Projecting a 53-man roster for the Patriots is not easy. I can usually whittle the 90-man training camp roster down to about 60 spots, but the last six or seven cuts are tough. The Patriots led the league last year with four of their cut players claimed by other teams after roster cutdowns.
This year’s projection is equally difficult, but for a different reason: Are there actually 53 players worthy of a roster spot?
The competition is wide open, and getting up to 53 players wasn’t easy.
I count 39 players who are guaranteed of a roster spot, assuming they can make it through training camp in good health. This includes Cordarrelle Patterson, who will make the team more for his special teams prowess (kickoff returner and punt team gunner); core special teamers such as Brandon Bolden and Brandon King; and of course, three spots for the kicker, punter, and long snapper. It doesn’t include Julian Edelman, who will be suspended for the first four games.
But unlike in previous years, there isn’t much separating players 40 to 70 on the roster. Several positions are wide open, such as receiver, tight end, and linebacker.
And injuries will play a significant factor.
Will Nate Ebner, who tore an ACL last November and is one of the 39 roster locks, start the season on the physically unable to perform list, knocking him out for the first six-plus games? What about Jonathan Jones, who hurt his ankle in the playoffs, and Cyrus Jones, a 2016 second-round pick who tore an ACL last preseason? What’s going on with Kenny Britt? How badly are Sony Michel and Marcus Cannon hurt?
The answers to these questions can send the Patriots roster in 100 different ways.
Let’s take our first attempt at projecting a 53-man roster in advance of the Patriots’ preseason opener Thursday against Washington:
Offense — 23 players
■ Quarterback (2): Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer.
Practice squad: Danny Etling.
Analysis: The only real question is what to do with Etling, the seventh-round pick out of LSU. The Patriots kept three quarterbacks in 2016, but that was because of Brady’s suspension. They kept two last year, and probably only need two this year. Etling has a strong arm, good mechanics, and experience in a pro-style offense, but the Patriots don’t need to use a roster spot on him.
■ Running back (6): James White, Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, Mike Gillislee, Brandon Bolden, James Develin.
Analysis: The first three are obvious, though the fact that Michel reportedly had his knee drained is concerning. Develin is in, and Bolden is a lock as a core special-teamer. The only real question is Gillislee. My first inclination was to leave him off, given his struggles last year, his lack of special teams contributions, the depth at running back, and the fact that the Patriots can save $2.4 million with no dead salary-cap money.
But Michel is already hurt, and Burkhead was banged up a lot last year, missing seven games and playing just 208 snaps total. So Gillislee makes the roster for now as a first-down and short-yardage back, beating out newcomer Jeremy Hill and rookie Ralph Webb.
■ Tight end (3): Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister.
Practice squad: Ryan Izzo.
Analysis: Other than Gronkowski, this position is wide open. Coach Bill Belichick raves about Allen’s approach and loves his blocking ability, and Allen appears to be back for another season as the No. 2 tight end, even though the Patriots can save $5 million cash and cap with him. Hollister has had a nice start to camp and might be making that second-year jump Belichick talks so much about.
But the one to watch is Izzo, the seventh-round pick out of Florida State. He has made several nice catches in training camp, and comes from a pro-style system in college that required him to be an in-line blocker. If Izzo keeps up his solid camp, he could make Allen or Hollister expendable.
Will Tye has been noticeable in the passing game so far, but he’s the same type of player as Hollister, who looks like he is beating out Tye so far.
■ Wide receiver (4): Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Eric Decker, Cordarrelle Patterson.
Suspended: Julian Edelman.
Practice squad: Riley McCarron.
Analysis: This position is also wide open, and the depth is not very good beyond Hogan and Dorsett, who has looked much better in his second season in the offense and could be used to replace Brandin Cooks’s production. Jordan Matthews already was released. Malcolm Mitchell and his chronically injured knee were finally released Monday. Britt hasn’t practiced yet because of injury. Braxton Berrios hasn’t taken any reps with the starting offense yet. Devin Lucien and Paul Turner have made a few plays, but they are camp bodies.
So for now we’re going with four receivers until Edelman returns, and really it’s only three, because Patterson probably will be used only as a gadget player and occasional receiver.
Decker gets one of the spots based on his ability to play the slot or outside, his size (6 feet 3 inches, 214 pounds), and his veteran savvy. But he reportedly received only $75,000 guaranteed on his one-year deal, meaning he absolutely is fighting for a job. If Britt can’t get on the field soon, his time with the Patriots might end swiftly.
McCarron is intriguing enough of a slot receiver to keep in Foxborough, but I’m not sure if he’s worthy of a roster spot.
■ Offensive line (8): Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Isaiah Wynn, LaAdrian Waddle, Luke Bowanko.
Practice squad: James Ferentz, Cole Croston.
Analysis: The top seven spots are easy to account for, though I’m not quite sure how all the pieces will fit, and Cannon’s injury could complicate matters. Will Thuney hold onto the left guard spot? Is Brown the starting left tackle? Is Wynn, the 23rd overall pick, just going to be a super sub this year?
Waddle was brought back on a one-year deal, and I’m counting him as a roster lock as the backup tackle. For the eighth spot, I’m going with Bowanko, a fifth-year veteran who has started NFL games at center and left guard. With Wynn able to play left tackle or left guard, and Thuney and Bowanko able to fill in at left guard or center, this group has a ton of versatility.
Ted Karras is also in the mix for that guard/center spot, but the fact that the Patriots brought in so much competition at that spot doesn’t look good for him.
Defense — 24 players
■ Defensive line (9): Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Adrian Clayborn, Derek Rivers, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, Adam Butler.
Practice squad: Eric Lee, John Atkins.
Analysis: I count six locks in Flowers, Wise, Clayborn, Rivers, Guy, and Shelton. Brown is an interesting case, a 2015 first-round pick who hasn’t quite lived up to the billing. The Patriots declined his fifth-year option, and now he’s in the final year of his contract.
The Patriots also acquired Shelton in a trade. But he looks to be Alan Branch’s replacement, and I believe that Brown, who played 54 percent of snaps last year, still should have a significant role in the rotation, particularly on rushing downs.
The returns of Rivers and Dont’a Hightower and addition of Clayborn means the Patriots don’t have a need for Lee anymore, but they can try to stash him on the practice squad. Butler was solid as a rookie and can play end or tackle, and Valentine, great as a rookie in 2016 and injured for 2017, offers good depth up the middle and should regain his roster spot.
■ Linebackers (6): Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Marquis Flowers, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Nicholas Grigsby, Harvey Langi.
Practice squad: Christian Sam.
Analysis: We’ll quote Dennis Eckersley to describe this group: “Yuck.” Hightower is back, though he’s more of a defensive end and pass rusher at this point. Van Noy will be the middle linebacker and play communicator. But it’s basically a toss-up after those two.
One name you’ll notice I don’t include is Elandon Roberts, the third-year linebacker who played 676 snaps last year including the postseason (52.9 percent). I have Roberts as one of my surprise cuts because (A) he’s terrible in pass coverage, (B) he consistently shoots the wrong gap or overruns a play, and (C) when given the chance to play significant snaps last year, he struggled.
The Patriots also re-signed Flowers and drafted two linebackers in Bentley and Sam, which tells me they are trying to upgrade the position. Grigsby and Langi hit hard and can take Roberts’s place on special teams.
But this position is wide open, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots try to upgrade it around roster cutdowns.
■ Defensive back (9): Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Duke Dawson, Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards.
PUP: Cyrus Jones.
Practice squad: Ryan Lewis, Keion Crossen.
Analysis: One prominent name that’s missing: Jason McCourty. Even though McCourty is listed as a starter on the initial depth chart, the 10-year veteran and first-time Patriot is my No. 1 surprise cut candidate.
Despite what the depth chart says, Gilmore and Rowe have been working almost exclusively as the top outside cornerbacks. Dawson, the second-round pick, is the slot cornerback. Jonathan Jones played 35 percent of snaps last year and could see an uptick after Malcolm Butler’s departure.
That leaves McCourty battling with a host of youngsters for the fifth cornerback spot. It’s not that McCourty can’t still play, he just has a lot working against him — a $3 million salary with no dead money and age. (He turns 31 next week.)
Young guys Jackson, Lewis, and Crossen are all making league minimum, have fresher legs, and offer Butler-like upside. Jackson has had a really nice start to camp and has NFL talent, but went undrafted because of off-field issues at Florida and Maryland.
It’s worth keeping McCourty until the end of camp for depth purposes. Jonathan Jones starts the season on PUP with an ankle injury, and his availability is unclear. But if he can come back and everyone else stays healthy, I have McCourty getting squeezed out.
I also think the Patriots should keep Cyrus Jones as long as possible and give him another chance. He was talented enough to be a second-round pick in 2016, and while his rookie year was disappointing, his chance at redemption was ruined last year by a torn ACL in August. They can start him on PUP for the first six weeks and see how he develops before deciding on his future.
At safety, the only question is Richards, and I have him cracking the 53 one last time because of his special teams contributions.
Special teams – 6 players
■ Core special teamers (3): Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King.
■ Specialists (3): K Stephen Gostkowski, P Corey Bojorquez, LS Joe Cardona.
Analysis: If Ebner remains on PUP for the start of the season, it opens a roster spot elsewhere — another receiver or linebacker, for example. The other competition is at punter, where we have the rookie, Bojorquez, unseating the incumbent, Ryan Allen, who is in the last year of his contract.
Bojorquez has the stronger leg, and booms his punts higher and farther than Allen, with more hang time. Bojorquez is also a lot cheaper, set to make $465,000 compared with $1.5 million for Allen. Of course, there’s more to punting than just bombing away, especially for the Patriots, who often punt around midfield and require more precision than distance.
So while Borjorquez may have a leg up, let’s see how he does with his situational punting in preseason games.