Training Camp is upon us! Let football begin!
I don’t know about any of you, but I absolutely love training camp. It’s the middle of summer, the weather is beautiful, and seeing grown men running drills in shells and shorts means that our long drought of no football is almost over. In fact, the 2017 Hall of Fame Game is exactly one week from today, which means that this weekend will represent the last one of the year without some sort of game.
While training camp may be a blast for us regular schlubs, there are a bunch of players out there fighting for their very jobs. 32 rosters of 90 men will be whittled down to 32 rosters of 53, which means that over 1,000 players will be unemployed by this time next month.
For the most part, all across the NFL, it’s fairly easy to separate the roster locks from the practice squad candidates. There are always a few surprises thrown in here and there, and unfortunately it seems that one guy always blows his ACL or Achilles during a mid-August non-contact drill, but for the most part there are only a few real question marks for each team as the preseason rages on.
The exception, of course, is the Patriots.
When it comes to New England, there really is no such thing as a true roster lock. It seems that every year, like clockwork, the Patriots end up cutting a player that absolutely nobody saw coming. Players on every single projected 53 man roster suddenly find themselves looking for a job. Cuts that have the media screaming for Belichick’s head. You can go back to almost every season since Belichick took over and name a player all set to be a major factor who was instead given his walking papers.
Which leaves it up to us, as training camp gets underway, to sit around and make pathetic attempts to try and guess which player that will be for no other reason than the briefest moment of satisfaction before we get that all-too-familiar sinking feeling when we realize that yet another fan favorite is gone.
So here is my best guess at the players that I can’t imagine not making the team who are at the most risk to not make the team. When I’m completely wrong, I certainly won’t be upset.
Dion Lewis. Lewis is something of a popular pick in a lot of circles, due to both his injury history and the amount of depth the Patriots have at running back. But seeing as how everyone is kind of predicting this one, that usually means he’s safe. Even though he isn’t likely to play a full season, Lewis is too much of a weapon to straight up cut, and the emergence of James White lends itself to a potentially deadly 2RB set with the both of them. Still, Lewis does fit the mold of the kind of player the Patriots part ways with inexplicably. However, if I was going to put money on a RB suddenly getting the axe, it would have to be...
Brandon Bolden. Bolden re-signed with the Patriots in April of this year for very reasonable money. While he isn’t much of a threat as a runner, he has tremendous value on special teams and never gets hurt. I would put him behind only Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner in terms of his abilities as a special teamer, and seeing as how the Patriots locked him up shortly after Free Agency started, they obviously see value in him. That said, given the logjam at running back at the moment, keeping all RBs currently on the roster isn’t likely, and Bolden may be the odd man out. Rex Burkhead could very well have replaced Bolden on this list, but he provides more value as a short yardage back, and thus I feel like he’d get the nod over Bolden.
Kony Ealy. The Patriots traded for Ealy, and all signs point to him being a major factor in the edge rusher rotation. But I have heard neither hide nor hair about Ealy since he joined the team. Of course, nobody says anything about anybody in New England, but usually around this time every year there’s something about how excited Ealy is to be part of the Patriots or how he’s hard at work learning the playbook. But with Ealy, there hasn’t been much. Odds are he’s going to work out well and be a major player in pass rushing packages, but hey...you never know.
Ryan Allen. Allen is currently the only punter on the roster. But do you know who was also the only punter on the roster not too long ago? Zoltan Mezko. What everyone thought was a camp body brought in to provide competition for a position set in stone ended up causing a bit of an upheaval when some young unknown usurped the incumbent and has been rock solid ever since. Who’s to say that we won’t see a repeat of that once camp gets going and Allen, thinking his job is safe, starts shanking a few off the side of his foot?
Alan Branch. Absolutely zero chance that Branch gets cut...right? He took a hometown discount, is on record expressing his love for the Patriots and the New England area, was a huge factor in a championship campaign, and seems well slated to be a stalwart of the interior defensive line in 2017. However, you might remember another veteran who came to New England on the cheap, bought into the system, and was set to be a major part of the interior line in Terrence Knighton. Knighton was a surprise cut last season, and Branch, despite his familiarity with the system and the praise he draws from coaches, might be in the same position, especially if he’s out of shape and gets off to a slow start.
Cyrus Jones. Based on his rookie campaign, I’m not sure whether Jones belongs on a list of potential surprise cuts. However, to cut bait on a player after only a year is rare, and New England has a history of molding players over time. You’d think that the Patriots would give Jones every opportunity to get his career on track this season, and he did flash his athleticism as a rookie before fumbles and confidence issues completely derailed his trajectory; however, 90 has to become 53 in a very short amount of time, and if Jones doesn’t have a good camp, he could be gone.
Rob Ninkovich. I hate to be writing this paragraph, but I can see Nink as a potential cap casualty. At. 33, he’s currently one of the oldest players on the roster, and depending on how his camp goes, he could find himself on the outside looking in. There’s absolutely no questioning his football intelligence, leadership skills, and attitude, but unfortunately those things can’t make up for a failing body - should that in fact be the case. What also scares me about Ninkovich is that he very much fits the mold of camp cuts in the past - longtime veteran, major cog in the machine, total team-first guy, Patriots lifer, fan favorite, and guy nobody would ever view as on the bubble.