The New England Patriots' 2015 spring offseason training program is over. The team held 10 organized team activity practices and two minicamp sessions and now heads off to a six-week period of rest, off-field work and – in Bill Belichick's case – fishing on Nantucket.
With this being the slowest few weeks of the NFL calendar (except for next week, when a certain future Hall of Famer is fighting against the evil powers of Park Ave.), it is time to take a step back and analyze which players the New England Patriots currently have employed. Of course, it is impossible to properly evaluate the team after two practice series – one of them voluntary – without live contact, but the first pieces of the picture that will be the 2015 Patriots seem to be in place.
Overall, 88 men are currently (as of 6/20, 7:00 am ET) on the team's roster and most, if not all of them, will still be when training camp starts in late July. Look for the Patriots to add two more players to enter training camp with 90 under contract.
Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Flynn
The Patriots are in good shape at the most important offensive position. Brady, who looked great during minicamp, is the clear-cut starter, while Garoppolo is a talented back-up and Flynn an experienced third option, who still has to learn the team's playbook, though. At this point, Brady and Garoppolo are locks to make the final 53-man roster, while Flynn's best chance is if Brady is suspended for the start of the regular season (personal note: I believe that Brady will be the team's starting quarterback on opening day and won't miss any time in 2015 due to a suspension).
Running Back (8)
LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, James Develin (FB), James White, Jonas Gray, Tyler Gaffney, Dion Lewis, Travaris Cadet
After neither adding a running back through the draft nor via free agency, the current position depth chart creates more questions than answers. However, it seems as if a couple of players have a better shot at making the team's roster than others: Blount due to his experience, Bolden due to his special teams work and Develin due to his versatility. The rest seems to fight for two, maybe three spots. Another workhorse running back will be needed, as will be a third down back.
The team already seems to have the players on its roster to fill those needs. According to media reports, James White has had a good minicamp and could be the front runner to replace Shane Vereen as the team's third down back, while Dion Lewis drew praise from Bill Belichick. Time will tell if those two can build on this apparent momentum during training camp.
Wide Receiver (10)
Julian Edelman , Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Matthew Slater, Aaron Dobson, Brian Tyms, Brandon Gibson, Josh Boyce, Jonathan Krause, Chris Harper
Edelman, LaFell and Amendola sit atop the wide receiver depth chart and as of now should be considered roster locks. The trio has earned Brady's trust last year and will look to improve upon a very solid 2014 campaign. Slater as well is a lock to make the team, due to being one of the best special teamers in the league. Where things get interesting is further down the depth chart.
With LaFell out due to what looks like a foot injury, Dobson and Tyms – likely fighting for the same job – have seen more reps recently. Dobson worked primarily with Tom Brady (in a group also often consisting of Amendola and tight end Scott Chandler), while Tyms worked with Garoppolo, Edelman and Gronkowski.
The rest of the currently employed wideouts will fight for a maximum of one spot. As has been the case in the past, special teams work might be the deciding factor whether a player does or does not make the team (for instance, Krause took some reps as a punt returner and Boyce has a brief history of being the Patriots' kick-off return man).
Tight End (6)
Rob Gronkowksi, Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui, A.J. Derby, Jimmay Mundine, Jake Bequette
Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the game. The rest of the Patriots depth at the position does not look shabby either, even after cutting Tim Wright, Fred Davis and Logan Stokes. Scott Chandler, who missed the second minicamp session due to injury, projects to be Gronkowski's top back up and at 6'7'' looks like an intriguing target not only in the red zone but the middle of the field as well. Michael Hoomanawanui, primarily a blocking tight end, could face some competition for the roster spot he has held the last three years but for now looks like New England's number three tight end.
While it will be interesting to see how former defensive end Jake Bequette develops as a tight end and how the rookie Derby, who did not practice during the offseason workout program, will look like come training camp, one player should not be forgotten: Jimmay Mundine. Signed after Wright's release, he is a player whose athleticism and versatility appeal the coaching staff and who might turn some heads come July and August.
Offensive Tackle (5)
Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming, Kevin Hughes
The Patriots have good depth at the offensive tackle position, with Solder and Vollmer leading the way. Cannon and Fleming are the top back-ups. Both have shown some versatility in the past and, as soon as pads are put on, will likely get some work on both sides of the offensive line and possibly even at tight end (Fleming, for instance, was a tackle eligible at times last year). Hughes, as of today, projects as a depth option with little chance to make the 53-man roster.
Interior Offensive Line (9)
Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, Tre' Jackson, Josh Kline, Shaq Mason, Jordan Devey, Caylin Hauptmann, Chris Barker, David Andrews
Only one position along the interior offensive line is set in stone: Bryan Stork's center spot. The rest is in flux because a) last year's starting left guard Dan Connolly – whose number 63 was given to rookie Tre' Jackson (for what it's worth) – is still a free agent and b) it is impossible to project how the rookies will look like once the pads are put on. Right now, it looks as if Wendell, who missed minicamp, is still on the inside track to earn one of the starting guard spots due to his experience, while Jackson, Kline and Mason (in order of likeliness to succeed) fight for the other. For a more thorough analysis of the guard competition, click here.
Defensive Tackle (9)
Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Chris Jones, Zach Moore, Joe Vellano, Antonio Johnson, Vince Taylor
After Vince Wilfork's contract option was not exercised by the Patriots and he subsequently signed with the Houston Texans, the defensive tackles might not be an overly experienced group but they are a deep one; particularly after New England spent a first round pick on Malcom Brown. Brown, Easley and Siliga, who was absent during minicamp, are roster locks and project to be in the team's long-term plans.
When analyzing who has the best chances to join those three on the roster, one thing has to be kept in mind: only once in the last five years did the Patriots carry more than five defensive tackles on their opening day roster (2010). Right now, Jones and Branch seem like the frontrunners, with former defensive end Moore being a dark-horse candidate to steal a spot.
Defensive End (7)
Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers, Xzavier Dickson, Rufus Johnson
The addition of Sheard gives the Patriots three quality edge defenders and allows the coaching staff to a) give starters Jones and Ninkovich some rest – a luxury the team did not have the last couple of years – and b) use the scheme to take advantage of the group's pass-rushing ability in order to help the revamped secondary.
While Jones, Ninkovich and Sheard are a formidable trio on the outside, rookies Grissom, Flowers and Dickson offer youth and upside. The versatile Grissom in particular feels like an intriguing option, who could see time both on and off the line of scrimmage once training camp arrives (similar to Dont'a Hightower's first training camp in Foxboro).
Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, Dane Fletcher, Chris White, Darius Fleming, James Morris, Matt Wells, Dekoda Watson, Jonathan Freeny, Eric Martin, D.J. Lynch
Another deep position group, the linebackers will be interesting to watch in six weeks. The undisputed top three – Hightower, Collins and Mayo – all missed minicamp; with Hightower and Mayo coming off injury. Their rehabilitation process needs to be watched closely as it might help some others further down the depth chart get some reps with the top defensive unit.
One name to keep in mind is James Morris. The second-year player out of Iowa was on his way to earn a roster spot last year until he tore his ACL in the team's final preseason game. He appears to be back to full strength now and will look to build upon a strong 2014 training camp.
Overall, the Patriots' front seven looks as deep as it has in recent memory, with only a few spots available at each position. Once live tackling is allowed, we will get a clearer picture of who is on the inside track to join Ninkovich, Collins and company on the 53-man roster.
Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain, Darryl Roberts, Jimmy Jean, Daxton Swanson, Justin Green, Derek Cox
After the Great Cornerback Exodus of '15, Logan Ryan is now the longest-tenured cornerback on the Patriots' roster. Not only that, but he also seems to have separated himself from the rest of the pack during OTAs and minicamp and, as of now, looks like a starter. He is not the only player to stand out the last couple of weeks, as Malcolm Butler and Darryl Roberts also looked good.
Butler, who missed most of OTAs, was thrown right back into the mix and fared well against assignments like Julian "the toughest cover in the league" Edelman. It has to be seen if Butler will be able to build upon his solid minicamp outing to earn one of the starting roles. Meanwhile, Roberts, the seventh round rookie out of Marshall, also made an impression (at least on the media members) and as things stand today should be considered the fifth option at the cornerback position.
The cornerbacks are tough to predict. Right now, it seems as if Butler and Ryan are the 1-2 punch at the position, with Fletcher not far behind and McClain the top option to play in the slot. A lot can change during training camp, however, and we might see someone currently further down the depth chart become a valuable contributor.
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Brandon King
While one half of the secondary – the above mentioned cornerbacks – faces questions from top to bottom, the other half does not. McCourty is one of the best free safeties in the game and Chung, ever since returning from his one-year stint with the Eagles, has found a nice niche as well. The uncertainty surrounding the cornerback position, however, might cause a change in primary coverage scheme and thus a change of responsibilities for the safeties.
McCourty has the talent, vision and quickness to potentially excel in any scheme, so he will be fine should the Patriots decide to switch to more cover 2 zone-looks than last year. If that be the case, Harmon could see an increased workload as the other deep safety alongside McCourty, while Chung and Richards play closer to the line of scrimmage, should the team change its coverage looks.
Of course, this is all still up in the air and spring practices did not allow us to get a clearer view of how the safety depth chart will look like behind McCourty. As of now, McCourty, Chung, Harmon and Richards are locks to make the team's 53-man roster. Wilson and Ebner, on the other hand, project to fight for their roster lives come training camp.
Stephen Gostkowksi (K), Ryan Allen (P/H), Joe Cardona (LS)
Unless something unpredictable happens, those three men will be the Patriots' specialists in 2015. Gostkowski is arguably the best kicker in the game (and thus should not be affected by the change of the extra-point procedure), while Allen is one of the league's bright young punters. Cardona, after being cleared by the Navy, takes over Danny Aiken's old spot as the longer snapper.
While the three are firmly entrenched as the starters at this point in time, it would be no surprise if the Patriots' add more specialists to a) keep Gostkowksi's and Allen's kicking legs fresh and b) push the rookie Cardona a little bit.
Until the start of training camp, we won't see the 2015 version of the New England Patriots on a football field. Most (if not all) of the men listed above will then fight for the right to earn a spot on the team's 53-man roster and a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions (or, in the case of Caylin Hauptmann, three-peat).