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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: Can Cassh Maluia fill the void created by Elandon Roberts’ free agency departure?

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: LB Kyahva Tezino

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 22 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Central Michigan v Wyoming Photo by Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with one of New England’s draft picks.

Hard facts

Name: Cassh Maluia

Position: Linebacker

Jersey number: TBD

Opening day age: 21

Size: 5-foot-11, 230 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Maluia’s time in the NFL began when the Patriots selected him in the sixth round of this year’s draft. His experience in pro football is therefore limited to seven weeks worth of virtual workouts — he has yet to practice on the field alongside his new teammates due to the Coronavirus pandemic — as well as New England’s rookie developmental program. That said, he has played plenty of football before joining the team in late April: Maluia appeared in a combined 50 games in his college career.

During his four seasons at the University of Wyoming, he repeatedly showed his value as a downhill run defender and a player capable of making the big play in the passing game — especially after being elevated to the starter level during his sophomore campaign back in 2017. All in all, Maluia finished his time with the Cowboys with a combined 198 tackles as well as one-and-a-half sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and three recoveries. He also saw regular action in the kicking game.

What did his 2019 season look like? After Maluia was hampered by an elbow injury throughout almost his entire 2018 junior season, he opted to stay in school for his senior year — a decision that turned out to be a good one: the 21-year-old delivered another solid campaign and as one of the team’s veteran leaders helped Wyoming reach and win the Arizona Bowl. Along the way, he once more showed his value as a contributor both on the defensive side of the ball and on special teams.

Appearing in all 13 of his team’s games and not suffering any reported injuries for the first time since arriving in Laramie three years earlier, Maluia may have been overshadowed by fellow senior linebacker Logan Wilson but still posted some good numbers: he notched 61 combined tackles — including seven for a loss of yardage — and also registered half a sack as well as one quarterback hit. On top of it all, Maluia also intercepted two passes and was named to the All-Mountain West Conference as an honorable selection.

Even though Maluia proved himself a reliable and productive player for the Cowboys during his senior season (and before it as well) and a leader both on and off the field, he ended his college career having built little momentum heading towards the draft. He was neither invited to one of the college exhibition games nor the scouting combine, and appeared to be headed for rookie free agency before New England picked him up with the 204th overall pick in the draft.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? Maluia aligned as an off-the-ball linebacker in the Cowboys’ 4-2-5 defense, and is expected to continue to be used that way in New England. In this role, he could help fill the void created by the free agency departure of Elandon Roberts: like the ex-Patriot, Maluia is at his best when playing downhill in the running game. He is therefore projected to be used primarily on early downs and in short-yardage situations at the next level.

What is his special teams value? Maluia carved out a role in the kicking game shortly after arriving in Wyoming, and he is expected to be used in a similar fashion in New England. This could very well be the key to him making the Patriots’ 53-man roster during his rookie season regardless of his draft status: the team did lose core special teamer Nate Ebner in free agency, for example, and Maluia could be a candidate to step in on the Patriots’ kickoff and punt teams.

Does he have positional versatility? Even though Maluia was a two-way player in high school — he played both safety and served as a dual-threat quarterback — his value in the NFL will come on defense and special teams. In those two areas, however, his versatility projects to be limited: while he could become a four-unit player in the kicking game, Maluia’s defensive contributions will come as an off-the-ball linebacker with relatively little upside as a pass rusher.

What is his salary cap situation? Shortly after getting drafted, Maluia signed a standard three-year deal with the Patriots that hits the team’s books with a salary cap number of $650,666 this year. Given that he is currently not among New England’s top-51 contracts, however, only his signing bonus proration of $40,666 does currently factor into cap calculations — the rest will only hit it after he either makes the active roster or gets placed on an injury-related reserve list.

What is his roster outlook? While the Patriots did invest a draft pick in him and also lost some considerable talent at the linebacker position this offseason, Maluia is far from a lock to make the team given his draft status. That said, if he can prove himself on special teams and successfully play an Elandon-Roberts-like role as an early-down defender, the youngster could very well put himself in a position to survive roster cutdown day — or at least become a serious practice squad candidate.