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 second-year players.
Name: Malik Gant
Jersey number: 42
Opening day age: 23
Size: 6-foot-0, 205 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 RFA)
What is his experience? Gant’s experience in the NFL is rather limited. While he is entering his second season with the Patriots after getting signed as an undrafted free agent last year, he also spent the majority of his rookie campaign on injured reserve. That said, he does have plenty of football on his résumé stemming from his time in college: despite joining Marshall as a walk-on in 2015, Gant carved out a starting role during his final two seasons as a member of the Thundering Herd.
All in all, he appeared in 37 games for the school after redshirting during his freshman campaign. By 2017, after he earned a scholarship, Gant had become a starter and was one of his team’s best defenders over the next two years before leaving school to enter the NFL: he appeared in 25 games over the span, starting 24, and registered a pair of interceptions as well as a sack and 16 pass breakups. Along the way, he was named to two All-Conference USA squads — first team in 2018, second team in 2017 — as well as team MVP in 2018.
What did his 2019 season look like? Even though he was invited to showcase his skills at the NFL scouting combine, Gant did not hear his name called during last year’s draft. Instead, he had to go the free agency route to find a new team — and find one he did: the Patriots brought him aboard during their first wave of undrafted rookie signings in 2019, adding him to an already crowded secondary. Despite his status and spot on the depth chart, however, Gant left a positive first impression.
The Marshall product looked competitive during spring practices and showed some solid development in training camp as well. This also translated over to New England’s preseason games, during which Gant served as a regular on both defense and special teams: appearing in all four contests, he was on the field for 95 of a possible 247 snaps on the defensive side of the ball (38.5%) as a versatile safety filling multiple roles, and also was a mainstay in the kicking game by playing 50 of 99 snaps (50.5%).
While he had some ups and downs — he missed three tackles on seven total attempts and also surrendered a touchdown in coverage — Gant did show his promise by allowing just two receptions for 43 yards on five targets and also looking good playing downhill. Unfortunately, however, his season came to a premature end during the preseason finale: well on his way to earn a practice squad spot, he was carted off the field after hurting his right leg. He was subsequently placed on season-ending injured reserve.
What is his projected role? Gant saw considerable action as a coverage safety both at Marshall and during his first preseason in the NFL, but his skillset projects most favorably in a downhill safety/linebacker role like the one played by veteran Patrick Chung. As such, the second-year man would primarily be asked to match up with tight ends and running backs when in coverage while also having considerable responsibilities playing downhill versus the run.
What is his special teams value? The Patriots used Gant extensively in the kicking game during last year’s exhibition slate. Playing half of New England’s special teams snaps, he was a member of five units: the then-rookie played on punt and kickoff coverage and both return teams, while also seeing action as a flanker on field goal and extra point blocking squads. His special teams experience could be the key to making the 53-man roster or practice squad in 2020.
Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, the Patriots used Gant in more than just one role during his first preseason — both on defense and special teams. While he saw most of his defensive snaps as a box safety (39 snaps), he also played deep (27 snaps), and was used in various cornerback alignments (21 snaps). Furthermore, he showed that he can successfully handle a heavy workload in the kicking game as well.
What is his salary cap situation? New England signed Gant to a standard three-year free agency contract last summer. This pact in combination with the fact that he missed the entire 2019 regular season on injured reserve, means that he will hit the team’s salary cap with just $513,333 this year — among New England’ lowest current cap impacts, and one not counting against the NFL’s top-51 offseason stipulation for the time being. Only $3,333 of Gant’s deal are guaranteed.
What is his roster outlook? Despite trading away Duron Harmon, the Patriots invested considerable resources in their safety position this year: they re-signed Devin McCourty before free agency, extended Patrick Chung, added Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis through the open market, and drafted Kyle Dugger in the second round. Needless to say that Gant faces an uphill climb to carve out a role on this deep depth chart. His best chance therefore appears to be via the kicking game and by continuing to show his ability to fill more than just one role on defense. Still, Gant is looking like practice squad material at the moment.