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Projecting the Patriots’ 53-man roster: How will depth issues affect things?

Riley McCarron has been returning punts this preseason, which is a good sign for him. Charles Krupa/AP

The Patriots survived the preseason this time.

No Julian Edelman tearing his ACL like last year. The essential starters — Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Dont’a Hightower, Stephen Gilmore, and others — emerged unscathed. There is still one more preseason game to go, Thursday night against the Giants, but few players of significance will see the field.

But the Patriots weren’t bulletproof, either. First-round pick Isaiah Wynn is out for the year with a torn Achilles’ tendon, opening a roster spot, and not necessarily for an offensive lineman. And a handful of key players — Marcus Cannon, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and Trey Flowers — missed the last several weeks of practice, leaving their status unclear for the start of the season.


Most of the roster spots are set in stone at this point, but injuries and depth issues could have coach Bill Belichick going a million different ways with his final few spots. There is also a good possibility that the final spots will be given to players currently not in New England. Last year, the Patriots added four players via trade at the roster deadline.

The Patriots must cut down from 90 to 53 players by Saturday at 4 p.m. Here’s our final crack at a roster projection:

OFFENSE (24 players)

■  Quarterback (2): Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer.

Practice squad: Danny Etling.

Analysis: Not much to discuss here. Etling didn’t play in the third preseason game, a telltale sign he won’t make the active roster. But he could be a useful arm to run the scout team each week.

■ Running back (6): Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Jeremy Hill, Brandon Bolden, James Develin.

Analysis: Both Burkhead and Michel are expected back for the regular season, leaving just one spot between Hill and Mike Gillislee. Hill has been the more impressive runner and has been getting reps ahead of Gillislee for most of camp. The Patriots will likely look to trade Gillislee, and if they can’t get a late-round pick for him, will likely just cut him loose, with no salary-cap penalty.


■  Tight end (3): Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister.

Practice squad: Ryan Izzo.

Analysis: This is an interesting position to monitor because of injuries elsewhere, and I see multiple scenarios where the Patriots keep a fourth tight end.

Injuries to Wynn and Cannon have left the Patriots thin at offensive tackle, so I could see the rookie Izzo sticking on the 53-man roster for extra blocking help (though he missed the last week of practice and Friday’s game, which isn’t a good sign). I also could see Will Tye, more of an H-back type of tight end, making the team given the injuries and lack of depth at wide receiver.

For now, we spent the 53rd roster spot elsewhere, but it could easily go to a fourth tight end.

■ Wide receiver (4): Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, Riley McCarron.

Suspended: Julian Edelman.

Practice squad: Devin Lucien.

Analysis: The receivers keep dropping like flies — Jordan Matthews, then Malcolm Mitchell, then Kenny Britt, and now Eric Decker. Hogan, Dorsett, and Patterson are locks, and it’s possible the Patriots go with only three receivers during Edelman’s suspension.

But considering Patterson isn’t a true wide receiver, the Patriots need an extra body at the position. They should be active in the trade market this week, and acquiring a wide receiver would hardly be a surprise.


But for now, we go with McCarron, who took some snaps with the first-team offense in Friday’s game. He can be an Edelman replacement in the slot, and Belichick has given him several shots at returning punts, which is often a good sign.

McCarron might not last the whole season, but I have the Patriots giving him a shot early on.

■ Offensive line (9): Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle, Ulrick John, Matt Tobin, Ted Karras.

Practice squad: James Ferentz, Cole Croston.

Analysis: Wynn’s injury is someone else’s opportunity, but it definitely hurts the depth on the offensive line, as he would have been a backup to every position but center. With Cannon also banged up, and Brown unproven at left tackle, the Patriots suddenly have a tackle issue.

So here’s betting they just throw numbers at the problem, keeping five on the active roster: Brown, Cannon, Waddle, John, and Tobin. John was first off the bench at right tackle Friday night, and Tobin was first off the bench at left tackle.

One roster spot also likely will come down to Karras vs. veteran Brian Schwenke, and we have Karras, with his two years in the Patriots system, coming out on top.

DEFENSE (23 players)

■ Defensive line (9): Trey Flowers, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise, Malcom Brown, Derek Rivers, Adam Butler, Keionta Davis.


Practice squad: Vincent Valentine.

Analysis: Flowers, Guy, Shelton, Clayborn, Wise, and Rivers are locks. Brown could be a surprise cut or trade, given he’s in the last year of his contract, but I believe the Patriots will keep him as important depth up the middle.

Butler followed up a solid rookie season with a good camp, is cheap, and can play inside or outside.

The final spot comes down to Davis vs. Valentine, and we took Davis, the young pass rusher with upside, over Valentine, who is really more of a first-down and goal line player.

The Patriots like to keep four defensive tackles on the roster, but Butler can fill that role behind Shelton, Guy, and Brown.

Valentine, who missed all of last year with an injury, still has practice squad eligibility.

■  Linebacker (5): Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Nicholas Grigsby, Marquis Flowers.

Practice squad: Christian Sam, Harvey Langi.

Analysis: Our top choice for a surprise cut or trade right now is linebacker Elandon Roberts.

Bentley has emerged as a promising young ballhawk, and Grigsby and Flowers are special teams stalwarts, leaving little room for Roberts on the 53.

He still has practice squad eligibility, but the Patriots might be able to fetch a mid-round draft pick.

You have to feel for Langi, whose chances of making the team likely dwindled with the freak internal injury he suffered a few weeks ago.


■  Cornerbacks (5): Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson.

Practice squad: Keion Crossen.

Analysis: The top three seem entrenched, with Gilmore and Rowe on the outside and Jones as the slot cornerback. Dawson, the second-round pick, is safe. That likely leaves only one spot for several youngsters and Jason McCourty.

Jackson has been a standout throughout camp, and will continue the Patriots’ streak of keeping at least one undrafted free agent for the 15th year in a row. McCourty playing safety in Friday night’s game was an intriguing development, and caused us to consider the possibility of the Patriots keeping him as an all-purpose defensive back. But the Patriots have bigger needs elsewhere on the roster.

■ Safety (4): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards.

Practice squad: Damarius Travis.

Analysis: The only real question is Richards, and Belichick has always loved his special teams abilities. The Patriots may not re-sign Richards after this season, but he’ll return for one more year to play special teams and back up Chung.

SPECIAL TEAMS (6 players)

■  Core special teamers (3): Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King.

■  Specialists (3): K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, LS Joe Cardona.

Analysis: The only real question is at punter, and the fact that Allen has taken every single punt in the preseason tells us all we need to know. It’s possible that Belichick wants to sneak rookie punter Corey Bojorquez onto the practice squad, but I’m not sure about wasting one of those 10 spots on a punter who can be signed away by another team at any time.

Ben Volin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.