The New England Patriots, who will be off until training camp starts later this month, currently have 89 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on August 31 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the summer, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots defend their Super Bowl title.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s 2018 practice squad.
Name: A.J. Howard
Position: Strong safety
Jersey number: 39
Opening day age: 23
Size: 5’11, 200 lbs.
2018 review: Despite an impressive career at Appalachian State, A.J. Howard did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2018 draft. Instead, he had to go through undrafted free agency to find a pro football home — but find one he did, as the Arizona Cardinals signed the defensive back to a three-year deal in late April. In Arizona, he quickly earned considerable practice reps and subsequently preseason playing time.
Howard appeared in all four of the Cardinals’ exhibition contests and was on the field for 54.5% of the team’s defensive snaps (158 of 290) and 22.5% in the kicking game (25 of 111). Being used in multiple roles from strong safety to free safety to slot defender, the rookie finished preseason with some solid numbers: he registered five tackles, an interception and two pass deflections, and a quarterback hurry. However, Howard also allowed 6 of 8 targets into his coverage to be completed for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Ultimately, the Cardinals decided to release the youngster during final roster cutdowns in early September. He remained out of work until late October, when the New York Giants signed Howard to their practice squad. Howard spent the rest of the regular season with his new team but was let go again on January 2. One week later, the Patriots added him to their very own scout team; Howard remained there until after the Super Bowl.
2019 preview: Following their win in Super Bowl 53, the Patriots signed Howard to a one-year futures contract that will give him a chance to compete for a roster spot this summer. Given the fact that New England has one of the deepest secondaries in all of football, however, the second-year man carving out a regular role on defense or even in the kicking game appears to be a long shot.
It therefore seems more likely that the 23-year-old is fighting for one of the ten spots on the Patriots’ practice squad. In order to earn it, Howard will likely have to beat out at least one of fellow defensive backs Obi Melifonwu and Malik Gant — a challenge that is not insurmountable given the little experience in New England’s system (especially compared to Gant) he brings to the table and his versatile skill set as both a safety and special teamer.
In the end, Howard’s performances on the practice fields and in preseason will determine his fate. Anything seems possible at this point in time, even though the odds appear to favor higher-upside defensive backs like Melifonwu, Gant or cornerback Ken Webster.