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Words With Frenz mailbag: Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell Have Competition in Training Camp

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Dan Connolly (left) and Ryan Wendell (right) could each be competing to keep their jobs in 2014. (Photo: Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Nothing comes free to a late-round draft pick. No one knows that better than Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly (both undrafted, but Bryan Stork (fourth round) and Jon Halapio (sixth round) will learn that lesson quickly as they begin their NFL careers.

The New England Patriots were clearly building for the future with their picks in the 2014 NFL draft. Although others (like their first-round pick, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, and their fourth-round pick, running back James White) will have a chance to contribute, Stork and Halapio could be competing for starting jobs as soon as this season.

That wasn't the only story line to come out of the draft.

The Patriots didn't draft a tight end, considered a position of need with Rob Gronkowski (knee) a question mark to start the season. They signed three among a slew of undrafted free-agent signings after the draft, though, and one of those unheralded names could end up playing an important role on the roster.

Here's a look at some of the questions on the minds of Patriots fans following the draft.

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The Patriots re-signed Wendell to a two-year deal in March, but the deal includes only $850,000 guaranteed. Connolly's cap hit is $4.08 million in 2014, but the Patriots could save nearly $3 million by cutting him.

Either or both could be competing for their job. There could be a four- or five-man competition for the two starting spots at right guard and center.

Halapio started 43 games at right guard (36 straight) for the Florida Gators, and could compete with Connolly for the starting job with the Patriots. Stork was the starting center for the National Champion Florida State Seminoles, and could compete for the starting job at either center or guard.

There are also the holdovers. Marcus Cannon has been the Patriots' top backup at offensive tackle since 2012 (30 games, 7 starts), but he pitched in at guard last season when Connolly went down with a concussion against the New Orleans Saints in Week 6.

Don't forget about Josh Kline, either. Added as an undrafted free-agent following the 2013 draft, Kline played 115 total snaps last season. He started against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16, filling in as the left guard with Logan Mankins filling in at left tackle for Nate Solder (concussion). The Patriots rushed for 142 yards that night ó the second-most allowed by the Ravens all season ó largely thanks to power runs straight up the middle.

Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio have been namedropping Kline at press conferences for the past few weeks, and he could be a name to remember as a surprise candidate to supplant Connolly.

Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming was the last of three fourth-round picks and the second of three offensive linemen taken by the Patriots in this draft.

Scouting reports from both CBS Sports and NFL.com suggest Fleming may be best-suited for a move inside to guard. He said he's never played there more than a few snaps at guard in practice "as a joke," so he may not be asked to play there immediately.

By adding Fleming to the roster, the Patriots have given themselves the flexibility to potentially move Cannon to guard.

Fleming could also be insurance on Sebastian Vollmer. He has been one of the best right tackles in the game when healthy, but last year was the second time in the past three years that Vollmer has played eight games or less. He missed 10 games (back) in 2011 and eight games (knee) in 2013. He will be 30 years old at the beginning of the season, and he's beginning to show signs of wearing down.

Perhaps Cannon assumes the mantle of the starting right tackle, but in that case, Fleming could develop as a swing tackle. The Patriots are wisely building their depth at tackle to give themselves options elsewhere.

Right now, the depth chart seems to paint Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola as the starters. Brandon LaFell may have a chance to start if Dobson (foot) is not healthy to start the season.

Between Dobson, Edelman, Amendola and LaFell, it looks like four roster spots are already spoken for at receiver. There could be a pretty big training camp battle for the remaining one or two spots.

Financially, it would be tough to make it work. The Patriots currently have just $7,676,705 in cap space, and it would cost roughly $11 million to absorb Andre Johnson's contract for 2014 (OverTheCap.com has a more in-depth explanation).

The Patriots were able to move some money around when they pursued Darrelle Revis, but there aren't many contracts left to be restructured. They could still look to Connolly and/or defensive tackle Tommy Kelly if they want to free up some money, but they would be pushing those cap hits down the line.

The problem stretches beyond this year. Johnson has $34 million remaining on his deal and his cap hit will be no less than $11 million each year. The Patriots would not only have to make a few financial maneuvers to free up enough money to bring him in this year, but they may have to continue the juggling act for a few years down the line. They would be doing all this for a player who, at nearly 33 years old, has probably already played his best football.

Not to mention, it would also pose a major threat to the growth of Dobson. The trade, and the subsequent collateral damage, would probably be more trouble than it's worth.

Rob Gronkowski is a lock for the roster, whether he's healthy to start the season or not. Michael Hoomanawanui was the top backup last year, and is probably the front-runner for the No. 2 spot as we speak. There could be one or two spots up for grabs.

Bowling Green tight end Tyler Beck was already released on Thursday after signing just a few days prior, but it's going to be an interesting battle between holdover DJ Williams, and undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson.

Watson's heart condition is a red flag, but if it's truly "a nuisance more than a hindrance," as he says, he is the most ready for a roster battle. He has special teams experience, and unlike Jones, Watson actually played football last year.

DJ Williams' year experience in the system gives him a leg-up on everyone, though. For now, we'll give Williams the roster spot, with Watson in second, and Jones in third.

The Patriots brought in Dustin Keller for a visit at the end of April, and he left without a contract. They probably have him on an emergency list somewhere, but don't hold your breath for a signing.

Even if he signs, what kind of impact would he have? Keller has been more banged up over the past two years than Gronkowski. He's played eight games over the past two seasons, missing the other 24 with injuries. He dealt with hip and knee issues in 2012, and tore the ACL, MCL and PCL in his knee in 2013.

He's known as mainly a one-trick pony, he can't offer anything as a blocker and now that he is operating with bum knees, it's fair to wonder how much more juice he has left in his nearly-30-year-old body. He also doesn't contribute on special teams like the aforementioned Williams, Watson and Jones.

He will, but he may not be the only one. Belichick says Ryan and sixth-round pick Jemea Thomas could get an opportunity to play safety this year.

He'll be tried there, but my question is whether he will stay there or if he'll play some occasional snaps against certain looks and in certain defensive situations. In Belichick's words: "I think thereís definitely a place for that too with the different personnel groups and the different types of receivers that we see. Every time itís three receivers, it isnít quite three receivers; it depends on who those three guys are and how you want to match up on them and so forth. So some flexibility for us defensively is probably a good thing over a long haul."

Ryan gives them some flexibility with his ability to play both corner and safety ó which he did in 2013 as well ó but Duron Harmon played well at strong safety as a rookie in 2013, and showed the range, route recognition and quick read-and-react ability that could help him develop into a starter at the position.