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Pre-NFL Draft check of Patriots roster

The Patriots’ regular-season opener at Miami is 123 days away, and yet there might be just as much excitement about this football weekend as there will be about that football weekend. OK, probably not, but the NFL Draft, pushed back two weeks this year so the league has a marquee event on the calendar every month, provides its teams and their fans reason to get excited. New players mean new hope for a new season. With their loss at Denver in the AFC Championship game last season, the Patriots are slotted to select 29th in the first round, which comes Thursday night. They’ve already made a splash in the offseason by adding a pair of big-name cornerbacks, but holes and weak spots remain. With eight picks this year — a number that can easily change, with coach Bill Belichick’s penchant for draft trades — the Patriots are just about ready to add to their active roster, which currently includes 66 players. Where might they focus their draft needs, and whom will this week’s draftees be joining? Here is a position-by-position look at the Patriots, with the season that the player’s contract expires.

Offensive line

Chris Barker (2015), Marcus Cannon (2014), Braxston Cave (2015), Dan Connolly (2014), Jordan Devey (2015), Josh Kline (2015), Logan Mankins (2016), R.J. Mattes (2015), Nate Solder (2015), Sebastian Vollmer (2016), Ryan Wendell (2015).

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The biggest change with this group isn’t with the players, but with the coach. Dante Scarnecchia retired after 32 seasons in the NFL, 30 of which were spent with the Patriots, the last 15 as offensive line coach. Taking over for Scarnecchia is Dave DeGuglielmo, and he’s stepping into an enviable situation, because there’s actually no change with the players: the 11 listed here were all with the team in some capacity in 2013, so there will certainly be continuity. When healthy, the starters have been Wendell at center, Solder at left tackle, Vollmer at right tackle, Mankins at left guard, and Connolly at right guard, and they’re all very good. Barker, Cannon, and Kline provide versatile depth, while Cave, Devey, and Mattes spent time on the practice squad.

Quarterback

Tom Brady (2017), Ryan Mallett (2014).

The Patriots rolled the dice that they’d only need two quarterbacks last season, and on game days, they only needed one, because Brady played every offensive snap, playoffs included. With Mallett under contract for only one more season, and Brady set to turn 37 in August, is there a long-term transition plan in place? Hard to say, since only two quarterbacks are currently on the active roster. What they do with Mallett beyond this season should be a sign as to whether he’ll be a piece to any future puzzle. The Patriots will almost certainly add a quarterback before camp starts, either through the draft or free agency.

Running back

Brandon Bolden (2014), James Develin (2014), Jonas Gray (2015), Stevan Ridley (2014), Shane Vereen (2014).

Big year for this group, with the three primary tailbacks — Ridley, Vereen, and Bolden — and Develin all in the last year of their deals. Each tailback brings something different to the position: Ridley offers the best speed, Bolden is more of a power back, while Vereen has set himself apart with his pass-catching ability (more receptions than rushes last season). Collectively, they provide good versatility and decent value, and much will be expected from them. Arguably the most valuable running back from last season is gone, with LeGarrette Blount signing a two-year deal with Pittsburgh in the offseason. Develin was a nice surprise last year, mostly at fullback. Gray was signed to a futures contract after spending last season on Baltimore’s practice squad.

Tight end

Rob Gronkowski (2019), Michael Hoomanawanui (2015), D.J. Williams (2014).

Injury and incarceration turned this position, which was expected to be a team strength, into a major question mark last season. It’ll be less so this year if Gronkowski can come back from reconstructive knee surgery, which limited him to seven games in 2013. He still had 39 catches and four touchdowns, which was more than the other tight ends combined. Hoomanawanui, an underrated blocker, also showed enough catching the ball (12 receptions in the regular season, three in the postseason) that the Patriots re-signed him to a two-year deal. Williams joined the team in the middle of the season and played sparingly. It’s not a great draft class of tight ends, but the Patriots could look to improve their depth at the position.

Wide receiver

Danny Amendola (2017), Josh Boyce (2016), Aaron Dobson (2016), Reggie Dunn (2015), Julian Edelman (2017), Mark Harrison (2015), Brandon LaFell (2016), Greg Orton (2015), Matthew Slater (2014), Kenbrell Thompkins (2015).

Last year the receiving corps seemed to be Edelman and a steady rotation of whoever-is-healthy complementary pieces, many of them rookies. After testing the free-agent market, Edelman is back, having signed a four-year deal that followed a breakout season (105 catches, 1,056 yards, 6 touchdowns). Amendola missed four games in his first season with the Patriots, and the rookies — Boyce, Dobson, Thompkins — all missed time. The biggest acquisition is LaFell, who averaged 42 catches in his four seasons with Carolina. There’s a lot of potential here, especially if Amendola (and Edelman) can stay healthy, and last year’s rookies develop and get more comfortable in the offense. Slater has turned into one of the best special teams players in the NFL.

Cornerback

Kyle Arrington (2017), Brandon Browner (2016), Alfonzo Dennard (2015), Justin Green (2014), Darrelle Revis (2014), Logan Ryan (2016).

This position is deeper and more talented, even with Aqib Talib, last season’s top corner, signing with the Broncos. The additions of Revis and Browner saw to that. Browner must miss the first four games as he serves a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, but when he returns, he’ll give the Patriots the big (6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds), physical press corner they’ve lacked. Revis, while not as bruising, is even more skilled, generally regarded as the best corner in the league. By pairing Revis with Browner, the secondary should be difficult to throw against, and it will be fun and interesting to see Patriots opponents try. Dennard, Ryan, and Arrington become solid backups who should see plenty of snaps.

Defensive line

Armond Armstead (2015), Jake Bequette (2015), Michael Buchanan (2016), Marcus Forston (2015), Chandler Jones (2015), Chris Jones (2016), Tommy Kelly (2014), Rob Ninkovich (2016), Sealver Siliga (2014), Will Smith (2014), Joe Vellano (2015), Vince Wilfork (2016).

In addition to tight end and maybe running back, defensive line is the position most in need of immediate help, with many mock drafts forecasting the Patriots to take a defensive tackle (Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman?) with their first-round pick. The Patriots did sign Smith, a defensive end who spent his first 10 seasons with the Saints but missed last year with a knee injury, earlier in the week. Last year, Wilfork suffered the first serious injury (Achilles’ tendon) of his career, threatened to leave after the season, then ultimately signed a three-year deal. Can he return to form? In his absence, Chris Jones, Siliga, and Vellano saw plenty of time. Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are workhorse ends, both in snap count and production. Anything the Patriots get out of the others would be a bonus.

Linebacker

Steve Beauharnais (2016), Jamie Collins (2016), Ja’Gared Davis (2014), Dont’a Hightower (2015), Josh Hull (2014), Jerod Mayo (2017), Chris White (2014).

This is another position that could use a boost, especially with the offseason loss of Brandon Spikes and, to a much lesser extent, Dane Fletcher. Mayo, Hightower, and Collins form a formidable group, but Mayo missed most of last season with a pectoral injury, and Hightower sometimes gets exposed in pass coverage. Collins showed flashes of being a star in the making during his rookie season — a potent blend of size, strength, and speed— and his development could be key. Depth here is thin, so don’t be surprised if the Patriots make moves to improve.

Safety

Patrick Chung (2014), Kanorris Davis (2015), Nate Ebner (2015), Duron Harmon (2016), Devin McCourty (2014), Tavon Wilson (2015).

Who starts opposite McCourty, now that Steve Gregory has been released? Is it Chung, a 2009 second-round pick by the Patriots who makes his return to Foxborough after one disappointing season with the Eagles? Is it Harmon, who had two interceptions as a rookie? Is it someone else, picked up either in the draft or via free agency? Aside from an interception returned for a touchdown, Wilson didn’t make much of an impact last year in his second season. Ebner’s input is mostly on special teams, and Davis spent much of last season on the practice squad.

Special teams

LS Danny Aiken (2014), P Ryan Allen (2015), K Stephen Gostkowski (2014), LS Charley Hughlett (2015).

The only competition, at least right now, is at long snapper, with Hughlett being signed in March. That transaction came almost two weeks after the Patriots re-signed Aiken, who has been with the team the past three seasons. Will there be any kicking battles? Gostkowski is coming off his best year, with career highs in field goals (38), field-goal percentage (92.7), 50-yarders (6), and points (club-record 158). Allen (45.9-yard punting average) was more than adequate as a rookie, so if Aiken gets the nod, this trio might well be set. Then again, at this time last year, everyone assumed Zoltan Mesko would be the punter.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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