The NFL regular season doesn’t start for another four months, assuming it starts on time. But it’s never too early to take a look at the Patriots’ 53-man roster, especially now that free agency and the draft are behind us.
Creating a 53-man roster this year will be a different experience for Bill Belichick and the other NFL coaches, because of the expanded roster rules instituted in the new collective bargaining agreement, including:
▪ Game-day rosters expand from 46 to 48 players, so long as the two extra players come from the practice squad.
▪ Teams are encouraged to have eight offensive linemen active on game day (they are allowed to have only seven, but then can have only 47 players active).
▪ Practice squads are expanded to 12 players.
▪ Three players are allowed to return from injured reserve.
These changes give teams significantly more options to tinker with their pieces. They can stash several offensive linemen on the practice squad and call up the best ones each week, or use the same tactic at another position.
Here is our first crack at projecting the Patriots’ 53-man roster:
Offense (24 players)
▪ Quarterback (2): Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer.
Missed the cut: J’Mar Smith, Brian Lewerke.
Analysis: Pretty cut-and-dried. Barring a total collapse in training camp or an injury, Stidham should be the starter. Hoyer is here to compete, but realistically he’s a steady backup who knows the system and can be a trusted veteran voice in the QB room. The only real question is whether the two undrafted rookies are worthy of roster spots; most likely they are battling for a practice squad job.
▪ Running back (6): Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden, FB Dan Vitale.
Missed the cut: FB Jakob Johnson, J.J. Taylor.
Analysis: Barring injury, the Patriots should return all five of their running backs from last year. The only issue is whether Harris can wrestle some carries away from Michel.
The battle to replace James Develin at fullback will be an interesting one. Vitale, who played 15 games for Green Bay last year, would give the Patriots a true lead blocker. The Patriots were really impressed with Johnson last year, but I think he’s still a bit raw and they would prefer to keep him on the practice squad.
And two tight ends — Dalton Keene and Ryan Izzo — can do a lot of the same things as a fullback. So Belichick has options, and Vitale is certainly no lock.
▪ Tight end (3): Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Ryan Izzo.
Missed the cut: Matt LaCosse, Rashod Berry, Jake Burt.
Analysis: The Patriots doubled up on tight end in the draft, but this position is still a major question mark. LaCosse can’t be feeling that good about his chances after he struggled with injuries last year and had a tough time catching on.
Izzo gets the nod over LaCosse because of his blocking skills, but the third spot is definitely wide open.
▪ Wide receiver (6): Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Damiere Byrd.
Missed the cut: Marqise Lee, Quincy Adeboyejo, Devin Ross, Will Hastings, Sean Riley, Isaiah Zuber, Jeff Thomas.
Analysis: The Patriots have kept six receivers before, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them do it again, with a few developmental players. But the unit still looks to be lacking in speed and players who can create separation.
Meyers had a great connection with Stidham in training camp last year, and should be more comfortable in Year 2. Olszewski showed promise as an Edelman backup. And Byrd is someone who perhaps would have been cut in previous years but benefits from the new rules. That roster spot is definitely up for grabs, however.
▪ Offensive line (7): Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Yodny Cajuste, Dustin Woodard.
Missed the cut: Hjalte Froholdt, Justin Herron, Jermaine Eluemunor, Michael Onwenu, Korey Cunningham, Najee Toran.
Analysis: I’m keeping only seven because Belichick can stash four or five on the practice squad and each week call up the ones he needs most. Only Wynn, Thuney, Andrews, and Mason seem like locks, with every other spot (including Cannon’s) up for grabs.
I have my eye on Cajuste, who didn’t play as a rookie because of a quad injury, but was perhaps a first-round talent who fell to the third round because of his injury. Woodard would be the backup center, but Froholdt can snap as well.
Defense (23 players)
▪ Defensive line (7): Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Chase Winovich, John Simon, Beau Allen, Deatrich Wise, Byron Cowart.
Missed the cut: Tashawn Bower, Derek Rivers, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray, Courtney Wallace, Nick Coe, Trevon Hill.
Analysis: Five spots are locked in, but I could see one or two of the undrafted rookies nudging out Wise and Cowart. Winovich should see an increased role, while Allen will be Danny Shelton’s replacement at nose tackle.
▪ Linebacker (7): Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Shilique Calhoun, Cassh Maluia, Kyahva Tezino.
Missed the cut: Brandon Copeland, Terez Hall, De’Jon Harris.
Analysis: This position seems wide open after Hightower, Bentley, Uche, and Jennings. Calhoun was a special teams standout last year, and should win a spot. A handful of rookies will battle for the last spot with Copeland, an eight-year veteran who signed a minimum contract.
▪ Cornerback (5): Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Joejuan Williams.
Missed the cut: Myles Bryant, Lenzy Pipkins, D’Angelo Ross.
Analysis: Not much to quibble with here, as the Patriots may have the best cornerback depth in the NFL.
▪ Safety (4): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips.
Missed the cut: Cody Davis, Terrence Brooks, Malik Gant, Adarius Pickett.
Analysis: McCourty, Dugger, and Phillips ($3 million guaranteed) seem like locks. Chung, who will be 33 in August, definitely could be a salary-cap casualty, saving the Patriots about $3.5 million. If Dugger has a great training camp, he could make Chung expendable, opening the door perhaps for Davis, a special teams standout.
Special teams (6)
▪ Kicker: Justin Rohrwasser.
▪ Punter: Jake Bailey.
▪ Long snapper: Joe Cardona.
▪ Special teams: Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Brandon King.
Analysis: The only real question is with King, who missed last year with a broken leg. But with the Patriots losing Nate Ebner, King should still have a roster spot.