Here's a breakdown of the battles for roster spots and playing time by position on Defense.
Strong Safety: Rodney Harrision
Free Safety: James Sanders
Reserves: Willie Andrews (SS), Tank Williams (SS) Ray Ventrone (SS), Brandon Meriweather (FS)
Rookies: Matthew Slater (WR/S), Mark Dillard (S)
Outlook: The position for starters is virtually set in stone unless there's an injury issue. Harrison will man the SS spot for the final year of his contract while Sanders - who continued to improve last season - holds down the other spot for now. Meriweather will continue to see action as the team's nickel safety, possibly, or even probably rotating in to the starting lineup with Sanders or Harrison depending upon the situation. The situation is less clear with Williams, Andrews and Ventrone. Andrews is a valuable member of the special teams unit. He has seen some action on defense as a sub, though the team may want more from him. Williams and Ventrone are for depth, and present the most likely competition for a rookie to break into the lineup. Though the team will carry four safeties headed into the season, the possibility that Meriweather fits a multi-purpose role at corner and safety may open the door slightly for Slater who also could win a spot as an extra receiver/db/special teams player. The team's willingness to trade up to go get Slater in the Draft gives him the edge. Dilliard will have to impress in camp to have a decent shot at a spot, but more likely will be a practice squad candidate.
Outlook: The cornerback position is in a state of transition after two of the team's starters from last year (Asante Samuel, Randall Gay) are no longer on the roster. Though Hobbs held down the role at one spot, his tenure may be challenged by the influx of talent the team has brought in. Former Detroit Lion Bryant should fill Samuel's spot on one side, though it's possible Jason Webster challenges for the role. The competition heats up at the sub packages the team employs in nickel and dime situations. Many teams prefer to use safeties to cover tight ends out of the slot, or on spread offenses, the Patriots may want to put Meriweather into the lineup with Lew Sanders seeing action. Wheatley and Wilhite have the talent to play on the outside, or over the slot, but their height could be an issue, plus lack of experience could delay their arrival into the starting lineup. Mike Richardson played well last year before suffering a season-ending injury, and should get consideration for a role in the defense. Spann played sparingly over the past two seasons as he was on and off the roster. His contributions on special teams will be challenged by a number of players, most likely from Slater.
Starters (outside): Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas
Starters (inside): Tedy Bruschi, Victor Hobson
Reserves: Pierre Woods (OLB), Eric Alexander (ILB), Larry Izzo (ILB)
Rookies: Shawn Crable (OLB), Jerod Mayo (ILB), Bo Ruud (ILB), Gary Guyton (ILB), Vince Redd (OLB)
Outlook: The starters are locked into their spot with the probable exception of inside linebacker Victor Hobson who is penciled in next to Tedy Bruschi. Bruschi will hold down his role as a part time starter giving an opening for one of the other inside backers to come in on sub packages. That role will undoubtedly go to Jerod Mayo, the team's first round pick. Mayo's productive college career and superior athleticism make him a perfect fit, although he'll have to wrap his head around the playbook first. Crable and Redd have a more interesting challenge. Both can learn from the starters ahead of them, yet both have the ability to get to the passer like the starters ahead of them, and former starter Rosevelt Colvin. Redd is an imposing force who had to take the long road back from Virginia through Liberty to get to the pros. Crable was the team's third round pick. Both players are big. Crable is 6-5, 243 and Redd is 6-6, 260. An intriguing prospect is Gary Guyton. Considered a mid to late round pick, Guyton managed to slip through the Draft unclaimed. As a prized free agent, the team will provide him an opportunity to compete with Bo Ruud on the inside. Eric Alexander may have more competition than in year's past with Hobson, Ruud, Guyton and Mayo all vying for a role. Veteran Junior Seau is also looking to return for one final season. If he does, the rookie inside backers (Except Mayo) can only hope to land practice squad invitations, as there won't be enough spots on the regular roster. The team only kept 8 linebackers on the active roster last season.
Starters: Richard Seymour (DE), Ty Warren (DE), Vince Wilfork (NT)
Reserves: Jarvis Green (DE), Mike Wright (DL), Le Kevin Smith (DL), Kenny Smith (DT), Santonio Thomas (DE)
Rookies: Carlos Feliciano (DT), Henry Smith (NT), Casey Tyler (DE), Chris Norwell (DE)
Outlook: The Patriots like to rotate linemen into the mix on defense with sub packages shuttling a replacement for Vince Wilfork on a regular basis. The issue has been what happens when Wilfork isn't in there. Mike Wright has held down the primary reserve role on the interior with Le Kevin Smith also seeing time at the nose position. The Patriots need more production from the reserves, as teams were able to drive downfield using the running game because they would get 4 or 5 yards per carry. Henry Smith and Carlos Feliciano have the size to play on the inside, but will they be able to man the nose position under pressure? Kenny Smith is also a serious contender to challenge Le Kevin and Mike Wright for the primary backup role, though Wright has more versatility. On the ends, Seymour appears to have one spot locked up while Warren has the other. Jarvis Green will continue to be the fourth best lineman on the team until someone proves he doesn't deserve that role (unlikely). The 6-foot-6 rookies Tyler and Norwell each have a history of performing well I college, though Norwell's competition at Illinois may have earned him an edge. Both appear to be competing with Santonio Thomas and Le Kevin Smith for the reserve role or a spot on the practice squad.