The preseason is finally over and now it’s time for the Patriots to start cutting their roster down to 53 players. The back-end of the Patriots roster will continue to see turn over because Bill Belichick is always looking to improve in that area, so making the initial 53-man roster doesn’t mean that player will be on the active roster for all 16 games. Earlier I listed the players that through individual play or injury circumstances should make the roster.
Quarterbacks (2): Tom Brady (Susp.), Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett
The Patriots will be without Tom Brady for four games, which means they’ll be relying on 3rd year QB Jimmy Garoppolo to start games and rookie Jacoby Brissett to be the backup. Jimmy G has had an uneven preseason, but I do think the Patriots will open up the playbook a bit once the games start counting towards the team’s Super Bowl hopes. Garoppolo just needs to play at an average level individually and be able to limit turnovers to be successful as a fill-in. For Brissett, if he plays any meaningful snaps it would be a disaster and the Patriots season is in jeopardy. He’s more of a development player that may or may not be Brady’s successor at the position.
Running Backs (4): LeGarrette Blount, James White, Brandon Bolden, DJ Foster, Dion Lewis (Reserve PUP)
Even though I think in 2016 that Tyler Gaffney is more likely to contribute than DJ Foster, the Patriots aren’t going to take a chance that Foster gets gobbled up on waivers. Gaffney is more likely to pass through and join the practice squad next week and if the case can always be called up if needed. I would not be surprised if the Patriots also made a waiver claim at the position as well. For the early part of 2016, the Patriots will be relying on the tag-team duo of Blount as the main rushing back and White as the main receiving back. Brandon Bolden can back up both spots at a serviceable level. If Lewis comes back healthy in the 2nd half, that could spark a Patriots run.
Receivers (5): Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola (Reserve PUP), Keshawn Martin, Aaron Dobson, Malcolm Mitchell
The Patriots suffered another injury at the position with Keshawn Martin going down with an ankle injury in the 4th quarter. Aaron Dobson was listed as one of the players that may have clinched a roster spot by default and the need to have enough healthy bodies on the team. While the Patriots could conceivably make a waiver claim or trade like they did with Martin a year ago, it makes more sense to try Dobson as supposed to trying to teach a new guy the nuances of the offense. Martin and Mitchell’s injuries are worth monitoring, although Mitchell is very close to returning to action after suffering an elbow injury that looked worse than it wound up being. Dobson could wind up playing a lot early as well until Mitchell eventually snatches the starting X role.
Tight Ends/Fullbacks (5): Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Clay Harbor, James Develin, AJ Derby
AJ Derby played his way onto the roster, but isn’t a guy I expect to see the field much in 2016. Clay Harbor’s superiority as a blocker over Derby makes more sense from a 3rd TE role, but if there was an injury during the season to Bennett and/or Harbor, then it would make sense to utilize Derby. James Develin is a lock to be the Patriots fullback in 2016 and the running game should get a boost from it. The Patriots are suffering health wise at the receiver and receiving back spots, so the tight ends are going to have to pick up most of the slack. A healthy Gronkowski will allow the Patriots offense to be the juggernaut it is, but Bennett could be the X-Factor in the offense and transform it from a very good to an elite unit.
Tackles (4): Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, La’Adrian Waddle, Cameron Fleming, Sebastian Vollmer (Reserve PUP)
Nate Solder’s injury could open the door for both Fleming and Waddle to make the 53, although if the injury doesn’t affect his availability for Week 1, then Fleming is more likely to get the axe due to his practice squad eligibility. Fleming isn’t spectacular, but can be an emergency fill in when one of the starters goes down and the Patriots can always call him up from the practice squad. Waddle doesn’t have that luxury, which is why he would need to stay on the 53-man roster unless the Patriots don’t want him. A roster claim wouldn’t surprise me either at this spot. If Solder can’t go in Week 1, then the Patriots would need to call up Fleming or whoever the practice squad tackle is.
Interior OL (5): Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Jonathan Cooper, Josh Kline, Tre Jackson (Reserve PUP)
The Patriots will likely add a guard to their practice squad as extra depth, but Cooper being close to returning to practice could be the determining factor on whether to keep 5 or 6 interior linemen. While Kline can backup all 3 spots, ideally he is out of the lineup. Mason probably isn’t set to return until late September/early October with a broken hand and the timetable for Cooper’s foot is uncertain. I think the initial 53-man roster has only 5 IOL, with someone available to call up in case they need a 6th.
Defensive Tackles (4): Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Vince Valentine, Anthony Johnson
With these four, the Patriots have a pair of space eaters, a penetrating 3-technique, and a guy who can do both. Markus Kuhn’s struggles late in the 4th game coupled with Anthony Johnson’s strong preseason play makes the decision a bit easier. Of all the positions, I think this one is the where they’re most likely making a waiver claim.
Edge Defenders (5): Rob Ninkovich (Susp.), Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Barkevious Mingo, Shea McClellin
The Patriots high number of edge defenders is a result of tweener players that can double up as linebackers. The Patriots are likely featuring Sheard and Long as the top two edge guys with Flowers getting in rotational work. All six edge guys have positional versatility as Sheard and Flowers can kick inside while Nink, Mingo, and McClellin can also effectively drop back. While this unit doesn’t have a Pro Bowl talent in it, it’s very deep and versatile. McClellin and Sheard’s injuries are worth monitoring for potential Week 1 availability. Ninkovich is more likely to return later in the month.
Linebackers (4): Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny, Kamu Grugier-Hill
The Patriots have 3 edge guys that can double up as linebackers, which is why they can get away with having 4 off the ball linebackers. Collins and Hightower most likely will play a ton of the snaps while Freeny and KGH get used in certain situations.
Cornerbacks (5): Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc
The Patriots CB depth chart was settled last week, although Darryl Roberts and Jonathan Jones didn’t do enough to change that. Butler and Ryan will likely start on the outside while Coleman handles the slot to start the season. While both Coleman and Jones struggled a bit, neither guy was in danger of losing a roster spot. Jones will be the primary returner in 2016.
Safeties (4): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards
Richards did enough to survive roster cuts, although he allowed a reception that in the regular season likely gets overturned on replay. He finished with a 2nd quarter interception at the goal line that ended a promising Giants drive. McCourty, Chung, and Harmon all figure to have significant roles again in 2016.
Special Teamers (6): Nate Ebner, Matthew Slater, Brandon King, Joe Cardona, Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen
No surprises here.
Since Bill Belichick is likely to make a waiver claim somewhere I can 100% guarantee that this roster prediction won’t be 100% accurate to the roster on 4:01 pm Saturday. The bottom half of the roster will be fluid and there’s a good chance the 53-man roster on Saturday won’t look the same as the 53-man roster on September 10th. I think AJ Derby might fit the category of preseason star that gets surprisingly cut, although his skills as a receiving TE are going to be difficult to find in the future.
UPDATE: With the news of Rob Ninkovich facing a suspension, his roster spot goes to OT Cameron Fleming due to the uncertainty surrounding Nate Solder's injury.