Change is the only constant in life, and nowhere is that truer than an NFL roster. Patriots coach Bill Belichick will be doing a lot of roster maneuvering and managing from here to Super Bowl Sunday. The tweaking of the S.S. Belichick manifest never stops. But now that the Patriots cleared their roster clutter Saturday to form their initial 53-man roster, it’s a good time to cut loose with some thoughts on the post-cut-down day roster composition.
■ Belichick left the door open Sunday to a return for veteran backup quarterback Brian Hoyer this season, assuming Hoyer decides not to hook on with another team. Given their roster crunch and the stars-in-the-eyes look the organization has for rookie Jarrett Stidham, it wasn’t surprising that the Patriots tabbed Stidham as Tom Brady’s sole backup. Still, it’s a bit dangerous when considering the rest of the win-now roster composition. In a Brady emergency, the difference between Hoyer and Stidham could be the difference between getting a first-round bye or not. Hoyer could definitely keep the Patriots afloat for four or five games in Brady’s absence with a 3-1 or 4-1 mark.
Stidham is more of an unknown, and his learning curve under center could cost New England an all-important first-round bye in a similar scenario. The Belichick Era Patriots have never made the Super Bowl without the benefit of a bye. Hence, the Hoodie leaving the light on for Hoyer.
■ With the Patriots it’s often about the bigger picture. Hoyer was collateral damage in the tug of war between Brady and Belichick for top billing in the Patriots’ long-running dynasty. Belichick thought he found Brady’s heir apparent once with Jimmy Garoppolo. If he can do it with Stidham and the organization wins with Stidham — either with Belichick as the coach or with Belichick’s successor — then the arrow on history’s gauge ticks in Belichick’s direction. Never underestimate the importance of this. It’s the undercurrent of the organization, especially with Brady playing on a reworked final year that precludes the Patriots from using the franchise tag on him after this season. That’s why we’ve been force-fed Stidham.
■ It’s a necessity that the departure of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is temporary. Here’s hoping Thomas, who was released Saturday, was merely asked to run a quick out for roster-juggling purposes. There was a predictable overreaction to Thomas’s performance in the fourth preseason game (7 catches for 87 yards and a touchdown), going against corners with AAF and CFL pedigrees. But I look at Josh Gordon and Thomas as a wide receiver handcuff — to borrow a fantasy football term. They’re a package deal because the odds of both men making it through an entire 16-game season don’t seem high, given Gordon’s history and Thomas’s pair of torn Achilles.
Like Hoyer, Thomas is a vested veteran. He’s not subject to waivers. He can select his team. If Thomas were to sign elsewhere, and Gordon was suspended again, the Patriots’ non-Julian Edelman options would be Phillip Dorsett and three rookies (N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, and Gunner Olszewski).
Perhaps, the Patriots harbor hopes for wideout Cameron Meredith, who started the season on the reserve/PUP list and must miss the first six weeks of the season. But Meredith flamed out in New Orleans and hasn’t been the same since he tore his left ACL playing for the Chicago Bears during the 2017 preseason.
■ One of the biggest disappointments of the preseason was the play of rookie guard Hjalte Froholdt. Even before Froholdt landed on injured reserve after hurting his shoulder in the final preseason game, the Patriots, disenchanted with his play, felt compelled to trade for a pair of offensive linemen, Jermaine Eluemunor and Korey Cunningham. This depth was required in the wake of starting center David Andrews being hospitalized with blood clots in his lungs that ended his season.
A fourth-round pick, Froholdt was touted as someone who could compete in the NFL right away and inspire cool “Game of Thrones” references; now he’s referred to as “a project” after lasting about as long as Ned Stark. Patriots right guard Shaq Mason, who came from a triple-option college offense, was also a fourth-round pick. He started 10 games as a rookie in 2015. The Patriots had to surrender a 2020 fourth-rounder to pick up Eluemunor along with a Baltimore sixth-rounder.
■ You can’t help but root for Olszewski, the jack of all trades and Julian Edelman clone from Division 2 Bemidji State. His surprise inclusion on the roster, after initially being informed he was cut, is one of those goose-bump feel-good stories that makes following sports rewarding. But there had to be a better way to keep the converted cornerback as a wideout/punt returner than dealing cornerback Keion Crossen to Houston.
It might have made more sense to part with a vested veteran like special teamer Nate Ebner, who would have been just parked in Foxborough for a few days before his inevitable return. I don’t get the fascination with safety Obi Melifonwu, a surprising member of the 53. Melifonwu’s eye-popping measurables and athleticism haven’t translated to production, and safety is one of the deepest positions on the team.
Crossen was excellent on special teams — important in the wake of the loss of special teams ace Brandon King — and was a capable cornerback. Removing him from the roster feels like a high price to pay to keep Olszewski. But the Patriots love reveling in their diamonds in the rough, basking in their own reflected genius.
■ Keeping with the cornerback theme, you can question the wisdom of trading both Crossen and 2018 second-round pick Duke Dawson, especially when you look ahead to 2020. The Patriots should be fine without them this season with a talented collection of corners. However, long-term this could prove to be questionable asset management.
Slot cornerback Jonathan Jones is eligible for free agency after this season. The other corner capable of playing the slot, Jason McCourty, is in his 11th season. The Patriots hold a 2020 option for him at $2.65 million. But he could decide to go off into the sunset with twin brother Devin after this season. Devin is in the final year of his contract and broached retirement at the Super Bowl.
So, it would have made sense to keep one of Crossen or Dawson around this year for further development and future insurance.
■ Dawson goes into the dustbin of dubious defensive back selections for the Patriots in the second round. There is a notion that Dawson was undone primarily by the team’s copious depth at cornerback. But what’s more telling is that when the Patriots auctioned him off, the best they could do for a guy taken in the second round was a sixth-round pick from the Denver Broncos. The Patriots had to attach a seventh with Dawson just to get that. That’s horrendous value for a second-round pick for a team that worships at the altar of value.
Every team misses on draft picks, sometimes badly. The draft is an inexact science. But second-round picks are a valuable commodity in the NFL, burning them this badly and this quickly is bad business. At such a low price, the Patriots probably should have just held on to Dawson and tried to coax out his talent. Even Cyrus Jones got more slack than the Duke of Devaluation.