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Five Returning Patriots On The Hot Seat

With the Draft now behind us and with most of the free agents in the fold, the Patriots roster is now coming into focus. Here are five players from the 2012 53-man roster who could be in danger of losing their roster spot to a newcomer in 2013.

Patrick Smith

With the Draft having come and gone last weekend and with most of the undrafted free agents having been signed already, Bill Belichick and the Patriots now have a difficult task to tackle: Which of these (eventually) 90 players are worthy of a spot on the final 53-man roster?

In order to tackle this annual dilema, the Patriots often look at two different things with each position: The need at the particular position, and the strengths and weaknesses that each player at the position possess.

In this case, really good veteran players that are brought into camp can be cut. It's not because they are bad players, it's because their skills are either redundant or they don't do a particular thing better than another player (i.e.: play different positions, cover better, etc.)

After seeing what pieces the Patriots added during free agency, the draft and undrafted rookie free agency, here are five returning players from 2012 that might need a big performance in training camp to keep their jobs:

Safety Steve Gregory

After signing a multi-year deal with the Patriots last offseason to presumably start opposite of Pat Chung at safety, Gregory might be in danger of losing his spot with the Patriots in 2013.

During the offseason, the Patriots prioritized safety as a prime need, and rightfully so. The position was a bit of a weakness in 2012. In unrestricted free agency, the Patriots added All-Pro safety Adrian Wilson to the fold to split time with second-year safety Tavon Wilson at strong safety. The team also spent a third round pick on safety Duron Harmon out of Rutgers, a pick that many considered to be a stretch.

This leaves Gregory in a bit of a pickle. The Pats already have Devin McCourty slotted to take over at free safety and to institute a Wilson/Wilson time share at strong safety. Plus, if Bill Belichick took a guy that many thought could go undrafted in the third round, it's almost certain that he'll make the final roster.

This likely leaves Gregory and second-year safety Nate Ebner as the fifth and sixth options at safety. Even if the Patriots decide to go with five safeties, Gregory could lose out to the versatile Ebner, who was used on special teams last season.

Defensive End Jermaine Cunningham

Like at safety, the Patriots have prioritized their front seven and pass rush as an area that could be improved. This could leave the fifth year versatile defensive end on the outside, looking in.

With their first pick in the draft, the Patriots chose a tall, athletic linebacker/defensive end in Jamie Collins out of Southern Mississippi. Collins' 6-foot-3 and 250 pound frame is identical to that of Cunningham, which could be bad news for the former University of Florida product.

Another sign of omen for Cunningham has been the Patriots' pursuit of a veteran pass rusher. The team still continues to be connected to veteran defensive end John Abraham, and many view them as the front runner to land him. If this happens, this will likely push Cunningham even further down the depth chart.

Might save Cunningham is his versatility to play on the outside at defensive end, inside as a defensive tackle and his ability to stand up and play as an outside linebacker. Cunningham also has a knack for having big training camps, which secures his survival for yet another year.

But time may be running out on him. With the Patriots adding Collins and possibly Abraham to a group that already contrains Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Justin Francis; it's possible that Cunningham is kicked to the curb.

Cornerback Ras-I Dowling

The case with Dowling is that he's struggled to stay healthy during his two seasons in the NFL. The former second round draft pick, who has played only eight career regular season gams, is likely at his last limb with the Patriots health wise.

The Patriots know that Dowling has been a health liability, and decided to act on it during the draft. In the third round, the team selected cornerback Logan Ryan out of Rutgers. Ryan, who has a similar game to that of former Rutgers teammate Devin McCourty, is likely to be the team's fourth cornerback option behind Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Denanrd and Kyle Arrington.

They also brought back veteran Marquice Cole, who isn't a very good cornerback, but was an integral part of the Patriots' special teams coverage. While I don't consider Cole a lock to make the roster, it is quite possible that Belichick may decide to carry five cornerbacks, and may chose Cole over Dowling because of his special teams ability.

However, if Dowling can come into camp at 100% and perform well, he likely has an easier time making the team than Cunningham and Gregory do at their respective postions. Dowling still has promise as an NFL corner, and could be used as depth at a position that needs depth.

Running Back Brandon Bolden

Bolden seemed to be a sure thing on the Patriots 53-man in 2013, until one trade this past weekend changed that. The team acquired veteran running back LeGarrette Blount from the Buccaneers in exchange for the running back Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick.

While Blount and Bolden are different players, they would likely command the same amount of reps that the other one would get. In other words, with both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen getting most of the touches, it would be difficult to feature both Blount and Bolden as a third back.

The Patriots lost a key part of their offense in Danny Woodhead to free agency this offseason, but have already groomed Vereen to sort of take over for the speedy veteran. This leaves the few left over touches for either, or both Bolden and/or Blount.

While it's not totally out of the question that the Patriots keep both Blount and Bolden, it's not likely. What's working in Bolden's favor is that he knows the system and showed loads of potential in 2012. He's shown that he can start if needed, and still has a lot of room to grow. What also works in his favor is that Blount has character concerns, which could intensify with a smaller role on the team.

With that being said, Bolden has also had some concerns. He was suspended in 2012 for four games because he violated the league's policy on substance abuse. After he returned from suspension, we really didn't here from him ever again. It's not clear as to why he wasn't featured again, but it's certainly not a good sign for the former undrafted product out of Ole Miss.

Certainly a battle worth watching in camp.

Defensive Tackle Brandon Deaderick

Much like Cunningham, Deaderick always seems to be on the bubble, and always seems to have a big training camp to seal his roster spot. This year may be different however.

In efforts to bolster the depth at defensive tackle, the Patriots signed veteran Tommy Kelly from the Oakland Raiders and Armond Armstead from the CFL. With Vince Wilfork already a lock to start at nose tackle in the 4-3 defense, the competition seems to be as Wilfork's wingman on the line.

Deaderick will likely have to compete against the likes of Kelly, Armstead, Kyle Love Marcus Forston, and promising UDFA Joe Vellano for a spot on the roster. Because Deaderick has the versatility to play as a 3-4 DE, 4-3 NT and DT and in the team's NASCAR package, I think he probably sticks around.

But with the presence of a solid veteran like Kelly and an intriguing player in Armstead from the CFL, he might need to step up his efforts to secure the roster spot.

Honorable Mentions: Zoltan Mesko and Jake Bequette