FOXBOROUGH — Two exhibition games are in the books, and with two more on the docket there are plenty of unanswered questions surrounding the Patriots — and that has nothing to with Deflategate.
There are plenty of jobs available still, but here’s a first guess at the Opening Night roster. Included are 55 names, instead of the traditional 53, taking into account the suspensions of quarterback Tom Brady (four games) and running back LeGarrette Blount (one).
Quarterbacks (3) — Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Lindley.
This changes once Brady’s status is clarified. With The Franchise still suspended for the first four games, Lindley is needed to back up Garoppolo. Once No. 12 is cleared to play, Lindley probably goes.
Garoppolo has had an up-and-down preseason but has saved his best moments for the games. He was particularly strong against the Saints, highlighted by a pair of scoring drives (one that changed the momentum and one that won the game) in the two-minute offense. He did throw an ugly interception in the fourth, but shook it off and completed seven of his next eight passes.
Running backs (6) — LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden, James White, Dion Lewis, James Develin. (Outside looking in: Travaris Cadet, Eric Kettani, Tony Creecy, Tyler Gaffney.)
Blount is suspended for the opener. Gray, who has had a very strong camp, will step in. The two big backs will share the bulk of the carries this season, with special teams ace Bolden champing at the bit.
White and Lewis (both had nice outings vs. the Saints) could share the third-down passing back role, though it wouldn’t be surprising if one goes when Blount returns. Crunching blocker Develin is a known quantity. A leg injury hurt Cadet, who was electric during the first week.
Tight end (3) — Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawani. (Outside looking in: Asante Cleveland, Jake Bequette, Jimmay Mundine, A.J. Derby.)
Fans have had visions of towering twins Gronkowski and Chandler running roughshod over smaller defensive backs ever since Chandler came aboard in March. The visions have remained, although neither has taken a preseason snap, Gronkowski because he needs to stay healthy and Chandler because he hasn’t been healthy.
“Hoo-man” is a quiet and dependable blocker who will chip in with some key catches. Mundine sure looks like an NFLer. At the very least, he should land on somebody’s practice squad.
Wide receiver (6) — Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Reggie Wayne, Matthew Slater, Aaron Dobson. (Outside looking in: Josh Boyce, Brian Tyms, Chris Harper, Brandon Gibson, Jonathan Krause, Zach D’Orazio.)
There is no position more in flux on this roster. LaFell hasn’t practiced yet; Edelman (undisclosed) has been out since the first weekend of camp; Dobson (reportedly a hamstring issue) isn’t practicing; Tyms (foot) was hurt in the first practice against the Saints and is on the waived/injured list; Boyce (undisclosed) looked fit as a fiddle in West Virginia but didn’t play against the Saints, though he was in uniform; and Gibson was placed on IR after hurting his knee late against the Saints. He had been having an above-average camp.
Wayne, 36, is a proven commodity, but does he have any gas left? Dobson vs. Boyce is a coin flip. The plethora of injuries could open the door for Harper, who has had an outstanding camp at receiver and returner.
Slater, who has made a few acrobatic catches in camp, was asked about his increased workload at receiver this summer and whether he’s ready to step into a starter’s role. He smiled and said, “I’m the special teams captain.’’
Offensive tackle (4) — Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming. (Outside looking in: Chris Martin.)
Solder and Vollmer are big, wide, and dominant. When they’re at the top of their games, the edges are protected. Cannon is a capable second-stringer and Fleming is often used as a tackle eligible. He’s struggled at times, but he’s a Stanford guy. He’ll get it.
Center (2) — Bryan Stork, David Andrews.
Stork has been out for more than a week with an undisclosed injury and that’s worrisome after he stepped in as a rookie last season and was outstanding. Andrews, an undrafted free agent, has done yeoman’s work in the preseason. Bonus: He can play guard, too.
Guard (4) — Ryan Wendell, Tre’ Jackson, Shaq Mason, Josh Kline. (Outside looking in: Mark Asper, Caylin Hauptmann, Chris Barker, Ryan Groy).
Wendell’s absence throughout camp is an area of concern. When healthy, he’s tough and versatile (he can play center). Rookies Jackson and Mason struggled mightily against first-teamers in both exhibitions. They played better as the games went on and that experience can only build their confidence.
Kline can play center, too, and that gives him the edge over Groy for now, but this spot bears watching.
Defensive tackle (4) — Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Sealver Siliga, Zach Moore. (Outside looking in: Alan Branch, Antonio Johnson, Joe Vellano, Casey Walker, Chris Jones, A.J. Pataiali’l.)
Easley and Brown, the last two first-round picks, have been solid. Easley appears up to speed after an injury-riddled rookie campaign and Brown is big, fast, and strong. He can shoot gaps and also track down backs in the open field.
Siliga is very quick and active for a man his size (6-2, 325 pounds) while Moore has youth on his side. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of the six outside of the list back at some point. Branch and Johnson are grizzled veterans.
Defensive end (5) — Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom. (Outside looking in: Xzavier Dickson, Rufus Johnson).
Ninkovich is one of the steadiest and more clutch players on the team while Jones has tangibles (he’s quick, big, and relentless) and intangibles (his big, bubbly personality keeps his teammates loose). Sheard looks bigger than 6-3, 260, and plays bigger, too. He is a wide man.
Rookies Flowers (out with an injury since the Packers game) and Grissom (he can play inside and out) provide depth. Johnson (also out since the Green Bay tilt with a leg injury) was having a nice camp. He’s a dark horse candidate.
Linebacker (5) — Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, James Morris, Jonathan Freeny. (Outside looking in: Darius Fleming, Dane Fletcher, Cameron Gordon, D.J. Lynch, Eric Martin, Dekoda Watson).
Mayo and Hightower, each coming off injury, are building steam in practice but haven’t taken a snap yet. Collins is extremely athletic — and intimidating.
Morris made some nice plays against the Saints (highlighted by his hustling forced fumble). Freeny has been one of the surprises of camp. Martin owned camp the first week but an undisclosed injury hampered his chances.
Cornerback (5) — Malcolm Butler, Bradley Fletcher, Tarell Brown, Logan Ryan, Robert McClain. (Outside looking in Darryl Roberts, Dax Swanson, Jimmy Jean.)
As he was last season, Butler has been one of the stars of the preseason. Except this year it was expected. He has the left side. Brown, a veteran late addition, has gotten up to speed quickly. Ryan remains inconsistent, while McClain and Fletcher are solid veterans.
Roberts has been hurt. Tough omissions include Swanson (he has good recovery speed) and Jean (who has long arms and has excelled as a gunner opposite Slater).
Safety (5) — Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner. (Outside looking in: Tavon Wilson, Brandon King.)
If McCourty is switched to cornerback permanently, the picture changes drastically as the Patriots lose their top traffic cop in the secondary. He’ll play corner but he doesn’t necessarily want to. Chung has been really good in his second stint with New England. He matches up against Gronkowski in practice every day, and while you know who’s going to win those battles, Chung is a better player for it. Harmon is coming on strong and Wilson has his moments — both good and bad. Richards is really smart, while Ebner’s value is in special teams.
Specialist (3) — Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen, long snapper Joe Cardona.
Gostkowski is one of the best in the business. Ditto for Allen. Cardona, the rookie out of Navy, has been darn near flawless through the preseason.