The Patriots roster has its strengths, but also positions where they are a bit thin at. As is the nature of the game, with limited resources (salary cap) and supply (players) there is going to be scarcity when managing a roster. Every team has a position where they’re thin at and hope that injuries don’t affect the position in the regular season and later. The Patriots are no different in those, although they have quality starters at most of these positions already. Areas where the Patriots might be a bit thin at is interior offensive line, slot corner, tight end, and safety.
Interior Offensive Line: The starting trio is currently Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason. Thuney is coming off a decent rookie season, although the longer season grind and teams figuring him out late led to some struggles. In the long term, he’ll be an excellent player if not an All-Pro guard. Andrews is a reliable starter who is more brains than braun at the center spot, which the Patriots can afford to have when he’s surrounded by two quality guards next to him. Shaq Mason was a project player drafted out of Georgia Tech in 2015, coming out of an offense that primarily ran the ball out of a triple option offense. His pass protection is starting to come along nicely and was one of the best guards in the 2nd half of 2016, save for a Super Bowl where he struggled against Grady Jarrett, a familiar foe from their college days in the ACC.
Behind those 3 isn’t a lot of roster depth. The Patriots had Ted Karras as the primary backup to all 3 spots, although in 2016 the Patriots really didn’t need him to play any significant snaps after Week 2. They have a bunch of UDFAs behind him, so until I see Karras and the other IOL options practice this week and play in preseason games next month, I’m going to be concerned about the IOL having little depth. Ideally the starting trio play all 16 games, but that’s wishful thinking.
Slot Corner: The Patriots mostly have a group of unproven players vying for this job, not because of lack of bodies. Jonathan Jones has the most experience of the position group with limited action in the slot in a handful of games last year and handled the role well. Justin Coleman was the primary slot corner in 2015 and early 2016 until passed on the depth chart by Eric Rowe, which moved Logan Ryan to the slot. Slot CB is a very underrated, but important position because there is more field for the receiver to operate with and they are closer to the ball than the boundary receivers and corners. Cyrus Jones has the skill set to handle the slot role, but will he be able to rebound after a tough 2016 campaign that made him a healthy scratch since he could not hold onto the ball returning punts.
One potential option is to see if Malcolm Butler can kick inside when the Patriots need 3 corners. In that scenario, they can play their top backup boundary CB in Eric Rowe on the outside. However, I don’t see that happening because I’m confident in Jonathan Jones winning the job. The Patriots have plenty of options to cycle through in the six weeks between now and the start of the regular season.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski is one of the greatest players to ever play the position, but his health is always a question mark. Last year, they had a quality insurance policy in Martellus Bennett, but he’s now a Packer. In response to that, the Patriots traded for Colts TE Dwayne Allen. Allen can block and catch the ball, but like Gronk has a pretty lengthy injury history, although his injuries are more minor in severity. Behind those two is Matt Lengel and James O’Shaughnessy. Neither guy is a proven option, but O’Shaughnessy has special teams value, so he has more roster utility than Lengel. It’s possible one of the UDFAs emerges like Jacob Hollister, who is more of a practice squad candidate for now.
Safety: The Patriots top 3 safeties are heavily involved in the defense, with Duron Harmon playing as the traditional free safety and Patrick Chung as the traditional strong safety. Devin McCourty is the starting free safety on the depth chart, but to call McCourty purely a free safety does not accurately describe his role. McCourty is the leader of the secondary and a respected team captain in addition to a reliable track record of staying healthy over the years. Harmon is the glue player in this secondary because he allows Belichick to use McCourty in any role he needs him to handle and that makes the defense better.
The depth behind those 3 is razor thin and full of unproven options. Jordan Richards hasn’t progressed since a serviceable rookie year and they’re relying mostly on UDFAs and castoffs as camp bodies. The Patriots can certainly weather an injury to either Chung or Harmon and experience a small dropoff, although they won’t be able to do as many things from a scheme perspective.