Ten days from today the New England Patriots will have to cut down their roster to 75 players; four days after that the roster must be reduced to 53. But it didn't get any easier to predict the Patriots' final 53 after last night's 25-21 preseason victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Regardless, here is my attempt at projecting the roster:
Quarterback (3): Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Tim Tebow
It's a shame that Tim Tebow isn't eligible for the practice squad because he would be perfect to have there. The fact he brings so much value in practice when preparing for teams that have running quarterbacks or use the read-option make him worth of a roster spot. All I know is the Patriots are lucky to have the great Tom Brady as their starting quarterback.
Running Back (5): Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Leon Washington
The Patriots carried five running backs in 2011 and I expect them to do it again this year. Ridley, Vereen, and Washington are locks but Bolden and Blount are far too valuable to cut. Keeping both creates a roster spot casualty on the other end of the ball. The best-case scenario is that the Patriots are able to deal Bolden or Blount for a draft pick next year.
Fullback (1): James Develin
I know I'm in the minority here but after watching over three weeks of training camp practices and his preseason performance against Tampa Bay, I am convinced that Develin deserves a spot on the roster. He blocks well and appears to be a good short-yardage back, something offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels places a lot of value on.
Tight End (3): Rob Gronkowski, Zach Sudfeld, Jake Ballard
Michael Hoomanawanui is a tough cut but the emergence of Develin and Sudfeld make him expendable. I cut Daniel Fells over Jake Ballard here, but it really is a toss up. I don't think Gronk starts the year on the PUP, but if he does then I would put Fells on the roster.
Wide Receiver (6): Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater
As far as I am concerned, these six are set in stone. Amendola, Edelman, and Boyce are your Y's and Z's, Thompkins can play both the X and Z, Dobson is an X, and Matthew Slater is your stud on every single special teams unit.
Offensive Line (7): Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer, Will Svitek, Marcus Cannon
Most NFL teams would carry eight offensive linemen, but the versatility of Dan Connolly, Will Svitek, and Marcus Cannon make carrying only seven doable. Connolly can play both interior positions; Svitek and Cannon can line up at guard or tackle.
Defensive End (5): Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Marcus Benard, Justin Francis, Michael Buchanan
Jake Bequette has not proven he deserves a roster spot over Buchanan, who is very raw but has more upside. Jermaine Cunningham is another tough cut but Benard looks like he could potentially do everything he does and more...plus he can actually stay healthy.
Defensive Tackle (3): Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Marcus Forston, Armond Armstead (PUP)
Wilfork and Kelly are locks. I think Armstead starts the season on the physically unable to perform list, forcing players like Benard to spend some time at defensive tackle early in the year.
Linebacker (6): Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher, Steve Beauharnais
Mayo, Hightower, Spikes, and Collins are locks. Fletcher has looked great in preseason as a reserve and is always a very good player on special teams. Beauharnais just sneaks onto this roster because he seems like the type of player Bill Belichick likes at the middle linebacker position.
Cornerback (6): Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Marquice Cole, Ras-I Dowling
Even though Dowling can't stay on the field, it's far too early to cut him from the roster. He has upside and could be a very effective player if he stays healthy. Cole has had a solid summer on both defense and special teams.
Safety (5): Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner is a very hard cut for me because I love what he brings on special teams, especially the kickoff unit. Both Wilson and Harmon can play well on special teams but have much higher upside than Ebner at safety.
Special Teams (3): Stephen Gostkowski, Danny Aiken, Zoltan Mesko
No surprises here. Ryan Allen got off to a terrific start at camp but has taken a step back the past week. I think Zoltan has his spot locked up unless Allen turns things around drastically next week.
Both defensive ends are by far the hardest cuts for me. I think they have talent but they haven't shown enough to warrant keeping them. If Marcus Benard slips in practice next week and Cunningham or Bequette step up, I bet they steal the spot from him.
Practice Squad Candidates:
Some of these players would likely receive offers to be on another team's 53-man roster, most notably Ryan Allen, Jake Bequette, and Markus Zusevics; but I would hope a fair amount of these guys are on the Patriots' eight-player practice squad.