Evaluating Season begins this week in Foxborough when the Patriots hold their first practice of the preseason Thursday morning. Bill Belichick and his staff have to pare their roster from 90 players to 53 over the next five weeks, and the competition will be fierce.
The Patriots already have 35 roster spots locked up, by a conservative estimate, leaving 55 players to battle for 18 spots on the active roster and eight on the practice squad.
But the evaluation isn’t purely about X’s and O’s. It’s a two-part evaluation, with each side given almost equal weight — the on-field evaluation, and the financial one.
To make the roster, a player needs positive marks in at least one category — he must either excel on the field, or have a contract that works in his favor, either by being too costly to cut or cheap enough to be worth the commitment. And the financial evaluation can often trump the on-field evaluation. A team rarely picks the 53 best players — sometimes it’s stuck with a bad contract, or willing to take a gamble on a minimum-salary player with no risk.
So with 2014 training camp upon us, let’s take a look at the players who are at risk for getting cut this camp by analyzing their on-field performance and financial situation, as well as the players who give the Patriots the most and least bang for their buck.
It’s also important to keep in mind the concept of “vested veterans,” or players who have been active for at least six games in four NFL seasons. Once a player becomes a vested veteran, his base salary for the entire season becomes guaranteed if he is on the Week 1 gameday roster. This can often work against the vested veterans, who are competing with younger, cheaper players who don’t carry a large financial commitment.
In the crosshairs:
■ Right guard Dan Connolly: Connolly, who turns 32 in September and has started 58 games over the past four seasons, has several factors working against him. He was the weak link of an offensive line that allowed 40 sacks last year (Tom Brady’s most since 2001), and was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the 67th-best guard out of 81 across the league. He has an abnormally high cap number for his position ($4.1 million), he’s a vested veteran, and the Patriots can save $3 million of that by cutting him. He has stiff competition in Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, and Jon Halapio.
■ Defensive end Jake Bequette: The third-round pick in 2012 just hasn’t panned out, playing just 14 snaps last season. The Patriots can save more than $570,000 of cap space by cutting Bequette at the end of camp, and would carry cap charges of $134,950 in each of 2013 and 14.
■ Safety Tavon Wilson: Another 2012 draft pick (second round) who hasn’t panned out, Wilson played just 17 snaps last season and could lose out to Duron Harmon, Kanorris Davis, Nate Ebner, and Patrick Chung. However, we’re intrigued to hear from league sources this offseason that the lightbulb may have finally clicked for Wilson, who is taking his training and film work more seriously and was impressive at summer workouts in Phoenix with Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty, and Logan Ryan. The Patriots can only shave off about $400,000 of his $1.15 million cap number, so maybe Wilson gets another shot to prove himself.
Vested veterans not sleeping well:
■ Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly: He already took one paycut this offseason after coming off a torn ACL, and the Patriots can erase $1.2 million of his $1.8 million cap number by cutting him before Week 1 if he doesn’t outplay youngsters such as Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Sealver Siliga, and Marcus Forston.
■ Defensive end Will Smith: The longtime Saint who is looking to keep his career going following last year’s ACL tear has a contract that works both ways. On one hand, he is making a minimum salary and counts only $585,000 against the cap, making him a good bargain if he can regain his form. On the other hand, he only carries $15,000 in dead money, so the Patriots won’t hesitate to cut him if he’s not up to speed anymore.
■ Linebacker James Anderson: Same deal for Anderson, formerly of the Panthers and Bears. He counts only $635,000 against the cap if he makes the team, but would only count $15,000 if the Patriots decide they don’t need him.
■ Safety Patrick Chung: Back in New England after a subpar season in Philadelphia, Chung is no lock for the roster. He signed a one-year deal with only $60,000 in dead money, and the team can save $980,000 if they cut him.
Youngsters not sleeping well:
■ Guard/tackle Marcus Cannon: Entering the last year of his contract with only $50,125 in dead money, the Patriots could save $690,000 by cutting Cannon. They drafted two linemen this year (Stork and Halapio) and are also high on Kline.
■ Wide receiver Josh Boyce: Last year’s fourth-round pick couldn’t get on the field despite the team’s dearth of talent at receiver (only 15 percent of snaps all season). Boyce is battling several players for one spot, and his $357,750 in dead money isn’t prohibitive.
■ Wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins: He had only one catch over the final seven games last season, is battling several players for one roster spot, and only has $1,667 in dead money.
■ Running back Brandon Bolden: The Patriots most likely drafted his replacement in fourth-rounder James White, and Bolden only carries $4,582 in dead money.
■ Defensive tackle Joe Vellano: He lost most of his playing time to Siliga in the second half of last season and carries $0 dead money.
Saved by their contract:
■ Wide receiver Danny Amendola: The Patriots would have loved to move on from last year’s big free agent signing, but he was guaranteed $2 million this year in March, and still has $6.8 million of dead money on his contract (if cut, it would be $3.2 million this year and $3.6 million next year).
■ Cornerback Kyle Arrington: A $3.625 million cap number isn’t too high for a solid cornerback, but Arrington is at best the Patriots’ fifth-best corner. However, Arrington still has $4.875 million in dead money on his deal (if cut, $1.625 million this year, $3.25 million next year).
■ Quarterback Tom Brady: A $14 million cap number (highest on Patriots) for one of the top five players in the game is a steal.
■ Defensive end Rob Ninkovich: Played 98 percent of snaps last year and has a modest $2.85 million cap number (14th highest on Patriots).
■ Tight end Rob Gronkowski: If he’s healthy and returns to form, a $5.4 million cap number is great value for a top-end receiver (sixth highest).
■ Defensive end Chandler Jones: Another guy who played 98 percent of snaps, gets double-digit sacks, and has a modest $2.229 million cap number (18th highest).
■ Running back Stevan Ridley: Fumbles aside, Ridley is by far New England’s best running back, and his $939,750 cap number (28th highest) is great value.
■ Cornerback Logan Ryan: The Patriots may have found themselves a steal in the third round, and he has a cap number of just $655,813 (35th highest).
■ Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard: If he can stay out of trouble, Dennard provides great value with a cap number of $584,462 (45th highest).
■ Punter Ryan Allen: Provides quality left-footed punting at a cap number barely above league minimum — $495,500 (55th highest).Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin