Now that the dust has settled and the New England Patriots have trimmed their roster down to the league-mandated 53 players, we have a clearer picture of how the team will look heading into the Week 1 showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here are some observations gleaned from the roster decisions that were made over the weekend.
1. Jarrett Stidham beats out Brian Hoyer
When Stidham was drafted in the fourth round by New England, many didn’t expect the Auburn graduate to push Hoyer for the backup quarterback job so quickly. By no means was Hoyer any slouch this preseason. In fact, he was really good, finishing 18-of-22 in the preseason for 202 yards and two touchdowns, along with one interception, for a passer rating of 116.3. But Stidham showed that he may be further along in his development than most thought when he was drafted. The most promising sign about Stidham is that Bill Belichick already thinks Stidham is good enough to run the offense for a play or two if Tom Brady were to get dinged up, in place of the veteran Hoyer. If Stidham can keep developing at this pace, the Patriots may have something in him.
2. No quarterback on the initial practice squad
Another sign of the confidence this team has in Stidham is not signing a quarterback to the practice squad. While the composition of the practice squad can always change, it shows that this team has faith in Stidham to run the offense if Brady were to suffer an injury.
3. N’Keal Harry to injured reserve
Harry went down early in the first preseason game against the Lions and hasn’t been heard from much since. It is believed he is recovering from both an ankle injury and a hamstring injury, and now he will get the first half of the season to focus solely on recovery, as New England placed him on injured reserve Monday. While this allows him to get 100 percent healthy and learn the playbook, this also robs him of precious reps with Brady on the field, in the preseason and now also in the regular season. Are we sure that a rookie wide receiver will be able to seamlessly transition into a new offense in the stretch run of the season, with Brady at quarterback? It would say a lot about Harry if he could do that, but expectations should be tempered for Harry after this news, which is a shame.
4. Gunner Olszewski makes the team
After initially being told he was cut, and then later finding out the Patriots reversed course and decided to keep, Olszewski joins Jakobi Meyers as one of two rookie undrafted free agents to make the team this year. Olszewski can help out most on special teams at this point, as a punt returner, but will also get to continue to develop as a slot receiver behind the greatest slot receiver in Patriots franchise history, in Julian Edelman (apologies to Wes Welker fans).
5. The Patriots have size at the WR position
With Demaryius Thomas back in the fold to make up for the loss of Harry, the Patriots can field an offense with two 6-foot-3 receivers on the boundaries in Thomas and Josh Gordon. That will help mitigate the loss of Rob Gronkowski, especially in the red zone, and gives this offense a vertical element that will allow it to attack opposing defenses any way it wants: in the air or on the ground.
6. Shorthanded at the tight end position
Perhaps the most glaring weakness on this year’s team, to start, is the tight end position. And the lack of talent — and depth— reflected at the position currently, with just Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse as the only tight ends on the active roster, really sticks out. Ben Watson will come in after he serves his four-game suspension, but it’s hard to see a 38-year-old tight end, who suffered a concussion this preseason, playing a huge role for this team. The New England offense was always going to have to adjust dramatically with Rob Gronkowski retiring, but the lack of adequate options brought in to help replace Gronk is somewhat concerning.
7. Second-string offensive line completely revamped
The coaching staff clearly did not love their options on the backup offensive line, trading for three new offensive linemen right before roster cuts, and having them all make the team, despite an extremely limited window of evaluation. That shows you the lack of confidence they had in players such as Cole Croston, James Ferentz and Dan Skipper, to bring in three new guys and keep them on the roster despite not having a chance to see how they fit with the team before roster cuts.
8. Isaiah Wynn is ready to roll
After spending the first half of preseason on the sideline, recovering from his torn Achilles, it appears the team Wynn is ready to have the training wheels taken off heading into Week 1. With the newly-acquired Korey Cunningham projecting to be the backup swing tackle, it would appear New England is confident that the second-year left tackle won’t need to rotate in and out early on to get his conditioning right. Wynn has looked very good this preseason, coming off injury, and as long as he stays healthy and has his sea legs underneath him, should help keep Brady’s blindside protected.
9. Ted Karras vs. Russell Bodine an early season battle to watch
Karras was widely expected to step in for David Andrews (blood clot in lungs) at the center position, until Bodine was acquired from the Bills. It’s a shrewd move acquiring a former NFL starter with considerable starting experience at the center position in the NFL. Bodine is not elite by any means, but gives New England some protection at a key position on the O-line if Karras struggles early on.
10. Deatrich Wise makes the team
I had Wise as a question mark when it came to him making the team this summer, with the New England defense seeming to shift to more of a 3-4 defense this season. Seeing Wise playing deep into the fourth preseason game couldn’t have made him feel great about his chances, either, but it’s possible that the decision to put fellow edge defender Derek Rivers on IR opened up a spot for Wise, who is still a solid player. It will be interesting to see how he utilized this year. Does he stay on the edge? Or will he kick inside more, playing more as a five-technique than a seven-technique?
11. Rivers can’t catch a break
Rivers seemed to have an inside track on a roster spot after a strong start to his preseason, until it was derailed by an undisclosed injury. That’s now two season-ending injuries in three years for the former top draft choice out of Youngstown State. Not good.
12. Shilique Calhoun survives cuts despite injury
One of the early standouts in training camp, Calhoun’s hold on a roster spot got shakier with every passing day, as he also was sidelined with an injury. But it appears his performance early on showed enough to the coaching staff to keep him around, and help him avoid an IR placement. Hopefully his injury is more short-term than Rivers’, as it looks like Calhoun could be another player picked up off the scrap heap that turned into a treasure with New England.
13. New England’s linebacking corps is deep
A little surprised that Elandon Roberts wasn’t traded, as Calvin Munson had a good preseason and has more special-teams value than Roberts, a fifth linebacker. But Roberts showed impressive growth last season and is a talented player that will add a physical presence to what has to be one of the best linebacking groups Bill Belichick has ever coached.
14. Keion Crossen trade a surprise
The guess here was that it would come down to Crossen or Duke Dawson for the sixth cornerback spot on the roster. Well, Belichick said ‘no thanks’ to that, and traded both young corners away for late-round picks. While Dawson did not do much to deserve a spot, Crossen has shown that he can contribute to a Super Bowl-winning team, as evidenced by last postseason, and played well this preseason. Crossen was tabbed by some to be the heir apparent to Matthew Slater as the next great New England special teams player. Nevertheless, the New England secondary is still loaded with talent and versatility, and will be a big part of what should be a shutdown Patriots defense this season.
15. Experience, and age, at the safety position
With the exception of newcomer Terrence Brooks, the safety position remains unchanged from last year for the Patriots. With a new defensive play-caller this year, it will be good to have veteran voices in the defensive backfield to help call the shots in Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung. But age and health has to be a slight concern for this group, with Chung, 32, coming off of offseason shoulder surgery and McCourty openly flirting with retirement at the end of last season. Does Obi Melifonwu factor into this discussion at all, besides his special-teams contributions? That remains to be seen, as the athletic specimen made the team despite a minimal role last season and a lack of eye-grabbing plays this preseason. Still, though, the UConn product is just 25 years old, has impressive size and physical tools for the position, and clearly is doing enough to impress the coaching staff if they are keeping him around.
16. Get ready for the Jake Bailey show
After beating out the incumbent Ryan Allen for the punter job a few weeks ago, Bailey hasn’t looked back since then. The ball booms off his foot, and the hang times on his punts are consistently impressive. You never want to see your team punting, but Pats fans will have a little consolation prize getting to see Bailey launch some footballs into the stratosphere this season.
17. Running back the most talented position on offense
As the team’s offense morphed into a run-first approach deep into the season last year, expect more of the same this year, to help take some of the load off of Tom Brady’s shoulders. Sony Michel will be the workhorse back again, and looks primed to have an even better season than last year. James White is somehow still just 27 years old, and should be one of the top pass-catching running backs in the NFL again this season. How the carries are split between Burkhead and rookie running back Damien Harris will be interesting. Burkhead is a versatile and talented player who gives the team great flexibility when he is on the field, but health is always a question with him, as he dealt with a nagging injury for a couple weeks this preseason, too. Harris also was sidelined with a minor hand injury, but is close to full health now. It would appear he’d be the player to take a back seat in this position group, at least to start the season. But the team will be able to keep all running backs fresh throughout with this impressive stable of ball-carriers.
18. Depth at slot receiver a little underwhelming
New England fans collectively gasped when they saw Edelman come up shaking his hand after his only catch of the game against the Giants last week, and it highlighted the lack of options behind him, if the veteran slot receiver were to suffer an injury. Olszewski still needs some seasoning before he can become an option to replace Edelman, leaving the talented, yet unproven, Meyers as the likely option to step in for Edelman if Edelman were to get hurt. This team will be able to spread the ball around on offense this year, but losing Edelman would still be a critical blow to this team. Relying on a 33-year-old with an injury history to be one of the top options in the passing game is a risky proposition.
19. Stephen Gostkowski’s early season performance something to watch
After missing two field goals prior to Week 4’s matchup against the Giants, there was some concern about a dip in production from the longtime New England kicker. But a 3-for-3 performance against the Giants helped allay concerns about Gostkowski heading into the season. Still, a slow start for Gostkowski in the regular season could be cause for concern for this team for the rest of the season.
20. Who starts opposite Stephon Gilmore in the secondary?
As mentioned earlier, the Pats have an embarrassment of riches in the secondary. Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson are the top options to start opposite All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, with McCourty being the favorite to start Week 1. But Jackson is no slouch, and will push McCourty for playing time all season long, and vice versa. Both players should get their fair share of snaps, and will be essential to locking down the passing attacks of regular-season opponents such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.