One of the themes through Patriots training camp and the exhibition season has been “we have a long way to go.’’ It’s a phrase repeated often by coach Bill Belichick and his players.
It is true, but unfortunately for some the road will end Tuesday (at least temporarily) as the Patriots and every other NFL team must trim their roster to 75 by 4 p.m. It’s an uneasy time for players and it’s not Belichick’s favorite part of the job, either.
With just one exhibition game left — and if history is a guide Thursday’s home tilt against the Giants won’t be much of contest — here’s a second attempt at picking the Opening Night roster. Again, we’ll go with 55 (taking into account the suspensions of Tom Brady and LeGarrette Blount).
Quarterbacks (3) – Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Lindley.
No changes here. Brady finally looked like Brady during his final series against the Panthers, putting on a vintage performance in the two-minute offense — though it only took him 1:23.
Garoppolo’s preseason play has been very good (yes, a lot of it has come against second-stringers) and this is an encouraging sign if he’s the Opening Night starter. He’s not the most fiery guy, but he doesn’t appear to rattle easily, either.
Lindley has been a good soldier but when Brady’s active, he won’t be.
Running backs (5) – LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden, James White, Dion Lewis. (Outside looking in: James Develin — assuming he goes on injured reserve — Travaris Cadet, Tony Creecy).
With Blount out for the opener, Gray will get the bulk of the carries. He’s looked swift and solid throughout the preseason. Blount is a valuable jack-of-all trades backup who can run, catch, and block.
The horrible injury suffered by Develin (broken right tibia) probably allows the team to keep Lewis and White. Both have shined at different moments in the preseason but White’s lack of action against the Panthers was puzzling.
Tight end (4)—Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui, Michael Williams. (Outside looking in: Jimmay Mundine, Asante Cleveland).
Gronkowski won’t be let out of the bubble wrap until the Steelers come to town and that’s fine. Chandler showed what he can do against the Panthers (great to see a 6-foot-7-inch, 260-pounder lined up wide).
Hoomanawanui works like a dog on every snap. Williams (6-6, 304 pounds) is massive and his versatility (he can play tackle) means he makes this squad at least for now.
Wide receiver (5) — Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Reggie Wayne, Aaron Dobson. (Outside looking in: Chris Harper, Josh Boyce, Jonathan Krause, Zach D’Orazio).
LaFell’s status (he’s on the physically unable to perform list) keeps this position in flux. Edelman and Amendola are valuable and Brady trusts them. Both give maximum effort on every play.
The same can be said for Harper, an undrafted free agent who just shows up and makes plays every practice and game. He is without a doubt the toughest omission on the roster.
Dobson’s talent is obvious — he’s tall and can stretch the field — but consistency and concentration are his bugaboos.
Offensive tackle (4) — Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming. (Outside looking in: Chris Martin).
Solder and Vollmer can wall off and run block with the best of them. Vollmer left Saturday’s game early so that bears watching. Cannon has missed some time this week and if his injury is significant then Fleming becomes the top backup and Williams could shift to tackle.
Center (2) — Bryan Stork, David Andrews.
Stork’s undisclosed injury gets increasingly worrisome (he’s been out for going on two weeks) but he has been spotted in the locker room, so his return could be imminent.
His absence has allowed Andrews to gain valuable experience as he has started all three exhibition games. The undrafted rookie hasn’t been perfect but he hasn’t been bad.
Guard (3) — Ryan Wendell, Tre’ Jackson, Shaq Mason. (Outside looking in: Josh Kline, Caylin Hauptmann, Chris Barker, Ryan Groy).
Wendell’s return to practice last week was huge. He is an anchor who will help bring stability. Rookies Jackson and Mason have taken some lumps but also gained valuable experience. Andrews could see time here, too.
Defensive tackle (5) — Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch, Zach Moore. (Outside looking in: Joe Vellano, Casey Walker, Chris Jones, A.J. Pataiali’i).
This is a position of strength as the rotation of Easley, Brown, Siliga, and Branch was outstanding against the Panthers. The push was good and the lanes, for the most part, were clogged.
Branch had a slow start to the summer but he was a presence against the Panthers. He can be a difference maker. Siliga is just plain strong and Easley and Brown are big and bright.
Defensive end (5) — Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom. (Outside looking in: Xzavier Dickson, Rufus Johnson).
There is great depth here as both Dickson and Johnson have shown they belong, but you can only keep so many.
Ninkovich and Jones are valuable and versatile as they can set the edge and pressure the quarterback. Sheard is very athletic and big. He’s going to make a lot of big plays this season. Rookies Flowers and Grissom have played well.
Linebacker (5) — Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, James Morris, Jonathan Freeny. (Outside looking in: Darius Fleming, Dane Fletcher, D.J. Lynch, Eric Martin, Dekoda Watson).
The return to action of Mayo and Hightower seemed to energize the entire defense in Carolina. Add the freakishly athletic Collins and this is an excellent linebacking corps.
Morris is a smashmouth hustler. Freeny had a strong early camp but it wouldn’t be shocking if Fleming emerges. Fletcher has yet to practice, which explains why he is where he is on this list.
Cornerback (5) — Malcolm Butler, Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher, Logan Ryan, Robert McClain. (Outside looking in: Darryl Roberts, Dax Swanson).
Butler and Brown are clearly the top two on the depth chart. It gets a little murky from there. Veterans Fletcher, Ryan, and McClain have been in a battle to claim the other spots and nobody has separated themselves from the pack.
Roberts has been hurt and there’s still time for Swanson to steal a spot here.
Safety (5) — Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner. (Outside looking in: Tavon Wilson, Brandon King).
McCourty was back patrolling center field against the Panthers and looked happy doing it. Chung, Harmon, and Wilson will rotate in. Ebner gets the nod over Wilson for his excellent special teams play.
Specialist (4) — Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen, long snapper Joe Cardona, gunner Matthew Slater.
The team is in good hands here. Gostkowski, Allen, and Slater are at the top of their fields and rookie Cardona has fit in seamlessly.