As he spoke during a Friday conference call, it was probably a safe bet that Patriots coach Bill Belichick knew which players would make up the majority of the 53-man roster, with the team just a day away from having to cut down from 75 players.
Belichick has been an NFL coach for going on 39 seasons, and these are always difficult days. Some players who will be cut will see their dream end. Others might get tryouts elsewhere, maybe latch on to a practice squad. A couple of them may go on to have success with another franchise. Some may face the reality of sudden retirement.
“There’s a lot of balls in the air, a lot of things going on that we just, you really can’t just look at one thing and ignore the other ones,” Belichick said this week. “There are a lot of things in play there. It’s a stressful time for players as we come into the final cuts and it’s a stressful time for coaches . . . But that’s training camp. It’s that way every year. It’s no surprise. But it’s a challenging time for everybody on the football team.”
The Patriots’ 53-man roster come Saturday night could look different on Monday or Tuesday. Belichick might want to make room for someone who was cut by another team.
So what goes into putting together the roster puzzle?
Belichick said he’s had players who earned a spot based on their performance in the final preseason game, although the converse is likely true as well: players have lost a spot based on their performance in the final exhibition.
Perhaps a player or two gave Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio something extra to consider with their play in Thursday’s 16-13 loss to the Giants.
One player who may have affected his standing in a negative way was receiver Josh Boyce. He was targeted nine times and had just two receptions, and also was the intended receiver on both of Jimmy Garoppolo’s interceptions, one of which was wiped away by penalty.
Belichick also must consider the balance of offense and defense. Essentially, the Patriots are looking at 50 roster spots between the two sides of the ball, since three spots are dedicated to kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen, and long snapper Danny Aiken.
A look at the New England roster just after cutdown day over the last five years shows no hard and fast rule to Belichick’s decision-making. Last year, there were 25 players on offense, 25 on defense. But in 2011, there were 23 on offense and 27 on defense, and in 2009 those numbers were transposed, with 27 on offense and 23 on defense.
Over the last three years, only two positions have remained consistent in terms of numbers, quarterback and defensive back. Tom Brady and Ryan Mallett were paired, and the Patriots have kept 10 defensive backs each year, a reflection of the need to play five DBs so frequently. Otherwise, there have been years when they’ve decided on 10 offensive linemen, or 11 defensive linemen, sometimes six running backs and other times four.
One factor for bubble players is special teams skill. Belichick places a premium on the ability to do a variety of special teams jobs, and availability there often leads to opportunities in the other phases of the game.
“If a guy’s major role on the team is the kicking game, then any role that he can handle on offense or defense just helps your team, gives that player more value and gives your team more depth,” Belichick said on Friday. “We’ve seen so many examples of it through the years: guys that start off on the kicking team end up developing into good offensive or defensive players, and the offensive and defensive coaches are able to start using those players in roles and expanding their roles because they know that those guys are going to be there every week.
“Really, the guy that kind of is a tough fit on the roster on game day is the player who has a role on offense or defense — not a major role but a role — but has a small role in the kicking game or maybe in some cases doesn’t have a role in the kicking game. If it’s not a big enough role offensively or defensively, whatever the case might be, then it’s hard to get that player [into] the game if he doesn’t have a role in the kicking game.
“You end up usually, often times going with a player who has a big role in the kicking game and maybe not so much of a role on offense and defense, just because that role in the kicking game is bigger. It’s interesting how it works out.”
It will be interesting to see who’s left on Saturday, or Sunday, or even Monday, after Belichick and Caserio have made their cuts and then combed the waiver wire, trying to see which pieces will fit best.