FOXBOROUGH — One thing has become clear as the Patriots enter their third week of training camp — we don’t envy Bill Belichick right now.
After watching nine practices and two scrimmages, we’re taking our first stab at the Patriots’ 53-man roster. And while many of the choices are obvious, Belichick is going to have some tough, tough decisions to make on cut-down day (Sept. 3). Even with an extra roster spot due to Tom Brady’s suspension, a few familiar names probably won’t end up making the team, particularly on the offensive line where the Patriots have a lot of bodies right now and only so many spots.
Of course, injuries that occur over the four preseason games will probably help decide some of these position battles. And perhaps one or two players starts the season on the physically unable to perform list, keeping them out for six games but allowing the Patriots to stash them until October.
So here we go, our first crack at the Patriots’ 53-man roster:
Tom Brady*, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett.
Comment: Not much to say here. Brady’s suspension does at least allow Belichick to keep an extra player around.
Running back (4)
Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster.
Comment: This was not an easy position to sort out, and we see our first familiar name to get the ax — James White, the 2014 fourth-round pick. Foster, the undrafted rookie out of Arizona State, gets the nod over White for his better receiver skills and ability to make catches in traffic. Bolden also gets the nod over Donald Brown because of his abilities as a core special-teamer. The good news is that White, Tyler Gaffney, and Joey Iosefa all have practice squad eligibility (as does Foster), and the Patriots will probably stash one or two more backs there.
Comment: The Patriots’ offense really missed having a fullback last year, particularly late in the season in the cold-weather games. They re-signed Develin in the offseason for a reason, and we see the Patriots keeping him instead of a blocking tight end.
Wide receiver (5)
Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Keshawn Martin.
Comment: This was another tough position to handicap, particularly since Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper, and DeAndre Carter have all had their moments in camp. Dobson has looked good in two weeks of training camp, but we’ve seen him start strong before, only to get injured or wear down due to the grind of the season. We think Dobson’s fate was sealed as soon as Martin was re-signed for $600,000 guaranteed in January and the Patriots drafted Mitchell in the fourth round in April. Carter has arguably had the best camp of any of the young receivers and is tempting to keep around, but he and Harper both have practice squad eligibility.
Tight end (3)
Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Clay Harbor.
Comment: No need to spend any time talking about Gronk and Bennett. We give the third spot to Harbor, who signed a two-year deal in the offseason. AJ Derby has had a really solid camp and could challenge Harbor for his roster spot, but again, Derby has practice squad eligibility and Harbor doesn’t. Bear Pascoe was tempting to keep on the roster as a blocking tight end, but they already have two blockers in Gronk and Bennett, and we chose Develin over Pascoe for a roster spot.
Offensive line (9)
Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, David Andrews, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Jonathan Cooper, Josh Kline, LaAdrian Waddle.
Comment: This was probably the toughest position to sort out, and we have the Patriots keeping nine linemen because a) the Patriots need all the reinforcements they can get at offensive line, and b) they have a lot of noteworthy players at the position. Injuries will obviously play a large factor in the group’s makeup. Cooper’s foot injury could possibly land him on injured reserve, and Vollmer could potentially spend the first six games on the PUP.
The surprise names that didn’t make our list are Bryan Stork and Tre’ Jackson, both recent fourth-round picks. Stork has not been able to stay healthy (his concussion issue is particularly troubling from a football and personal standpoint), and the Patriots have several capable options at center, including Andrews and Kline. Jackson, meanwhile, didn’t play all that well last year, has been hurt this camp and will be the victim of a numbers crunch. Rookie Ted Karras has also had a strong camp, but we see the Patriots trying to stash him on the practice squad.
Defensive end (5)
Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers.
No real surprise cuts out of this group. The Patriots need all hands on deck to help replace Chandler Jones, and we see them keeping five edge rushers on the roster. Most of these guys can also play 3-4 outside linebacker or line up on the interior on obvious passing downs.
Defensive tackle (4)
Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, Vincent Valentine.
The Patriots are deep at defensive tackle as they focus their base defense on a “Big Nickel” package, trying to be stout up front to stop the run while also playing five defensive backs. The “surprise” cut here is Markus Kuhn, who signed a one-year deal with $140,000 guaranteed, a sum that won’t stop the Patriots from cutting him. We don’t have Joe Vellano or Frank Kearse making the cut, either.
Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Shea McClellin, Jonathan Freeny.
Comment: Not much to say about Hightower, Collins or McClellin, although it will be interesting to see if the Patriots use McClellin more at linebacker or defensive end. And the $3.5 million guaranteed they gave McClellin suggests that he won’t merely be a backup. For the last linebacker spot, which is also a core special teams spot, we give Freeny the nod over Ramon Humber, Elandon Roberts, Rufus Johnson, and Kevin Snyder. Freeny has good NFL experience and played well in spurts last year while subbing for Hightower and Collins.
Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, Darryl Roberts.
Comment: Coleman has had a solid camp and looks like the early favorite for the No. 3 cornerback spot, while Roberts is having his second consecutive solid camp (he missed his rookie year with an injury). Undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones is intriguing, but we like him better for the practice squad.
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Kamu Grugier-Hill
Comment: The first four are locks, and we like Grugier-Hill as a backup to Chung in the hybrid safety/linebacker role, and also as a core special-teamer. Newcomer Vinnie Sunseri could make a case as a sixth safety and core special teams player, as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS (6)
Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Ryan Allen (punter), Joe Cardona (long snapper), Matthew Slater (special teams), Nate Ebner (special teams), Brandon King (special teams), Martin (kick returner), Edelman (punt returner).
Comment: Gostkowski, Allen, Cardona, Slater, and Ebner are all locks, and King was so good on special teams last year that I’d be shocked if the Patriots didn’t keep him for a similar role this year.