With the final preseason game out of the way, it's time for final roster cutdowns as the Patriots prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday. We know that Tom Brady will be starting that game as well as most of the starting offense. The starting defense should be at full strength as well. Other than James Develin breaking a leg, the Patriots came out of the preseason relatively intact and no major injuries to key players.
QB (2)- Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo
With Tom Brady fighting off his unfair suspension, he is available for the first four games of the year. That means that the team will likely release Ryan Lindley. Garoppolo had a strong preseason outing against the Saints and the Panthers, which gives more optimism that he could be a starter down the road. I expect these two to be the only active roster QB for this year and next.
RB (4)- Dion Lewis, Jonas Gray, James White, Brandon Bolden
I'm not sure what the situation surrounding Travaris Cadet is. He did not play the final preseason game, which means he's either injured or he's a lock to make the roster. With what Lewis and White bring to the table, Cadet isn't really an IR-Designated to Return candidate. For Week 1, the Patriots will be without Blount when he and Le'Veon Bell (also suspended for Week 1) were pulled over and arrested for smoking blunts last year. That means the Patriots will have to fill that void with Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray. Dion Lewis has been a productive RB in spurts for Philadelphia, but was never healthy for any significant duration. Hopefully the trend changes this year, because he was fantastic against the Saints in the 2nd preseason game. James White should make the team because of his ability to make people miss and his deficiencies are easily fixable with strong coaching from Coach Fears. Blount should return in Week 2, but these four should be on the roster all year.
WR (6)- Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Reggie Wayne, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Matthew Slater
This is really five receivers, since Slater doesn't exactly count. I don't know what LaFell's availability for Week 1 is, so the team should keep an extra receiver. I think that Edelman and Wayne will start the first game with Dobson and Amendola timesharing the 3rd receiver role. When LaFell returns, that may or may not be the end for Aaron Dobson. However, Dobson has always been a tease and needs to put more consistency on the field moving forward. The first month of the year is essentially a 2nd preseason with a 53-man roster instead of 90, and he needs to prove that he's the solution and not a bust. The Patriots receiving corps is relatively intact and should be on track in Week 1.
TE (4)- Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui, Michael Williams
With James Develin out for the year, one of these guys will take on the fullback role. It will either be the OT/TE hybrid Williams or the mediocre, yet versatile Hooman. My early bets will be Hooman since he took on that role in 2012 and has more experience in the offense. The top two TEs, Gronk and Chandler should be a nightmare for defensive coordinators when the offense reaches the red zone. Both are 6'6" with above average movement skills and great hands. I think we'll see the return of the 2 TE set we only got to see in 2011 because of awful circumstances to Gronk and stupid decision making by Aaron Hernandez. While the personnel won't be as prolific as it was in 2011, it will be more frequent than 2014.
OL (9)- Nate Solder, Shaq Mason, Bryan Stork, Tre Jackson, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming, David Andrews
I have the Patriots carrying 9 offensive lineman for Week 1 because of the LeGarrette Blount suspension and Marcus Cannon's availability in question. The top five listed in this group will be the starting offensive line against the Steelers in all likelihoods with Wendell and Fleming as the top backups. I think Andrews will end up being cut when Blount returns and should be able to reach the practice squad in case of an injury to Mason, Stork, or Jackson. The Patriots will likely dress 7 OL for the first game, possibly 8 when Cannon is able to go. The reason I don't have Cannon cut outright is because he's the only OT backup that has experience at both LT and RT. I would not feel comfortable with Fleming at LT given his struggles at both RT and RG.
DL (10)- Chandler Jones, Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley, Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, Alan Branch, Rufus Johnson
With the way that Rufus Johnson played this preseason, I simply felt that the Patriots would lose him if they cut him. While I think that the team will likely dress 7 defensive lineman, possibly 8 given the depth at the position, I would not be surprised if they carry 10 defensive linemen in order to keep Johnson on the roster. Over the course of the preseason, I believe that Sheard will replace Nink in the starting lineup at the strong-side defensive end spot because of youth and a stronger skill set. Nink will still contribute because the team will be rotating Sheard, Jones, and Nink among the defensive end spots. It should be interesting if Flowers will play since doesn't offer much special teams value, but has the makings to be a very successful player in the future. If the Patriots carry 10 DL, I'd expect Rufus Johnson and Geneo Grissom to be healthy scratches in the regular season while the unit is at full strength. At DT, I have Siliga and Easley starting at the nose and 3-tech spots with Malcom Brown and Alan Branch in there to keep the unit fresh. The Patriots struggled with a lack of DL depth last season and this year they have an embarrassment of riches at the position. The difference a year makes...
LB (6)- Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, James Morris, Jonathan Freeny, Chris White/Non-Roster Pickup
The Patriots have problems with figuring out who to maximize the effectiveness of their Top 3 linebackers and their pass rush, but that's a good problem that can be solved with creativity. Collins and Mayo are off-the-ball players for 3 downs, but we may see Hightower take on a bit of a pass rushing role. I don't need to sing the praises of the Patriots elite trio, because their play will speak for themselves, but quality depth behind them was an issue in 2014 and hopefully can be mitigated now. Morris a player who is a steady and unspectacular option who won't lose you games, but won't make a lot of big plays. That's fine for the 4th linebacker on the team, but realistically he won't see the field except on Special Teams unless there are injuries. The same holds true for Freeny. I have the Patriots carrying 6 linebackers on the roster and I would not be surprised if the Patriots bring back Chris White or claim a special teams only linebacker off another roster cut. If the 6th LB on the roster needs to play on defense, the Patriots are screwed anyway.
DB (9)- Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Tavon Wilson
The Patriots CB situation settled over the course of the preseason with Butler, Brown, and Fletcher as the clear-cut top 3 options. I had McClain ahead of Logan Ryan on the depth chart prior to the final preseason game, but I felt McClain played his way off the roster last night. If McClain ends up being unsigned, he could be a midseason emergency pickup in case of injuries. I still think Ryan can be an effective #2 CB, but the problem is that he doesn't get physical enough with receivers and they end up outrunning him when they get a free release. When Ryan is physical at the line, he is tough to beat. At the safety spot, I have Harmon as the top FS backup and Tavon Wilson as the dime back. Patrick Chung will start at strong safety, in large part due to his ability to stop the run. Chung ranked 4th amongst safeties in run defense, and ahead of Kam Chancellor, according to Pro Football Focus. I think the Patriots secondary will be very solid in 2014 and the team finishing with a Top 10 defense. For the record, I only rank defenses by points allowed and I exclude defensive scores from that ranking.
ST (3)- Joe Cardona, Ryan Allen, Stephen Gostkowski
The Patriots are basically set here for the next 4 years thanks to contract extensions for Allen and Gostkowski. Gost is the best kicker in the league, Cardona is one of the best long snapper prospects in a while, and Ryan Allen can really boom some punts to flip the field. I expect the Patriots Special teams to be Top 5 when the season ends.
Practice Squad Prediction- WR Chris Harper, OL Josh Kline, CB Daxton Swanson, LB DJ Lynch, WR Zach D'Orazio, QB Ryan Lindley, DE/OLB Xzavier Dickson, LB Eric Martin, 2 Non-Roster Pickups
A final reminder that roster cuts will be made by 4pm tomorrow, but the news will take hours to come out. Stay tuned over the next 48 hours and a reminder that you can visit the Roster Cuts Story stream to get up to date news on final roster cuts. We're onto Pittsburgh!