The Patriots have received some pleasant surprises in the preseason with the play of Joe Thuney, AJ Derby, Cre'Von LeBlanc, and Anthony Johnson being the most notable. With three of the Patriots four preseason games completed, the 53-man roster is starting to take shape. Not every job has been claimed yet and there are still a few possible surprises left next week in the Patriots final preseason game.
Quarterbacks (2): Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, Tom Brady (susp.)
The Patriots will be without their franchise quarterback for four weeks, so they will be carrying two quarterbacks for the first two weeks. Garoppolo is the starter and Brissett is the backup over that time span. While the Brady suspension sucks, the Patriots can use his roster spot as a placeholder for a young talent they don't want to risk losing to waivers. The Patriots likely don't expect Garoppolo to play at more than an average level, but if Garoppolo can manage the game, avoid turnovers or big negative plays, and make good decisions, the Patriots will be at least 2-2 if not 3-1.
Running Backs (3): LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, James White, Dion Lewis (PUP)
Still in Competition: Tyler Gaffney, DJ Foster
The Patriots are a bit thin at the running back position, but the players listed above are battle-tested veterans that can get the job done. The Patriots don't have a dual threat out of the backfield, but Blount and White are good enough at each phase to overcome the inevitable tip off to the defense. Blount will be the main early down back, although there are frustrating elements to his game. White will be the main receiving threat out of the backfield, as he is competent enough to at least keep the offense rolling. Gaffney has 90% secured the final meaningful RB roster spot because he can contribute to the 2016 team whereas DJ Foster likely needs a redshirt season. It wouldn't surprise me if both stick, but Gaffney satisfies the Patriots current needs while Foster is a talent the Patriots should try to retain.
Receivers (3): Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola (PUP)
Still in Competition: Keshawn Martin, Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper?
The Patriots have given Aaron Dobson all the opportunities he can afford and then some, but it just hasn't clicked for the 4th year receiver. Dobson is the biggest, fastest, and best blocking receiver on the team, but just lacks the confidence to succeed. Dobson's inability to seize the opportunity given to him has opened the door for Keshawn Martin to steal that roster spot, although I'm not confident in him either. The Patriots will have to rely on their backs and tight ends while Danny Amendola is on PUP. Hogan should be able to replace the production lost with Amendola being out for 6 weeks, but the Patriots lack enough healthy bodies. Dobson could wind up making the roster by default, as he has some utility in the offense.
Tight Ends/Fullbacks (3): Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, James Develin
Still in Competition: AJ Derby, Clay Harbor
The last roster spot is still Clay Harbor's to lose. While AJ Derby has shown to be a solid receiver, his blocking is still inadequate for the pro game, although Harbor isn't too far ahead of him either. The question becomes whether the Patriots gamble on upside or a stay with a veteran whose skill set is already well-defined. Harbor likely has more utility for the short term, but the Patriots could regret letting Derby go. The players that are locks to make the roster should see critical roles this season. Gronk and Marty B should be part of the focus on the offense due to their interchangeability with one another. James Develin may be a part-time player, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a more reliable fullback than him. He's shaken off the broken leg and looks just as good as ever opening holes to unleash Blount Force Trauma.
Offensive Tackles (2): Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon
Still in Competition: Cameron Fleming, La'Adrian Waddle
The Patriots are a bit thin at tackle after losing Sebastian Vollmer. Solder and Cannon are locks for both starting jobs, but the Patriots lack depth at the position due to the lack of options in free agency and the draft. Fleming and Waddle could both wind up making the roster, however I find that unlikely with the Patriots likely having to carry 6 interior offensive linemen. In a tie, Waddle makes more sense than Fleming because of Waddle's experience at both tackle spots. Fleming did play LT in 2015, but out of necessity because the Patriots had only 5 healthy bodies on the OL at the time.
Interior Offensive Line (6): Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper, Ted Karras, Shaq Mason
The Patriots are stuck carrying 6 IOL unless Cooper can get healthy between now and Week 1. Josh Kline is the presumptive starter since he's the only healthy veteran that can fill in while Shaq Mason deals with a broken hand. The IOL combo for Week 1 looks like Thuney-Andrews-Kline unless the Patriots feel comfortable with Karras at RG. Kline is the team's backup center, so his health is the most important of this group after starting center David Andrews. Bad center play can ruin a game as Bryan Stork proved in January. The Patriots are a bit better shape at guard, although Thuney and Kline need to hold up until Mason is ready to return in October.
Defensive Tackle (2): Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine
Still in Competition: Alan Branch, Markus Kuhn, Terrance Knighton, Anthony Johnson
The only certainties are Brown and Valentine. Brown is likely receiving the largest share of snaps at the DT position due to his ability to handle both the penetrating and gap eating roles. Markus Kuhn has the best shot of making the roster of the uncertain group because he can be serviceable at both, even if he isn't proficient at either. That brings it down to maybe 2 roster spots. The Patriots will keep at least one space-eating tackle, so one of Branch/Knighton will make the roster. All signs point to Branch considering how Knighton has fallen down the depth chart of late. Anthony Johnson is interesting, since he's a pure penetrating type that has more of a sub-package role than a rotation role. The question becomes if the Patriots take the sure thing in Knighton, who may be on the last legs of his career or take a flier on a young hotshot in Johnson. I would prefer Johnson and I wonder if he has the versatility to play a base end role.
Edge Rushers (6): Rob Ninkovich, Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers, Chris Long
Still in Competition: Rufus Johnson, Geneo Grissom
The only question is if the Patriots carry seven edge defenders. Nink, Shea, and Mingo can double up as linebackers, which allows the Patriots to be versatile with their defensive scheme. The Patriots just recently picked up Mingo in a trade for a 5th and his guaranteed salary makes him a roster lock even though he hasn't played a snap with the Patriots yet. Ninkovich's injury came at an unfortunate time, but the emergence of Trey Flowers this preseason somewhat mitigates the loss as the Patriots can use Flowers and Long with Sheard, whose injury shouldn't keep him out of the season opener as part of their early edge rotation. At full health, this is a very deep and group with Sheard and Flowers being able to kick inside along with Nink, Shea, and Mingo being able to play anywhere at the LB level. It may not have an impact pass rusher, but injuries should not derail this group.
Linebackers (4): Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Jonathan Freeny
Still in Competition: Jonathan Freeny, Ramon Humber, Elandon Roberts
The LB number is a bit deceptive because the Patriots have 3 edge guys that can fill in at linebacker. KGH is the only player of the group that isn't a converted edge defender and he's really a S/LB hybrid player. KGH's role early on could be as a sub-package linebacker although the Patriots need to keep blockers off of him in case opponents run against their nickel defense. Hightower is the defensive signal caller and MVP and the ultra versatile Collins is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and could potentially build on it to become a 2nd team All Pro (He's not going to get 1st team All Pro with Von Miller and Khalil Mack around) this year. This is a position group that when healthy compares well against any other team's linebacker group. Freeny had just agreed to an extension, so we can assume he makes the team as well.
Corners (5): Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, Cre'Von LeBlanc
Still in Competition: Darryl Roberts, Jonathan Jones
The third preseason game might have been enough to separate LeBlanc from his competitors to the point where an injury is the only thing that keeps him off the roster. The Patriots CB group is healthy and talented despite having 3 UDFAs, adding one in each of the last three years. Butler and LeBlanc are small school guys that dropped off team's boards due to average measurables. Jones and Coleman are athletic freaks for the position with elite change of direction and speed to agility ratio. Logan Ryan is an average speed corner with elite change of direction and quickness. As the roster would stand, the Patriots can easily withstand an injury to the position with Coleman and Jones both being able to play inside and outside. Jones will also double up as the punt returner, where he can really impact the game this year.
Safeties (3): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon
Still in Competition: Jordan Richards
Jordan Richards is only in competition with the numbers game. Of this group, the Patriots can least afford to lose Patrick Chung, who is the glue guy of the group. McCourty may be the defensive captain and vocal leader of the group, but Chung's versatility as a strong safety/linebacker/nickel is irreplaceable in the defense. Richards was supposed to be groomed to be the backup, but he has struggled in man coverage this preseason. Duron Harmon played a lot of snaps in 2015, especially when the Patriots utilized a 3-safety base. Harmon isn't McCourty when it comes to ballhawking, but he catches the passes he gets his hands on and takes good angles to the ball. If Chung were to go down, the Patriots would have to move McCourty towards that man coverage role, which is not his strong-suit.
Core Special Teamers (6): Matthew Slater, Brandon King, Joe Cardona, Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Nate Ebner
The Patriots core 6 special teamers are not going anywhere for a while. Slater and Gostkowski are coming off Pro Bowl seasons while King is a budding Special Teams star in the making. Ebner and Allen are both steady and reliable.
This would currently put the number of roster locks at 45 players. However, I'm not going to say that the players on the current roster will occupy the final 8 spots because there is always a surprise on cut down days. We may see Belichick swing another trade to try out players at a position that lacks depth or make a waiver claim. The Patriots will likely carry another tackle, running back, a couple defensive tackles, and a receiver out of camp from their respective competitions. The only good news about Brady's suspension is that it allows the Patriots to carry an extra player through cutdowns, especially with guys like Foster and Derby, who might not be able to contribute in 2016 but could contribute in 2017 and beyond. One thing I've learned about Bill Belichick is that he is going to throw a curveball and that traditional and historical roster numbers don't mean a single thing towards predicting the final roster.
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