Three-plus weeks of training camp are complete, and the “fun stuff” is out of the way for the Patriots — a long trip to Philadelphia, a weeklong date with the Buccaneers, and, for many of the young players, their first experience playing under the bright NFL lights.
Now, it’s crunch time.
The roster is at 87 players and there are only a few opportunities to win a spot, including Thursday’s exhibition game at Detroit.
The Patriots have to cut their roster to 75 players by Aug. 27, and 53 by Aug. 31. By our rough estimate, there are about 15-17 spots to be won among 45-50 players. Here is a look at some of the top position battles:
1. Wide receiver
This was the most high-profile battle entering camp, given the total makeover at the position. But we’re pretty much ready to call this competition over at this point, as the receiver depth chart seems fairly clear (in order of significance): Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Josh Boyce, and Matthew Slater.
The only other receiver who even has a shot is Kamar Aiken, but his best chance at sticking around at this point would be another season on the practice squad. Quentin Sims has performed well enough to compete for a practice squad spot, and don’t be surprised if they find some sort of list (physically unable to perform or injured reserve) to keep Rutgers’s Mark Harrison, who has not been cleared to practice yet with a foot injury.
2. Tight end/fullback/running back
These three get tied together because certain players technically play different positions but have similar roles.
Teams usually carry three or four tight ends and four or five running backs (and fullbacks). Here are the players we know for certain will be on the team: RB Stevan Ridley, RB Shane Vereen, TE Rob Gronkowski, and TE Zach Sudfeld. Gronkowski could start the season on the PUP list, which would keep him off the 53-man roster 6-11 weeks. If the Patriots take him off PUP, they have to carry him on the active roster.
At running back, the remaining two or three spots will come down to Leon Washington, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and James Develin. Washington, a dynamic kickoff returner and a good pass-catching backup to Vereen, is likely here to stay. Bolden fell behind with an injury early in camp, but he’s cheap, young, had several first-team reps against the Buccaneers, and looks like he has an inside track.
The final spot then likely comes down to the two short-yardage backs, Blount and Develin. Both make minimum salaries and won’t cost the Patriots anything if they are cut.
Develin converted two third-and-shorts on Friday, and offers a little more formation flexibility as a fullback, although Blount was dynamic in the preseason opener with a 51-yard touchdown run.
Develin’s fate could affect tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who plays an H-back role and often lines up as a fullback. Daniel Fells appeared to be the No. 1 tight end before falling behind in practice last week and then missing several days, including the Buccaneers game, with an undisclosed injury. Jake Ballard is still coming back relatively slowly from major knee surgery 18 months ago — he has played just 30 snaps in two games and doesn’t have a catch yet — but at least he is playing exclusively with the starting offense. If the Patriots are happy with his knee, he probably makes the team.
The decision with Fells has a different dynamic than it does with the other three. Fells is a “vested veteran” because he has at least five years of NFL experience, so if he is on the Week 1 roster, his entire 2013 salary (north of $1.5 million) becomes fully guaranteed, but the Patriots wouldn’t owe him anything if he is not on the team. Ballard and Hoomanawanui could each make the team, but would still essentially be week-to-week employees and could still get cut if and when Gronkowski is ready to come back.
3. Defensive line
Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Rob Ninkovich are safe. Jake Bequette might take a bigger role this year behind Ninkovich, and rookie seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan has played well enough in camp to likely earn one of the final spots.
The Patriots are a little thin behind Wilfork — Canadian import Armond Armstead was supposed to fill that role, but he has been sidelined by a surgery and has been leap-frogged by second-year pro Marcus Forston, who is having a decent camp.
Free agent Marcus Benard, who had 7½ sacks for the Browns in 2010, has been getting a lot of work with the starting defense and likely has a spot wrapped up, probably at the expense of Jermaine Cunningham. That leaves Justin Francis, Cory Grissom, Joe Vellano, Anthony White, and Scott Vallone possibly fighting for one more spot, with our edge going to Grissom at defensive tackle.
4. Defensive back
The Patriots could keep 9-11 players in the secondary, and seven spots are already accounted for: Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson, and Duron Harmon. Tavon Wilson hasn’t had a great camp, but is only in his second year and should be back.
It’s then realistically down to cornerbacks Ras-I Dowling and Marquice Cole and safeties Steve Gregory and Nate Ebner for the final spots. Dowling has a contract ($1.5 million) that says he should make it, but he’s injured again and hasn’t lived up to potential since being a second-round pick in 2011. Gregory started on Friday and also has a contract (salary-cap number of $2.18 million) that says he should make it. Ebner could be kept around as a special teams ace.
Yes, the punting competition is one of the fiercest on the roster. Rookie Ryan Allen from Louisiana Tech has a huge leg and won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter in 2011 and 2012, becoming the first player to win the award back-to-back. Meanwhile, Zoltan Mesko, who has been solid in his three seasons, did rank 27th in the NFL in net punting average last year (37.9 yards), and costs the Patriots about $1 million more than Allen.
Allen won Round 1, averaging 10 more yards per kick against the Eagles (54-44) but Mesko rebounded nicely against the Buccaneers, averaging a net of 40 yards on three punts while Allen had a shank and averaged just 29 net yards on two punts.