan O'Callaghan , and others.
2005 starters: Kaczur, Mankins, Koppen, Neal, Gorin.
Camp breakdown: Light is back at left tackle after a broken leg, meaning Kaczur and Gorin will battle for the right tackle spot. Hochstein remains the top inside reserve and is the starter at center if Koppen remains out after shoulder surgery. There are more practice players on the roster than NFL-caliber linemen, but veterans such as Mruczkowski, Yates, and Tucker are certainly on the bubble.
DEFENSIVE LINE Spots available: 7
Candidates: Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green, Johnathan Sullivan, Marquise Hill, Mike Wright, Santonio Thomas, Le Kevin Smith.
2005 starters: Warren, Wilfork, and Seymour.
Camp breakdown: The team's deepest position will feature the camp's most competitive drive (talent-wise) for roster spots. Expect each cut to be on an NFL roster this season. Newcomer Sullivan, a tackle, looks for a career revival at the expense of second-year man Wright and rookie Smith. Hill, a disappointment his first two seasons, needs to step up. An eighth slot is possible, depending on what happens at linebacker and if the schedule lends itself to more 4-3 than 3-4.
LINEBACKERS Spots available: 10
Candidates: Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Monty Beisel, Rosevelt Colvin, Tully Banta-Cain, Barry Gardner, Don Davis, Larry Izzo, Erik Alexander, Ryan Claridge, Dan Klecko, Corey Mays, Jeremy Mincey, Freddie Roach, Pierre Woods.
2005 starters: McGinest, Vrabel, Bruschi, and Colvin.
Camp breakdown: A practice-squad spot is available for rookies, yet expect a name you know (Klecko? Davis? Izzo?) to be a camp casualty if Roach makes the roster (and don't be surprised if he does). Forget Vrabel and Colvin outside; concentrate on Beisel and Bruschi in the middle. Their play could determine how much 4-3 the Patriots play. Banta-Cain has put on weight in hopes of filling the void left by McGinest's departure (Cleveland via free agency). The Patriots have some difficult decisions to make at the bottom of the rotation.
CORNERBACKS Spots available: 6
Candidates: Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, Randall Gay, Chad Scott, Eric Warfield, Hank Poteat, Antwain Spann, Willie Andrews, Vernell Brown.
2005 starters: Samuel and Hobbs.
Camp breakdown: Another fun spot to watch, though none in the group is considered to be among the league's elite. After Samuel and Hobbs, almost anything could happen. Gay, who tried to play hurt last year and struggled, is still gimpy. Scott is coming off shoulder surgery. Warfield is a Kansas City castoff. Poteat bounces back from cuts like a prizefighter. Spann hopes to make the jump from NFL Europe. Andrews and Brown are rookies with outside shots at a roster spot (Andrews can return kicks), though there likely is room for only one on the practice squad.
SAFETIES Spots available: 4
Candidates: Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson, Artrell Hawkins, James Sanders, Guss Scott, Tebucky Jones, Mel Mitchell, Raymond Ventrone, Jarvis Herring.
2005 starters: Wilson and Hawkins.
Camp breakdown: Harrison's season-ending knee injury left the Patriots scrambling at strong safety last year. Hawkins, a former cornerback, filled in the last half of the season, but look for Jones to get into the mix with second-year man Sanders, while Harrison continues his rehab. If Scott (two serious knee injuries) could stay healthy, he might be a player. With Harrison possibly starting the season on the physically unable to perform list, all four should make the team. And maybe a fifth, with one fewer cornerback, depending on what happens in camp.
SPECIALISTS Spots available: 3
Candidates: Martin Gramatica and Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Josh Miller (punter), Lonie Paxton and Jon Condo (deep snapper).
2005 starters: Vinatieri (kicker), Miller, and Paxton.
Camp breakdown: Perhaps the most important decision to be made in camp is at kicker, where the eight-year veteran Gramatica squares off against Gostkowski, a rookie. Though they will be unable to duplicate win-lose, playoff-game pressure, expect the Patriots to have plenty of full-squad kicking contests in camp, and to manipulate the game plan in exhibitions to give both kickers a chance to earn the job. (Gostkowski is ahead by a big toe at the moment.) Miller wins his job by default. Condo is in camp for balance; Paxton is a lock.