The Patriots end the preseason 3-1 and have just assembled their initial 53-man roster and practice squad. The bottom third of the roster and the entire practice squad will change on a week-to-week basis depending on what happens in the games.
Final Cuts: The biggest surprises for me when it came to final cuts were Keshawn Martin, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Cre'Von LeBlanc. In the case of Martin and LeBlanc, injuries were the reason they did not make the additional roster. The Patriots will likely stash the young CB on injured reserve for the first year, although he did make a very good impression on the coaching staff in his rookie camp. As for Martin, I don't think he's played his last snap as a New England Patriot. Martin is a very good depth option in this offense due to his ability to play all the WR positions, but while injured serves no real purpose to the roster. When he's healthy again, Patriots will bring him back.
Yesterday also marked the end of the Aaron Dobson experiment. While I wasn't a fan of the player in the pre-2013 draft process, the Patriots clearly liked something out of him to pick him 59th overall. Dobson made some strides his rookie year, but injuries stunted his career. I'm not too sure if he'll have an Julian Edelman-esque rise where after his rookie contract he'll suddenly produce like a Pro Bowler. Edelman's problem was lack of opportunities with Wes Welker healthy and always available ahead of him.
Looking at the 53-Man Roster: Congratulations to the 2016 rookie class of Cyrus Jones, Joe Thuney, Malcolm Mitchell, Elandon Roberts, Ted Karras, Jonathan Jones, and DJ Foster. Roberts, Jones, and Foster beat out their competition for roster spots. Karras' place on the roster is likely attributed to the injuries with Shaq Mason and Jonathan Cooper, so I wouldn't be surprised if they waive him once those two are healthy again. At the CB position, the Patriots newest additions are former top SEC performers. Both Joneses are physical freaks with Cyrus more-well rounded an athlete. Jonathan Jones is a speedster that is better playing a north-south game on the boundary, and holds up well there despite his 5'9" frame. Both provide special teams value with Cyrus operating as a return man and Jones playing the role of gunner and kick coverage.
Elandon Roberts was probably I one player I never really thought would wind up making the roster, even though I believe he has a significant future in New England. Roberts led all Division 1 players in solo stops last year with 88, so that's usually a good sign for the type of instincts he has on the field. Out of the University of Houston, a top football program, he's facing a lot of opponents that employ a fast-pace, no-huddle offense that tries to stress the opponents vertically, horizontally, physically, and mentally. I see him as an insurance policy in case one of Hightower or Collins winds up walking despite the fact he has a completely different body profile as a smaller linebacker at 6'0" 234.
DT Anthony Johnson making the roster after starting the year as a signing that didn't lift an eyebrow is the best story out of camp. A former top recruit that had disappointed at LSU and his first two years in the NFL, Johnson made the commitment to put himself in the best shape possible. He slimmed down to 280 pounds after trying to make it as a nose tackle, surprising Belichick when they brought him in for a workout. While Johnson was unable to suit up for the first preseason game, he was able to play the final three and boy did he impress. Johnson looks like a guy who can take on the role the Patriots had in mind with Dominique Easley as a rush DT whose quickness and power is a tough matchup against guards. For Johnson, talent wasn't the issue but it now looks like the talent is starting to show up on the field. This could be on the level of a Dion Lewis type signing.
WR and RB are the two positions that lack depth. The Patriots are carrying four players at each position. While the RB position has four healthy players, the WR position only has two guys who I can confirm right now being available against the Cardinals (Edelman, Chris Hogan). Hogan can play anywhere in the Patriots offense and the team seems very optimistic on Amendola's recovering from offseason knee surgery. I expect the Patriots to make a move at the position if Dola can't go against the Cardinals because no team wants to carry only 2 healthy WRs. Malcolm Mitchell's injury is worth monitoring as well, because his 4 week timetable for an elbow subluxation is very close to the start of Week 1.
Injury Report: The two injuries that have the most impact in Week 1 are Nate Solder and Malcolm Mitchell. Solder injured a hamstring in the final preseason game and Mitchell has been out since the first preseason game. Jabaal Sheard is battling an MCL sprain from the first preseason game, so his return to action isn't too far away. The Patriots injury situation should get a better picture when injury reports come out this week in preparation for the team's first game on Sunday Night Football against the Arizona Cardinals.
Season Predictions: The baseline for the Patriots W-L record should be 12-4. With Jimmy Garoppolo forced into duty for the first four games of the season, I'm not reasonably expecting better than 12-4. I don't think any team in the AFC finishes with 13 wins, but I do expect the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers to make the Patriots fight hard to earn that top seed. I have KC finishing 12-4, but losing the common opponent tiebreaker and the Steelers finishing 3rd in the AFC at 11-5. The four losses will come against the Cardinals, Bills in Week 4, Jets on the road, and the one game where the Patriots lay a team egg that you can't account for on the schedule at the start of the season.
As for my prediction of the six playoff teams in the AFC and descending order from top to bottom seed, I'm going with Patriots (AFC East), Chiefs (AFC West), Steelers (AFC North), Texans (AFC South), Ravens, and Broncos. I do expect the Ravens to bounce back and feast on an easy schedule, although they do have to face the AFC East this year and that's no easy task. The Broncos are going to have what would have been tough wins last year turn into tough losses after losing Peyton Manning to retirement. While Manning didn't have the arm to play in the NFL anymore, they'll miss the mental side of his game and ability to check into the right play.
We're on to Arizona: The Patriots open up the 2016 season by traveling back to the stadium where they won Super Bowl XLIX. The Patriots currently have xx players left from that Super Bowl winning team. The Patriots have Jimmy Garoppolo playing QB in this game, although the Patriots may have run into the Cardinals at the right time. The Cardinals have injuries at both the WR and CB position, the latter forcing them to trade for veteran Marcus Cooper from the Kansas City Chiefs. While the Cardinals went to the NFC Championship last year, I do think the roster overall is weaker than it was a year ago and is very beatable if you have the right game plan.
The Cardinals have two fatal flaws. The first is on offense, where they have a player at right tackle in DJ Humphries with 0 NFL starts. Humphries sat for the entire season behind Bobby Massie, who signed with the Chicago Bears in the offseason. As a former first round pick. While the Patriots don't have an All-Pro pass rusher, they do have an array of talent on the edge. The Patriots can opt to use a rotation of the veteran Chris Long and second year upstart Trey Flowers at left end. Outside of Humphries, the Cardinals have a very experienced offensive line with Jared Veldheer at LT, Mike Iupati at LG, A.Q. Shipley at C, and Evan Mathis at RG.
The other fatal flaw comes at the linebacker level. The Cardinals don't have a lot of depth there, especially inside. The Patriots offense has a way of exposing linebackers that can't cover in space. With the combination of the two TEs Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, the Patriots can employ formations that force the defense to tip their coverage to the QB and if it's man coverage with a LB covering one of the two TEs, it's going to be exploited. The two starting inside linebackers for the Cardinals are Kevin Minter, who's more a N-S thumper and Deone Bucannon, a converted safety who is very undersized at 6'1" 223. If the Patriots can get their lineman blocking at the 2nd level on their runs plays, it should be a big game for Blount as well.