The New England Patriots currently have 90 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on September 1 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the offseason, we take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots recapture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Today, the series continues with an edge defender.
Name: Eric Lee
Position: Defensive edge
Jersey number: 55
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6’3, 255 lbs.
2017 review: After spending his entire rookie campaign on the Houston Texans’ practice squad, Eric Lee did return to the team for the 2017 offseason. However, he joined the Buffalo Bills after getting released during roster cutdowns. Lee also started his tenure in Buffalo on the practice squad but was elevated to the active team in late September. His stint on the 53 was a short and uneventful one, though, as Lee did not see any playing time and was released and brought back to the scout team after only one week.
Not quite two months later, Lee was called up again — this time by the Bills’ rivals from New England, however, who signed him to their active roster on November 21. Only five days later, he appeared in his first game for the Patriots as a outside linebacker/edge rusher hybrid that joined top duo Trey Flowers and Deadrich Wise Jr. in a rotational role. Lee would be used like that throughout the rest of the year and ultimately made appearances in six regular season games as well as three playoff contests.
During those games, the former undrafted free agent played a combined 57.3% of defensive snaps (350 of 611) and finished with a respectable stat line: Lee registered 3.5 sacks — one of which resulting in a safety — and five additional quarterback hits, as well as an interception and a pair of pass deflections. He also notched 23 tackles, most of which coming versus the pass.
Ultimately, Lee slowed down by the end of the year and failed to become the consistent presence opposite Flowers the team had hoped to find in him. This, in turn, led to New England picking up veteran and superior run defender James Harrison as a free agent — a move that cut into Lee’s playing time particularly in the playoffs. Nevertheless, his first few months with the team can surely be seen as an encouraging foundation upon which to build in 2018.
2018 preview: While the Patriots did not address their defensive edge in the draft, Lee still faces added competition for practice reps and ultimately a spot on the team: New England signed Adrian Clayborn to a two-year, $10.0 million free agency deal in March, and will also get 2017 third-round draft pick Derek Rivers back from injured reseve. Both are locks to join Trey Flowers on the team, which leaves one or a maximum of two open spots.
In order for Lee to survive the competition and find his way back onto the 53-man roster, he will need to outperform two players in particular: Deatrich Wise Jr. and Geneo Grissom. While Wise Jr. has shown plenty of potential during his 2017 rookie season, Grissom is an experienced performer in the kicking game. Lee will have to stand his ground against at least one of them if he wants to maximize his chances of surviving roster cutdowns. So far during training camp, however, at least Wise Jr. seems to be higher up on the depth chart.
In the end, the Patriots will likely move forward with the higher-ceiling Wise Jr. as the fourth defensive edge, which would leave Lee as the number five depending on Grissom’s outlook on special teams. And while Lee could very well make the team as that fifth exterior linemen, it appears more likely that he gets the axe come September — but possibly returns via the practice squad to offer depth and longer-term security with Flowers headed towards free agency.