Three surprise Patriots to watch as first preseason game approaches

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One week from Tuesday, the Patriots will face the first off their dreaded cutdown days as the team decides who makes the initial version of the 53-man roster ahead of the 2022 season.

If you, like a lot of us, were reading into the way the Patriots structured their teams during Friday's in-stadium practice, you'll realize they probably have 40-45 of those roster spots already decided.

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Almost everyone on Team Blue should make the team, barring a couple of surprises, and that doesn't include: rookies like Tyquan Thornton, Bailey Zappe, and Pierre Strong; backups like Deatrich Wise Jr. who are very likely locked into the team's plans; and players like Rhamondre Stevenson and Matthew Judon who didn't see action but are obviously not sweating roster cuts.

That probably leaves about 10 spots -- maybe less -- to fight over until August 30, the dreaded final cut-down day.

Here are three surprise players you should be watching in the coming weeks as they push for a roster spot.

Arlington Hambright

Who saw this one coming?

Hambright couldn't stick in Chicago after the Bears took him as a seventh-round pick in 2020, spending all of 2021 on the practice squad. When he signed a reserve/futures contract with the Patriots in January, it felt like just another move to put 90 men on the roster.

Now, he's rotating in at right guard with the starting offense, with his exceptional speed and quickness standing in stark contrast to Michael Onwenu's more lumbering movements in the outside run game. Veteran James Ferentz has also subbed in at right guard on occasion, but Hambright has much higher upside and raw tools to build with.

Last year's initial 53-man roster saw the Patriots keep nine offensive linemen. Even if you pencil in Justin Herron as the swing tackle and Ferentz as a swing interior player, that should leave room for Hambright as an additional backup at guard. It's hard to think of a faster-rising player than him on the whole team at the moment.

Brenden Schooler

Whenever you see the Patriots repping special teams drills, Schooler is out there somewhere.

Defensively, he doesn't provide a ton of value; he's a safety/linebacker-tweener type who can't cover anyone in the passing game right now. But he can clearly move well and has the versatility and body to play on every single kicking-game unit, which has to interest Belichick.

Of course, the Patriots already have a few guys like that in Cody Davis and Justin Bethel who should probably be favored to make the team ahead of him. So it might still be a longshot for him to make it onto the final 53.

But if New England believes he can hold his own on special teams right now, perhaps it could spell the end for Davis, who's got a cap hit of $2.3 million for this year. Plus, plenty of teams have their eyes out for young special teamers with upside on cutdown day. Schooler probably stands a solid chance of making it to the Patriots' practice squad, but perhaps Belichick might want to assure he stays in-house as he did with Quinn Nordin last year.

LaBryan Ray

The rookie interior defender out of Alabama went undrafted largely due to injuries suffered throughout his college career, where he only played more than half a season just twice in five years.

But Belichick had to have seen Ray was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, just like fourth-round pick Jack Jones, and decided there was still plenty of talent to mine from him. So far, that supposition has been correct: Ray has been regularly whooping blockers in 1-on-1 drills and has racked up four would-be sacks in team drills.

The problem for Ray is numbers: he's currently behind guys like Henry Anderson and Deatrich Wise Jr. for snaps, and Anderson in particular appears to have rebounded well after missing much of last season due to injury.

But Ray is making as good a case as any UDFA to stick around, and the Patriots could well look to stash him on the practice squad for next year if he can't make final cuts.