The final week of training camp is here, and only scant opportunities remain for bubble players to impress the coaching staff and win one of the final roster spots on the team — two days of practice to start the week, a walkthrough on Wednesday, and then Thursday’s preseason finale against the Giants at Gillette Stadium, where the backups figure to play most, if not all of the game.
But when final roster cuts are made Saturday at 4 p.m., it won’t just be the undrafted rookies and young hopefuls who are discarded by the Patriots. A few surprise veterans are likely to be included in the cuts. As Ron Jaworski said on ESPN last week, “if it’s even, the vets are leavin’.”
Here is a look at five veterans who may be included in the cuts on Saturday:
SS Adrian Wilson
Cap number if on the team: $1.33 million
Cap number if cut: $1 million
Wilson, 33, was signed to a three-year deal this offseason after spending the first 12 years of his career with the Cardinals. The theory was Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowler and a physical specimen at 6 feet 3 inches and 230 pounds, could give the Patriots a physical presence in the secondary to help the run defense, as well as provide good locker room leadership for the young defense.
While Wilson has fulfilled the second part of that equation, it’s fair to wonder if he has much left in the tank after watching him for four weeks of training camp. Wilson is often out of place in games — watch how badly he overpursued Reggie Bush on his 67-yard run last Thursday night — and has seemingly lost playing time to Steve Gregory, who has been starting opposite Devin McCourty.
The Patriots already have rookie Duron Harmon as one backup safety, and could opt to keep Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner over Wilson, whose play is reminiscent of John Lynch, who was signed by the Patriots in 2008 but was cut after training camp.
RB Leon Washington
Cap number if on team: $1.2 million
Cap number if cut: $360k
The Patriots have six running backs who can stake a legitimate claim to a roster spot: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, fullback James Develin, and Washington, who was signed this offseason to potentially give the Patriots’ sagging kick-return game a boost. The Patriots ranked 25th in the NFL in kickoff return average last year, and Washington, entering his eighth NFL season, has eight career kickoff return touchdowns, including a 98-yarder last year for Seattle.
The Patriots probably can’t keep all six players, and will have a tough decision to make with someone. While Washington has shown decent burst at times this preseason, does he provide enough of a boost in the return game to justify keeping him over one of the younger running backs, especially with the new kickoff rules leading to a significant increase in touchbacks?
Washington has averaged 22 yards on three kickoff returns and just 4.4 yards on five punt returns. With so many other options to return kicks — Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Kenbrell Thompkins, and more — Washington may become expendable.
DE Jermaine Cunningham
Cap number if on team: $939,375
Cap number if cut: $309,375
Cunningham, a second-round pick in 2010, has not lived up to his potential after three seasons with the Patriots, with 3.5 career sacks and just three starts in the last two years.
Now, he’s been hurt for the last three weeks of training camp with a mystery injury and hasn’t played one snap in the preseason. And there are plenty of hungry players ready to take his roster spot — Marcus Benard, rookie Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette, and Justin Francis.
It’s possible the Patriots could use their one short-term injured reserve spot for Cunningham, which would keep him out until Week 8 at minimum but would allow him to possibly contribute in the second half of the season.
Or it’s possible that the Patriots simply decide to move on from Cunningham, who’s entering the final year of his contract.
DB Ras-I Dowling
Cap number if on team: $1.45 million
Cap number if cut: $1.53 million
Yes, it would actually cost the Patriots slightly more against the cap to not have Dowling on the team this year than to carry him on the 53-man roster.
But as with Cunningham, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots still have patience with Dowling, who just can’t seem to stay healthy. He has played in only nine games over two years since the Patriots used a second-round pick on him in 2011, with two starts and zero interceptions. Now Dowling is injured again this preseason and, like Cunningham, hasn’t played a snap in any of the three preseason games.
It’s possible the Patriots are just being cautious with Dowling and letting him take his time with this injury. Or it’s possible that the Patriots’ patience runs out and he loses out on a roster spot to Marquice Cole.
TE Daniel Fells
Cap number if on team: $1.58 million
Cap number if cut: $666,667
Fells, entering his eighth (yes, eighth) NFL season, was getting a lot of work with the first-team offense early in camp. But an injury has kept him out of action the last two preseason games, and the emergence of two other tight ends could mean trouble for Fells, who caught four passes for 85 yards last year.
Jake Ballard played 41 snaps against the Lions, by far his most work of the preseason as he comes back from major knee surgery, and rookie Zach Sudfeld has emerged as a legitimate receiving option, his fumble on Thursday aside.
It’s possible that H-back Michael Hoomanawanui could lose out on a roster spot, though he has more experience with Josh McDaniels and fills a different role than the other tight ends. If the Patriots are confident that Rob Gronkowski can be back sooner rather than later, they may not have a need for Fells.