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Chief Thoughts: Analyzing the Patriots’ roster before cutdowns begin

Real football is near.

NFL: Preseason-Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth preseason game is by far the least important of the season. There is very little chance that anything Bill Belichick sees during the final game will fundamentally change his assessment of his players. The roster will be more or less set in stone at this point barring a a handful of slots. We’ve already seen Maurice Harris and Mike Pennel released, two players many expected had a good chance to make this roster earlier in the summer, and more are likely to follow over the next few days.

With that in mind, I want to assess the strength of each position grouping on the New England Patriots’ roster. I won’t claim that a bubble player who makes the roster won’t make a difference. Most beat reporters had Jason McCourty as a bubble player and he turned out to be a crucial piece to the team’s championship success last year. That being said, most of the bubble players are unlikely to make a difference so we have a pretty solid idea of where we are at to start the season.

Let’s get started.

What’s the plan for all that extra cap?

The Patriots will enter the season with enough cap to swing one more meaningful move. The cap number itself is not that significant but the way it was created is. The Patriots did restructures of two franchise lynch pins, Tom Brady and Marcus Cannon, in order to free up additional space. That suggested to me that the team had a specific purpose in mind for the money. I think that whoever they were targeting proved more elusive than they expected because there has not yet been the sort of corresponding move you’d expect after two restructures. There is still time for a deal to go down but it’s very possible the cap was made to free up a swing they were not unable to hit on.

Grading System

My grading system is simple. If I feel a position group is strong enough to consistently help the team win games it will be labeled a strength. If I feel a position group will rarely cost the team games I will grade it as average. If I feel a position group needs to be overcome most weeks I will rate it as a weakness. I won’t consider injury risks unless it is an empirical problem.

Wide Receiver: Strength

The Patriots’ wide receiver corps has experienced the most significant shift of the position groups since the season ended. They drafted a first round wide receiver for the first time in the BB era, they’ve seen an undrafted free agent steal the preseason spotlight, and got a key contributor back from suspension earlier than most expected. An NFL roster can turn on a dime. An injury to one key player can sink a position group. One player outperforming expectations can change an entire season.

I have the wide receiver group down as a strength for the team. I think there is enough talent that they can win some games on the strength of the wide receivers. The Patriots have a realistic shot of hosting five solid to above average receivers on the roster. There may be a few teams that can field three good corners but you can probably count on one hand the number that can field four. I would not be surprised to see the Patriots throw four receivers on the field for a decent number of snaps this season. That was very rare last year but the personnel calculations have changed and I think the Patriots adapt accordingly.

My expectation is that this group will start steady but hit a higher gear mid-season. That being said, we cannot rule out another viable alternative: that this receiving corps loses considerable luster over time.

Jakobi Meyers has impressed playing against first-string competition in training camp and dominated against second-stringers in the preseason. But the rookie looked out of his depth in his first live showing against first stringers. The Patriots had him lined up against better corners than the ones he will usually face in the regular season and he looked more out of sync than incapable. But his ceiling is to be determined. It’s possible he turns into nothing more than a preseason wonder. He wouldn’t be the first. He won’t be the last.

Harry has the esteem of being Belichick’s first round one wide receiver pick. He also benefits from strong measurables and impressive flashes in camp. But he’s also been uneven for much of the summer and is currently nursing an injury. He’s not a lock to be a significant contributor by any means.

Josh Gordon is an electric play maker. I don’t think we reached his ceiling with the team last year. Improved conditioning combined with even more time in the Patriots’ system could make him the most explosive receiver this franchise has had since Randy Moss. On the flip side, we don’t really know where his conditioning currently is. He was clearly not in peak physical condition last year. There were numerous times where that lack of conditioning showed up relative to his dominant 2013 season.

We saw a good receiver but we certainly did not see “Flash” Gordon. And let’s be honest, the real concern isn’t Gordon’s conditioning. It’s his addiction. Supposedly, the Commissioner was involved in his rehabilitation process and Gordon graduated from a highly touted rehab program. That’s great. But Gordon has been addicted to drugs since childhood and I don’t think any plan can depend on him. I want him to succeed. Remove the football aspect from it, I want it for him as a human. But there is still a chance he won’t be with the Patriots by the end of the season.

I think Phillip Dorsett gets a decent increase in targets at the beginning of the season. I think the odds are good he is mildly productive with them, but the chances of him producing as more than a third or a fourth wideout over the course of the season are low. Heck, even Julian Edelman is not about reproach. Coming off a spectacular playoff run doesn’t change the fact that he is a 33-year-old receiver playing a physically punishing role on the offense. Am I that worried about him? No. But the clock is far closer to the end than the beginning. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he regressed from last year.

In summary, this receiving corps has a lot of potential but it is not terribly difficult to map a route to it becoming average or worse.

Defensive Line: Weakness

But Chief, I hear you cry, you haven’t you spent all summer telling us about how much you love Chase Winovich!? Byron Cowart and Danny Shelton just beat Mike Pennel off the roster. Things are looking up!

And you’d be right. I do think things are looking up. But that doesn’t change that there are a lot of potential deficiencies on the defensive line. Is there an average pass rusher opposite Michael Bennett? To be determined. Is there a single reliable run defender on the edge? To be determined. Is there a reliable pass rusher on the interior? To be determined. I feel good about Lawrence Guy’s run blocking but he’s closer to average than great. I like the potential I see from this group. But if you were ranking the empirical talent relative to the league’s upper echelon it would not be that impressive.

I think the optimistic view of the defensive line is that Shelton and Cowart pop, while Winovich develops into a pass rushing talent opposite Bennett. I think it’s more likely that Winovich is stalwart starter in year two but he may get close by the end of the season. No matter what happens it’s hard to see the Patriots not relying on their amoeba front and clever blitzing for pressure. And for the record: I expect that amoeba front to be very successful. But to me that is more indicative of coaching and linebacker talent than the strength of the defensive line.

Linebackers: Strength

I bet Belichick feels like a kid in a candy shop. The Patriots lack an elite linebacker like Luke Kuechly but the talent is as deep as it gets in the NFL. New England has linebackers that can thump the run, blitz, rush off the edge, and play in coverage. Everyone talks about the depth in the secondary but I’d argue this linebacking corps is just as deep. The question is whether anyone can emerge as that Pro Bowl-caliber player like Stephon Gilmore has in the defensive backfield.

I think it’s possible Kyle Van Noy has an even better season than he did last year, but my star candidate is Jamie Collins Sr. He is interesting because he has both the lowest proven floor and the highest proven ceiling. But he’s been a consistent playmaker throughout camp and his athleticism gives him the capacity to do things other players simply cannot. The Patriots have been victimized by receiving backs in recent history — Damien William scorched the team in the AFC title game. Collins could help alleviate that weakness.

Belichick has always been at his best when he has linebackers to play with. He will have no shortage of toys this season. The Patriots have three linebackers that can rush off the edge, four linebackers that can blitz effectively, and the potential for that much vaunted coverage linebacker. The linebacker group is very similar to the secondary in that it could be an elite NFL group. At worst it is a top ten unit.

Secondary: Strength

Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in the NFL and shows no signs of slowing down. The Patriots have a pair of aging but proven safeties in Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. I don’t expect Chung to receive a suspension from the NFL until next season so I am not holding that against the group this year. Duron Harmon is solid nickel safety, J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty provide solid to above average complements to Gilmore. Jonathan Jones has turned into one of the better slot corners in the NFL.

There are no critical weaknesses in the secondary and there are reasons to believe they could be even better than they were last year. If the secondary had a weakness last season it was covering tight ends. Joejuan Williams was drafted to specifically to fix that. Jackson was one of the best corners down the stretch last year in terms of passer rating and it’s possible he could take the sophomore leap that would give the Patriots a truly dynamic one-two punch at outsider corner. There is plenty to be optimistic about.

At the same time it’s also possible the secondary takes a step back. Gilmore was a first-team All-Pro last year so a little regression wouldn’t be that surprising. Regression from Jason McCourty would also not surprise. We cannot assume Jackson doesn’t suffer a sophomore slump or that Williams fails to be an impact big-receiver-specialist in year one. But just like the linebackers it would take a serious string of bad luck to knock this group out of the top ten in the NFL.

Running Backs: Strength

The Patriots have four starting-caliber backs and one Pro Bowl fullback. In my opinion they have the best running backs by committee in the NFL. They may lack the superstar power of a Saquon Barkley, but do not sleep on Sony Michel. He looked superior in the third preseason game and has caught every single pass thrown his way during camp this summer. It’s crazy to say about a player who tied a postseason rushing record but I honestly felt a little disappointed by him last year. I I think Michel can be and will become an even better back this season.

Damien Harris may well be a basement first-round running back that went in the third because no one values running backs anymore. Rex Burkhead provides excellent injury insurance with his versatility. James White is the best scat back in the league and took a big step forward in terms of rushing on the ground. Running backs may have limited utility in the modern NFL but this group is strong enough to help win games.

Tight Ends: Average

I think there will be some days where the tight ends are fine and I think there are other days when the tight ends are going to hold the Patriots back. I like Benjamin Watson but let’s not confuse what he is: the Patriots dragged him out of retirement because they need him almost as badly as he needs another Super Bowl ring. Ryan Izzo is a solid run blocker but I’m not going to buy into his anecdotal preseason heroics. Let’s see him do it on a regular basis. Even gimped Rob Gronkowski would provide a meaningful upgrade here. I can’t see New England’s offense collapsing because of the tight end situation, though, which is why I don’t see it as a weakness.

Offensive Line: Strength

Let’s not dance around it, losing David Andrews is a significant blow to this offensive line. That being said, I honestly think the Patriots can afford the loss of Andrews better than they could any of the other starters. Certainly, they can afford his loss more than either of the offensive tackles.

I was pretty unimpressed with Ted Karras in the preseason but he’s not awful which is more than you could say of the rest of the backup players on this team. I liked Hjalte Froholdt coming out of the draft; I know the Patriots were much higher on him than his fourth-round selection indicated but the preseason is proof that he is a raw prospect who needs more time with Dante Scarnecchia before being a dependable starter.

On a positive note, Isaiah Wynn has looked good in camp and during the preseason. I don’t think there is going to be a terribly substantive difference in production between Wynn or what Trent Brown would have produced. It’d be hard for Wynn to play better than Brown did down the stretch last season but I expect him to be close.

I mentioned a path where wide receiver could go from a strength to average but the path for the offensive line is no where near as circuitous and the hole goes significantly deeper. There is no viable swing tackle or backup interior linemen on this roster, despite Wednesday’s trades. I do not believe in Froholdt yet (emphasis on yet). I do not believe in Dan Skipper. I sure as heck do not believe in James Ferentz or Cole Croston. Korey Cunningham and Jermaine Eluemunor have yet to prove their value.

I have this offensive line down as a strength because even without Andrews I think it is a top ten line capable of taking over a game. But Lord forbid injuries strike again without the Patriots making another personnel move to compensate.

Special Teams: Strength

I am choosing to believe in Stephen Gostkowski. Jake Bailey looks like he has serious juice as a punter. The Patriots always invest in their special teamers and this year is no different. I know they struggled some last year and lost Brandon King to injury, but I think they will be a solid to good unit this year.

Overview of the Roster

Depth and production. That’s probably what I like most about this team. You have a lot of players who have shown they can produce at a meaningful level and there are plenty of players backing them up who can do the same. I hope this team is as lucky with injuries as it was last year but they have some insurance if they are not.

The Patriots haven’t had many stars the last few years and I do not see anything different this year. Yes, there are some guys with the potential to pop out in a big way but assuming that will happen seems foolish. Every fan every year could write a page long list of players who “could” take the next step. I’d rather just wait to see if any of them can do it.

Balance is another term I think reflects well on this team. You will notice I listed several position groups as a strength. I don’t see many of those groups as top five locks but I see a several of them as ranking in the top ten.

The group I am most excited for is probably the wide receivers. I know the linebackers are going to be good. I know the secondary is going to be good. I know the running back committee is going to be good. I think the wide receivers can be good — whether or not they deliver on their potential will add some suspense to this season. Tom Brady has played like an MVP every single season he’s had above average weapons. I see no reason why he can’t this year too. If Brady has some weapons to sling at than the rest of the league is going to be in a lot of trouble because the rest of the roster is pretty good.

I don’t expect the weakness of the defensive line to be a big problem. The Patriots have made do with an average to poor defensive line for three years running. The Patriots got plenty of pressure in the big game in 2016 and 2018 despite the lack of paper strength. Sure, they were not able to compensate for that weakness in 2017’s Super Bowl but they compensated for it enough to get there in the first place. If there is a flaw in the defense that’s where you’d point but I just cannot bring myself to get too worked up about it.

That being said I find myself pretty excited about this roster. There is no reason to think this roster could not end the season hoisting the Lombardi trophy for a league-breaking seventh time.

What I Would Do From Here

Depth is the name of the game here. The Patriots already traded for a backup guard and a swing tackle. I would look for a strong safety that could play if Chung got injured again. If I wanted to make another move to upgrade the roster, I’d look at tight end or the defensive line. I don’t think it would take much to upgrade the tight end room and adding a cagey vet in the vein of James Harrison could help solidify the defensive line.

What I Expected To Happen

Belichick trading for Trent Williams, Wynn moving to left guard, Joe Thuney moving to center, the entire offensive line staying healthy and Sony Michel playing like Jim Brown. Together they mow over all competition, win the Super Bowl, and show the entire world that the running game still matters!

Sorry. I nodded off there for a second.

I expected the Patriots to upgrade their offensive line depth, and they did. Outside of that I do not think there are any guarantees. I certainly would not expect a major move this late in the summer.

Final Thoughts

I can’t help but want to see Jacoby Brissett succeed in Indianapolis, even if it means on some level, Jim Irsay — his own mother called him the son of the devil — does too. I think I might find myself rooting for the Colts some this year, albeit, as long as they are not playing the Patriots or Chiefs.

I feel bad for Andrews, the human being. I’m not a doctor but it sounds like this could be something with long-term ramification for his quality of life. Even if he is forced into retirement, and we don’t know that he will be, at minimum I hope it won’t materially affect him through the rest of his life.

If the Patriots’ wide receivers pan out it’s going to be a problem for the Chiefs. Right now, their corners are nobody, garbage, and fart. Okay I am exaggerating some, but not a lot. Ditto for 3/5 of the Browns offensive line. And the Chargers. Man. At least the Patriots are not the only team that could see their season sunk by their offensive line.

I thought last year had some solid teams but I’m not convinced this year will be as competitive. Of course, I feel like that most years. Inevitably one or two teams bust out of the brush and have a surprisingly successful season before fading into obscurity. Seriously, parity exists for every single franchise except the Patriots. Sure, you have franchises like the Steelers that succeed significantly more often than not. But they still missed the playoffs last year and it’s not as if the Ravens were that good of a team. The Saints will probably make the postseason three years in a row after this season but how many did they miss before that despite having Drew Brees under center? The Patriots are truly phenomenal.

Holy crap I can’t believe we have almost made it to real football!