Patriots Bubble Watch: Final Battles

Thank you, Trevor Scott, for the excuse to post a picture of Patriots cheerladers. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Why oh why do the Patriots have to play the Giants every single preseason?

Most of the time I don't mind; it's the most meaningless game of an already meaningless preseason, the Pats and Giants rarely play each other, and there's something to be said for tradition. This year, though, the thought of watching the Pats play the Giants makes me nauseous, even if this game is little more than a battle of the backups. Luckily for me, tonight's game is airing live on NFL Network, which means there's no way that there will be any comparisons whatsoever to certain events that may or may not have transpired this past February. Just straight up reporting with no spin whatsoever, right?

Right?

Or maybe I'll get lucky and the game will be blacked out in my area so one of New York's local cable channels can air it, leading into the game with highlights of ridiculous catches, once-in-a-season drops, and Eli Manning's saggy, yokel face hoisting the Lombardi trophy. Should be a wonderful night at the Shane household this evening.

To make matters worse, tonight's game is pretty much nothing more than a frantic scramble by bubble players everywhere to make one final case for why they belong on their respective teams. Odds are if you're still on the field after halftime of preseason Week 4, you better pack your bags. And maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age, but I find watching an insignificant game played by desperate men trying to hold onto their dreams of playing professional football only slightly more enjoyable than listening to the girlfriend give me a recap of last night's episode of Pretty Little Liars.

However, I have a job to do, and tonight will be our last opportunity to take a look at some of the Patriots players on the bubble as the final round of cuts approaches. Most of the guys on my list are repeat offenders by this point, as the team has been whittling players down all week and odds are that the coaching staff has all but a handful of roster slots locked in by now. What I thought I'd do for this last edition of Patriots Bubble Watch is look at the positional battles that I think will ultimately decide who stays and who goes, and then come back tomorrow with who I think won the day.

Eric Kettani vs. Brandon Bolden. I'm hesitant to group these two together, as they aren't technically fighting for the same job, and as the only fullback left standing, Kettani is a lock to make the team if the Patriots do decide to keep a fullback. At this point, however, I don't know if a pure fullback is in their offensive gameplan, and furthermore I don't know if Kettani has enough NFL experience to be the guy back there just yet. As for Bolden, he has had a pretty good preseason, but there are only so many carries to go around, and with Ridley, Vereen, Woodhead, and Demps all fairly certain to make the team, it might not make sense to keep Bolden around. While having five backs is definitely not out of the question, keeping six probably is, and so at least one of these two players is going to be let go in hopes of making the practice squad. The obvious concern is that both have displayed enough ability so far that another team snatches them up before the Pats have a chance to reclaim them. I think of the two, Bolden has more value to other teams, so the team may risk cutting Kettani with the intention of signing him to the practice squad as soon as he clears waivers.

Trevor Scott vs. Justin Francis. This is an Apollo Creed vs. Rocky Balboa matchup if I ever saw one: proven veteran going up against an undrafted rookie. Scott, now making his third appearance on my bubble watch series, has impressed at almost every turn, and at this point seems like a relative roster lock. Don't count out Francis, though; many would argue that he has been the third best end in camp this season, and Francis clearly has youth on his side. With Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich set to start as the edge rushers, who the first man off the bench is remains to be seen. Again, all signs point to Scott, with Francis a prime practice squad candidate, but this is definitely a scenario where a monster game from Francis tonight makes him one of the surprises on the final roster.

Marquice Cole vs. Alfonzo Dennard. Experience or potential? Knowledge or ability? What do the coaches value more? Cole has been one of the better acquisitions this team has made over the offseason; he has played very well so far and seems poised to be this team's nickel and dime corner. Dennard, on the other hand, hasn't seen the field much, in practice or in game situations, and so how much value he'll be able to bring to the team this season is a huge question mark. Ideally, Dennard is best suited for a red shirt year so he can get a full year of experience under him and come back next year healthy, free of legal problems, and ready to make an impact. However, Dennard isn't likely to clear waivers, so shooting for the practice squad is a huge risk. He also may not be willing to be placed on IR if he feels he can make a more immediate contribution elsewhere. Whether or not to keep Dennard is probably one of the more difficult decisions the coaches will have to make over the next few days, especially with the way Cole has been playing as of late. Of course, they can always opt to keep them both and cut Sterling Moore instead, but I don't really see that happening either.

Dan Connolly vs. Dan Koppen. There are a whole lot of moving parts surrounding this battle, the biggest of which being Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters. If Waters does come back (come on, Waters...COME BACK!!!), then the Connolly vs. Koppen scenario becomes a lot more interesting. Unlike Connolly, Koppen is a center and a center alone, which means he may become expendable if Belichick decides the more versatile linemen are the way to go. Connolly filled in admirably last year, but I'd still argue that Koppen is the better center, and if Tom Brady had his way, he'd go back to Koppen. - assuming he can return to 2010 form. That's a big if, and so Koppen needs to show this team why he deserves having Tommy B touching his ample backside. Of course, this might all be a moot point if Waters does in fact retire, as Connolly will slide over to guard and open the center slot up for Koppen, with Ryan Wendell and his awesome mustache as the primary backup. But seeing as how there definitely won't be any Waters tonight, what happens at center is something to keep an eye on.

Jeff Tarpinian vs. Tracy White. This is a fairly one-way battle, as the odds of White even seeing the field tonight are slim as he continued to nurse his injury. However, White's value on special teams last year, combined with Dane Fletcher's injury earlier this preseason, may give him the edge over Tarpinian anyway. Tonight's game may be Tarpinian's final opportunity to prove he can be a contributor on defensive sub packages and useful on special teams. While the two are somewhat comparable as linebackers, White is definitely more effective on special teams, and so Tarpinian might already be on his way out the door regardless of how he plays tonight. Plus, unlike White, Tarpinian is still practice squad eligible, which means the Patriots can always bring him back if he clears waivers (which I think he should). If they were to release White, however, he's gone.

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