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Projecting the Patriots’ 53-man roster

Unless Ryan Mallett (above) catches fire in the final three exhibitions, he’s not ready to be a viable backup to Tom Brady, so Brian Hoyer stays.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Unless Ryan Mallett (above) catches fire in the final three exhibitions, he’s not ready to be a viable backup to Tom Brady, so Brian Hoyer stays.

Now that the Patriots will finally play their second exhibition game Monday night against the Eagles at Gillette Stadium, the team can start making better judgments about the final 53-man roster.

The game will likely be a chance for the team to take a look at non-starters. NFL.com reported that Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Jerod Mayo, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd won’t play.

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As always, there are going to be some tough decisions to make regarding the roster. And this year, after an offseason focused on improving the depth, the roster will be even harder to trim.

It’s going to be a real numbers game, especially with the offense.

We’ve seen the Great Tight End Binge of 2012 — and another weapon will be available soon as Daniel Fells has joined right tackle Sebastian Vollmer in passing his physical, and will start practicing soon.

The essential question on cutdown day will be “How are the Patriots going to divide up the numbers among the specialists on offense?”

After three quarterbacks and at least nine offensive linemen, that leaves 12-17 spots from the running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers. How many will they keep and where? And if the Patriots were going to keep extra bodies, wouldn’t you want it to be on defense so we don’t have to see Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater roaming the secondary again?

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We’ll get those answers in time, and they will be affected by injuries because — as we’ve seen with Dane Fletcher — you have to expect the unexpected.

With that in mind, let’s take an initial stab at the 53-man roster:

Offense (26 total)

Quarterbacks (3): Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett.

Unless Mallett catches fire in the final three exhibitions — and he should get plenty of playing time with the compressed schedule of three games in 10 days — he’s not ready to be a viable backup to Brady, so Hoyer stays. There’s no way Bill Belichick risks looking like Bill Polian when Peyton Manning went down to injury. You’d better believe Belichick will be shooting for a title if Brady should happen to get injured. He’s already won one with a backup quarterback. A pretty good one, but still.

Running backs (5): Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Jeff Demps, Spencer Larsen (fullback).

Don’t see how the Patriots have room for Brandon Bolden now that Demps is on board. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seems dead set on using a fullback, and Larsen is the only option, if he ever gets healthy. The Patriots’ young backs are going to need help in short-yardage situations. BenJarvus Green-Ellis could get it done on sheer will; his replacements haven’t proven that yet.

Wide receivers (6): Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Slater, Edelman, Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch.

Brandon Lloyd (left), Tom Brady, and Jabar Gaffney chatted on the sideline during a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium on August 9.

Jim Rogash/Getty Image

Brandon Lloyd (left), Tom Brady, and Jabar Gaffney chatted on the sideline during a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium on August 9.

Wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots keep just five and say goodbye to Branch with the numbers crunch. Donte’ Stallworth had been pushing for a roster spot, but his case of the drops in the past week will cause the team to look elsewhere. Demps is going to handle kickoffs, so Stallworth’s impact would be limited.

Tight ends (4): Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe.

The top three are a given, and the $400,000 of Shiancoe’s salary the Patriots guaranteed makes it less likely they cut him, although that’s not out of the question. For comparison, Branch and Gaffney each got $250,000 signing bonuses the team would have to eat if either is cut. Shiancoe hasn’t been on the field because of injury, but it sure looks like this will be a tight-end-driven offense.

Offensive linemen (8): Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, Vollmer, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon, Nick McDonald.

Donald Thomas has played well enough to be on this team, but I thought the same thing about Gerard Warren last year. Yes, I have Waters on the squad. Until he announces his retirement, I’m sticking with him being back. Taking McDonald over Dan Koppen, who has played well of late, and Thomas because of youth and versatility. If Waters doesn’t return, then Koppen stays just for peace of mind. Expect Connolly to get some center reps again very soon. Would like to keep nine here given the injury issues, but I just don’t see it.

Defense (24 total)

Defensive linemen (10): Ends — Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott; tackles — Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Jonathan Fanene.

Not a whole lot surprising here, but if the Patriots really wanted to keep Justin Francis, who has plateaued after flashing early, then Brace or Scott could go, and it would be painless. Brace has been impressive — when he’s been on the field, and that has been too infrequently. He could be in danger. Wanted to write off Scott, but he has been productive of late and can really help on special teams.

Linebackers (5): Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Bobby Carpenter, Jeff Tarpinian.

If there’s any position that could surprise at the end it’s this one, because Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides, and Tracy White all factor in on special teams. But how many linebackers do you need when you’re using two more than 60 percent of the time in subpackages? Tarpinian’s spot is tenuous. Koutouvides or White could take it, and the Patriots might keep two of them if they go lighter on offense.

Defensive backs (9): Cornerbacks — Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Sterling Moore, Marquice Cole; safeties — Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner.

This is another position that is squeezed with all the offensive weapons the Patriots will likely keep. That Wilson and Gregory can play cornerback, and McCourty and Moore could move to safety makes the numbers a bit more palatable. The Patriots love what James Ihedigbo, Malcolm Williams, and Will Allen bring, but where else can you trim?

Specialists (3)

Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Zoltan Mesko (punter), Danny Aiken (long snapper).

Aiken might want to pick it up a bit. He’s been sloppy of late.

This will be revised after more data is collected in the next week, but it’s a snapshot of where the Patriots stand after 18 training-camp practices and one exhibition game. There’s still a long way to go, and Monday night’s game against the Eagles will provide a lot more information.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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