by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

Unlike past seasons where NFL teams could bring in rookie free agents, hold camps, and give their fans a general idea of what they might think of their personnel, 2011 has provided a unique opportunity for roster rationalists.

Below, we give our rundown of where we think New England’s lineup should reside come September.


RUNNING BACKS (4) – Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley

What’s new: Bill Belichick makes more cold calculations than an Arctic physicist, and this practice causes him to cut veteran Kevin Faulk. Fresh faces Vereen and Ridley replace old-timey vets Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Robert Hughes (FB), Notre Dame.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6) – Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Matthew Slater

What’s new: Not much, to the chagrin of most Patriots fans looking to draft a speedy downfield threat. We’d like to take Slater off this list, mostly because in three seasons he has exactly as many NFL receptions as I do (i.e., zip). Still, special teams work keeps him here.

With his age and injury history, Branch seems most likely to get replaced by a free agent pickup.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Jeremy Ross, Cal.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9) – Dan Koppen, Sebastian Vollmer, Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Mark LeVoir, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Nick Kaczur, Quinn Ojinnaka

What’s new: More youth! Stephen Neal retired. In our most noteworthy move so far, we’re letting go of Matt Light. This puts a lot of pressure on the rookie Solder, but giving him experience at left tackle gets the team primed for the playoffs. Kaczur’s experience inside and out gives him value. Rookie guard Marcus Cannon starts the season on the PUP list.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Jake Kirkpatrick, TCU.

TIGHT ENDS (4) – Rob Gronkowski, Alge Crumpler, Aaron Hernandez, Lee Smith

What’s new: The rookie Smith bolsters a crew that probably didn’t need a lot of bolstering, but 2010’s offense can maintain its formidable versatility through the tight ends. Crumpler stays as the veteran wrangler of the baby TEs.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Schuylar Oordt, Northern Iowa

QUARTERBACKS (3) – Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett

What’s new: Bill Belichick has kept only two QBs for too long; the rookie/perceived nitwit Mallett comes on as a future starter-in-training. No new player will get more closely analyzed this preseason – and no one else will deserve that scrutiny more.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Jerrod Johnson, Texas A&M

Total Offense: 26


DEFENSIVE LINE (8) – Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Marcus Stroud, Eric Moore, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Ron Brace, Mike Wright

What’s new: We considered starting Mike Wright on the PUP list, only because his inability to recover from a head injury last season scares the bejeebus out of us. Saying hello to veteran Stroud makes us say goodbye to Gerard Warren. We’re hoping for continued improvement from Deaderick and Brace while also hoping that Moore’s production continues beyond one-year-wonder status.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Elisha Joseph, Temple.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (4) – Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Markell Carter

What’s new: If rookie Carter provides anything remotely resembling a pass rush, fans will have to feel pleased with the sixth-rounder. Meanwhile, the much-publicized, much-hoped-for Year Two Bump needs to happen for Cunningham. Moore can also put in some work here.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Marc Schiechl, Colorado School of Mines

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (4) – Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton, Dane Fletcher

What’s new: Nothing, which looks fine to us. We liked the addition of Fletcher’s athleticism in 2010. If Spikes can avoid the banned pharmaceuticals (not what most of us thought), this crew should have a hell of a year.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Mark Herzlich, Boston College

CORNERBACKS (5) – Leigh Bodden, Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler, Ras-I Dowling

What’s new: The Jonathan Wilhite experience ends as the rookie Dowling comes in for playing time, relegating Arrington and Butler to backup/rotational duty. Not too shabby.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Darrin Walls, Notre Dame

SAFETIES (3) – Patrick Chung, James Sanders, Jarrad Page

What’s new: The Pro Bowl pedigree might not keep Brandon Meriweather around, so here’s hoping Chung and Sanders are up to the task. Page stays over Sergio Brown for his special teams prowess. We see rookie Malcolm Williams starting the season on the practice squad.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Jeron Johnson, Boise State

Total Defense: 24

SPECIAL TEAMS (3) – Stephen Gostkowski (K), Zoltan Mesko (P), Matt Katula (LS)

What’s new: Gostkowski’s back and as good as ever, we hope. We don’t remember calling Katula’s name last year, which is all we ask. Mesko’s around for the foreseeable future, to the joy of his fan club.

Rookie free agent worth looking at: Tom Mante, punter and kickoff specialist, Yale

Questions, comments, tirades? Let us know in the comment space below.

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