The Patriots released 13 players Saturday to get down to the NFL-mandated regular-season roster limit of 53.
The biggest names released were quarterback Tim Tebow, punter Zoltan Mesko, and defensive linemen Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis.
There was also a surprise move involving veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who was placed on injured reserve.
Wilson played late into Thursday’s exhibition game against the Giants. It is believed he was in danger of being released, but the Patriots may like having his voice and experience in the meeting room, so perhaps going on IR was a compromise.
One move that was not made: tight end Rob Gronkowski was not transferred to the reserve/physically unable to perform list, meaning he can play as soon as the Patriots deem him ready. Had he been placed on PUP, the team would have had to wait until after Week 6 to put him on the active roster.
Others who were released include first-year defensive lineman Marcus Forston and veteran linebacker Jeff Tarpinian. Rookies who were released include linebacker Ja’Gared Davis, safety Kanorris Davis, defensive back Justin Green, offensive lineman Chris McDonald, defensive back Stephon Morris, receiver Quentin Sims, and running back George Winn.
Those moves actually took the Patriots down to 51 players; they are clearly giving themselves wiggle room to add players in the coming days. Last year, New England made several transactions between cutdown day and the regular-season opener.
Given that they have just seven defensive linemen currently and had 11 to start the season last year (10 in 2010), the Patriots could be looking to beef up that position in particular with so many players hitting the market.
It was a bit of a surprise to see Mesko, who was effective, charismatic, and a player who quickly became a fixture in the Boston community, cut. But the fact that the Patriots kept undrafted rookie Ryan Allen around for as long as they did indicated that there was a true competition between Mesko and the Louisiana Tech product.
Through training camp and the four exhibition games, it appeared Mesko had an edge on Allen performance-wise, so the deciding factor likely was cost: Mesko was slated to make $1.323 million this season, with Allen on the books for the rookie minimum of $405,000.
Mesko was also slated to be a free agent after this season; Allen signed a three-year deal, as all undrafted rookies do.
“First and foremost, I want to thank the New England Patriots for everything they have done for me,” Mesko wrote on his Facebook page. “I have nothing but love in my heart as I depart this great organization.
“Mr. [Robert] Kraft, the coaches, the strength staff, the media personnel, the marketing department, the rest of the amazing staff members at Gillette, and especially my teammates…THANK YOU for all that you have given and done for me…
“I will miss New England, and more than anything, I’ll be missing the smiles on those kids whom I visited and acted like a goofball in front of. It was ALL worth it.”
The Patriots honored Mesko with their Ron Burton Community Service Award last year, and Boston Children’s Hospital recognized him with its Champions Award last November for his numerous visits to patients.
Tebow, a first-round pick in 2010 by Denver, had become a fascinating figure during his relatively brief NFL career — beloved by Florida fans and many college football fans in general for his national title- and Heisman Trophy-winning time with the Gators. But there was debate even before he was drafted as to whether Tebow had the skills required to play quarterback as a professional.
He did start 11 regular-season games for the Broncos in 2011, going 7-4 and leading Denver to a thrilling overtime postseason win against Pittsburgh before getting blown out the next week in New England.
Last year, after the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, Tebow was traded to the Jets, and he made little to no impact in New York, used in Wildcat formations and on special teams.
Cut by the Jets in April, he was on the market for six weeks before signing with the Patriots, where the man who drafted him in Denver, Josh McDaniels, is offensive coordinator.
Throughout training camp and in his three preseason appearances, the number of head-scratching plays from Tebow far outnumbered the standout ones, as it became clear that he lacks the two things coach Bill Belichick has said over and over are the top requirements for good quarterback play: accuracy and decision-making.
Tebow was 11 for 30 (36.7 percent) for 145 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and seven sacks in the preseason.
Cunningham is yet another recent second-round pick of the Patriots who has been released without making much of an impact.
One of three second-rounders in 2010, taken between Gronkowski and Florida teammate Brandon Spikes, Cunningham played in just 21 games over the last two seasons. In 2011, he was inactive for three games before being placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury in December, and he missed four games last year when he was suspended for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Cunningham entered this season with a chance to contribute, with New England thin on the defensive line, but he missed time to injury again, essentially sealing his fate. For his career, Cunningham had 3½ sacks.
From 2008-11, the Patriots drafted a league-high 10 players in the second round — Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, Ron Brace, Sebastian Vollmer, Spikes, Cunningham, Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, and Ras-I Dowling – and only four of those remain.