The Patriots are in the midst of a 10-day span between games. However, their Monday night tilt with the Eagles will kick off a stretch of three games in 10 days.

This unusual schedule gives these practices heightened importance, as they represent the last extended period to install scheme and make evaluations from padded workouts.

The evaluations are especially important, as this is a team with some serious depth that will have some tough roster decisions come cut-down day.

Having attended Thursday’s practice, here is my take on some of the tougher competitions.

Running Back

It’s widely known that the Patriots will have a running-back-by-committee approach to 2012. Stevan Ridley has been the favorite to be the “starter”, but he hasn’t been noticeably better than the other backs on the roster. In fact, I don’t foresee any one of these backs to outplay the others enough into the “lead” role previously held by BenJarvis Green-Ellis.

Ridley did not finish Thursday’s practice, as he appeared to injure his hamstring after being stuffed in the backfield by Chandler Jones. Shane Vereen had been buried a bit on the depth chart prior to the preseason opener, but his strong showing against the Saints has propelled him right into the mix for first-string carries.

Vereen is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and has the explosive speed to make big plays. He could be a weapon in the screen game, which figures to see a comeback in this offense with the return of Josh McDaniels.

Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden seems to be a lock to make the final roster; he has shown impressive versatility throughout camp. Danny Woodhead seems entrenched into Kevin Faulk’s old role as the third-down back, although Vereen’s receiving ability could challenge him for that role down the line.

This competition becomes more interesting when one factors in whether a fullback will be kept. Fullback depth has been weakened with the unexpected departure of Tony Fiammetta and injury to versatile Spencer Lawsen.

Eric Kettani had been unimpressive before joining his peers with an unknown injury. Bolden took many of the reps at fullback on Thursday. If he proves capable in that role, it could save a roster spot for somewhere else on the roster.
Tight End

The Patriots boast two of the top three tight ends in the league in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but Gronkowski’s injury in the AFC Championship exposed a lack of depth behind those two. Belichick responded by adding several proven veteran free agents in Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe and Jake Ballard.

It was known that Ballard would miss the entire season as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered against the Patriots in the Super Bowl; however, injuries to Shiancoe and Fells have left the position so depleted that defensive end Alex Silvestro has converted to take up reps.

The situation will likely depend on the availability of Shiancoe. Shiancoe is a proven veteran who was a productive pass catcher in Minnesota. If he can return to action in time to make an impression, he will stick. If not, things get interesting.

Fells is on the PUP list with a shoulder injury; if they don’t activate him before the cut-down he will stay on the list be unavailable for the first six weeks. Silvestro has filled in admirably in practice and has not looked out of place. It’s possible (though unlikely) that he makes the roster to provide depth should both the veterans remain unable to practice.
Wide Receiver

Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker are obvious locks, while Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman look to be safe as well due to their special teams contributions. This leaves Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch and Donte’ Stallworth to duke it out for what will likely be only two spots. I wrote previously that I thought Stallworth would be the odd man out, but this competition is too close to call right now.

Branch had limited participation in the first few weeks of camp and did not suit up for the first game, leading many to speculate he might be on borrowed time. However, he has been all over the place this week in practice, demonstrating he still has the ability to get open and an impeccable chemistry with Tom Brady.

This makes things more interesting for Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney plays a very similar game to Branch: his precise route running and good hands make the intermediate passing game his strength. He sat out Thursday’s session with a quad injury. Stallworth isn’t quite the explosive downfield threat he once was, but can still make plays.

He brings additional value as kick returner if necessary. I don’t see Branch getting cut. He’s older and less of a threat downfield than he was previously, but he still gets open pretty regularly. I’ll stick with my previous prediction and go with Stallworth being the tough cut, but a prolonged absence from Gaffney could swing things the other way.

Defensive End

Another positional battle that saw several players play their way back into the mix last week against the Saints. Trevor Scott and Jermaine Cunningham terrorized the Saints’ backup line and have been rewarded with more reps in practice.

It remains to be see if this will translate into meaningful snaps and/or a roster spot for either player. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have clearly been the best two players here, and Jonathan Fanene should contribute when he returns from injury.

With those three as locks, Scott and Cunningham must fight off the likes of rookies Jake Baquette and Justin Francis to make the squad. My gut feeling is Cunningham will make it due to his versatility on special teams.

Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory are set as the starters. Behind them the only lock is second-round pick Tavon Wilson. Wilson has impressed throughout camp but didn’t finish Thursday’s practice after hurting his ankle covering Aaron Hernandez on a deep ball.

Rookie Nate Ebner stepped into Wilson’s safety/linebacker hybrid role and played well, breaking up a third down pass for Hernandez during a team scrimmage. I’ll admit to some bias when it comes to Ebner, who is a former rugby player like myself (unlike Ebner I’m not currently trying to make an NFL roster).

All bias aside, I think Ebner will make the team. He comes with a reputation as an excellent special teams player, one which has translated into roles on the kickoff, kickoff return and punt teams.

He also shows some promise at safety, where he is inexperienced but has held up well when given opportunities thus far. His special teams prowess makes Sergio Brown expendable. A return of James Ihedigbo from injury could open the door for Josh Barrett to be cut as well.