The New England Patriots have one of the toughest rosters to make it in the NFL because head coach Bill Belichick has done an excellent job constructing a roster that is rooted in production over draft pedigree. This has led to a fair number of “draft busts” over the years, but Belichick has been willing to part ways with a player in order to give snaps to someone with more promise.
Just last offseason, the Patriots released then-third-year C Bryan Stork, a former 4th round pick and starting center of the Super Bowl XLIX squad, in favor of undrafted second-year C David Andrews. Andrews started every game all season and has developed into a starting-caliber center in the NFL.
Which leads me to this good question from @Thudias:
@PP_Rich_Hill this is a make or break season/training camp for Richards... also probably a few others that you could write about.— Rob (@Thudias) February 15, 2017
What players are entering a make-or-break offseason with the Patriots?
To answer this question, I will limit my selections to those on rookie contracts, or to those that are in a similar position to those as rookies (ie: practice squad players).
Multi-Ring Practice Squadders: OL Chris Barker and RB Tyler Gaffney
Barker has been a member of the Patriots practice squad since 2013, which means that there is a world where RB Brandon Bolden, FB James Develin, LB Dont’a Hightower, CB Logan Ryan, and FS Duron Harmon leave in free agency and where WR Danny Amendola is cut, leaving Barker as the 11th longest tenured member of the Patriots at the start of 2017, and you probably forgot that he was on the team.
Gaffney has been around since 2014, but finished his first two years on the injured reserve. Both Gaffney and Barker have two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. Gaffney is a possible option to take over in the backfield if LeGarrette Blount doesn’t return in 2017.
Wally Pip’d 2015 Draftees: EDGE Geneo Grissom and OG Tre Jackson
Grissom was passed by fellow 2015 draftee EDGE Trey Flowers before the 2016 season and found himself on the practice squad. Grissom received a promotion and starred on special teams, but he was not a part of the Patriots pass rush. With Rob Ninkovich aging and Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard pending free agents, Grissom will have one more chance to make the Patriots roster.
Jackson spent the 2016 NFL season on the reserves due to a knee injury. While he was sidelined, he watched fellow 2015 draftee RG Shaq Mason lock up the starting job and rookie LG Joe Thuney put forth a strong enough effort to own the starting job heading into 2017. Jackson will be competing with sophomore OL Ted Karras for the lone back-up role and Karras offers more versatility. Jackson will need to show some bounce back from his knee injury to make the team.
Deep Depth Chart Options: OT LaAdrian Waddle and CB Justin Coleman
Waddle spent all but two games of the 2016 season as a healthy scratch on game day and played just one offensive snap all year as he trailed OT Cameron Fleming as the top back-up. Waddle could be back as the 4th offensive tackle, but don’t be surprised if the Patriots add a project tackle in the draft that could take Waddle’s roster spot.
Coleman suited up for 10 regular season games, but was a scratch for the entire postseason as he trailed Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, and even sometimes even Cyrus Jones on game day. Coleman will have to expand his special teams functionality if he wants to make the game day roster.
Second Round Defensive Backs: S Jordan Richards and CB Cyrus Jones
Richards was the Patriots 2nd round pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. He played just 18 snaps on defense in his second year and saw his special teams role eliminated down the stretch. Richards will have a chance to take a rotational role on defense with the possible departure of FS Duron Harmon, but Richards has not started his career off as he would have hoped.
Jones was the Patriots 2nd round pick of the 2016 NFL Draft and the only sophomore on the list. He played 10 games as a rookie, but fumbled the ball 5 times on returns and spent time in Bill Belichick’s dog house after getting ejected against the Browns. Jones issued a statement about refocusing himself for the 2017 season, but he’ll need to show a marked improvement. Players that spend two seasons in the Belichick dog house never stick around New England.