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Sunday NFL Thoughts: The Patriots have just 1 open spot on the 53-man roster

The Patriots have a pretty established roster.

1. When I run through the New England Patriots roster, there are only a few spots available- barring a trade or injury. I count 47 players as roster locks, including Matthew Slater, who is dealing with a hamstring injury per the Herald’s Jeff Howe.

In my opinion, I include QB Jacoby Brissett, RB Dion Lewis, OG Ted Karras, and EDGE Kony Ealy as roster locks. There are just six roster spots available and there are some obvious competitions at play, leaving very few slots for “best player available.”

For example, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen are roster locks, but the team will likely carry three tight ends. That means that Jacob Hollister, James O’Shaughnessy and Matt Lengel are competing for one roster spot.

I also only count four linebackers as locks- Dont’a Hightower, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, and Shea McClellin- and think that Jonathan Freeny, Harvey Langi, and Elandon Roberts are competing for two openings.

Cornerback is the last unsettled position where Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, and Eric Rowe are locks and Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, and Justin Coleman are playing for two spots.

And when these three position battles are settled, there is just one remaining open roster spot. Does it go to the likes of RB D.J. Foster or WR Austin Carr? Or DL Adam Butler or SS Jordan Richards? Or one of the players that doesn’t win the projected roster slot?

Regardless, it seems like most of these training camp battles are about which players the Patriots want to keep on the practice squad.

2. I think a lot of concerns about whether or not the Patriots will be able to sneak a player to the practice squad are fairly overblown. Some standouts, like Hollister and Carr, probably won’t make it to the New England practice squad, but I think the odds of a player like D.J. Foster or Conor McDermott or Adam Butler or Harvey Langi making it through are better than expected.

Last year, the Patriots lost sixth-round LB Kamu Grugier-Hill to the Eagles, while CB Cre’Von LeBlanc and CB Darryl Roberts were also claimed. But top draft picks like WR Aaron Dobson and EDGE Geneo Grissom went unclaimed and I think players like Butler and Langi were undrafted for a reason.

3. New England will face the Houston Texans in week 2 of the preseason (and again in week 3 of the regular season). Don’t look for the Patriots to sprinkle anything fancy into their game plan, but instead use this upcoming week to see how some of the younger players integrate in with the starters and top back-ups instead of with the fourth string players they lined up with against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Look for WR Devin Lucien, WR Austin Carr, TE Jacob Hollister, DL Adam Butler, DL Josh Augusta, and LB Harvey Langi to rotate in with the top couple of units, especially with veterans like TE Rob Gronkowski, DL Alan Branch, and LB Dont’a Hightower not likely to play.

4. The Patriots roster has a few remaining weaknesses. Ted Karras is the likely interior back-up offensive lineman and he is far from a proven commodity. Trey Flowers is the only proven edge defender for the Patriots and he’s only started for a short period of time; Deatrich Wise has a head injury, Kony Ealy didn’t impress with the back-ups, and Derek Rivers still has a long way to go.

I think that the Patriots depth at linebacker and defensive back is fine, though, because the starters and top back-up is already settled. When the concerns are about the fourth or fifth players on the depth chart, then the team is in good shape; no team has a starting-caliber player at all 53 spots.

5. I’m curious to see what the team does with Shea McClellin. He was a linebacker last year, but was listed as a defensive end on the Patriots “did not play” list against the Jaguars. Bill Belichick will be the first to say that positional distinction doesn’t really mean anything because one player can be both a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker. That’s where McClellin currently stands.

McClellin is possibly the top option to replace Rob Ninkovich and that could mean that he’s the solution to the team’s weakness at edge defender. The Patriots effectively run a 5-1 defensive front, and the front could be Shea McClellin, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Trey Flowers, and Dont’a Hightower, with David Harris as the linebacker.

And then when the Patriots want to play the 4-2 front, they can play Deatrich Wise, Brown, Branch, and Flowers, with Hightower and Harris as the off the ball linebackers.

McClellin could really fix a lot of the team’s question marks in the defensive front seven.