As part of the ongoing negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players Association about how to conduct training camp in the age of Covid-19, the league is expected to reduce roster sizes from 90 to 80 players. While not official yet, and no details about such a cut-down have been reported either, the reduction is all but official meaning that teams will have to release players over the next week in order to get under the soon-to-be mandated threshold.
The New England Patriots currently have 90 players under contract, but there is a chance that they still will only need to part ways with nine of them: fullback Jakob Johnson is roster-exempt due to his status as an international player. As a result, the team might be allowed to carry 81 players heading into camp — but it will still have to be prepared to let 10 men go in case league regulations call for 80-man rosters regardless of status.
So with that said, who are the most likely candidates to be released between now and a start of camp that is currently scheduled for next week? Let’s take a look at those who are projected to be near the bottom of the roster at the moment, either due to their draft status or lack of developmental upside.
QB Brian Lewerke: One of the Patriots’ undrafted rookie signings, the former Michigan State quarterback offers natural arm talent and a fairly athletic skillset to succeed as a dual-threat passer. However, his inconsistent anticipation and processing skills have limited him throughout his career and in turn make him a lower-upside option compared to fellow rookie QB J’Mar Smith.
WR Devin Ross: Ross arrived in New England last October, when the team signed him to its practice squad following a three-month stint on the open market. But while he does have some experience in the team’s system stemming from the 2019 season, he has shown little over the course of his three-year career in the league that would suggest he can take the next step. His comparatively average athletic profile certainly does him no favors.
WR Will Hastings: Hastings had rather pedestrian production during his five years at Auburn — he caught 56 passes for 845 yards and six touchdowns — and will have to take a big step forward to earn his stripes in the NFL. Given that the Patriots have plenty of other bodies to compete against him for a spot on the wide receiver depth chart or in the return game, however, his stint with the club might come to an end sooner rather than later.
TE Jake Burt: Neither Burt nor fellow undrafted rookie tight end Rashod Berry have shown much in the receiving department over the course of their college careers: they were primarily used as blockers. The difference is that Berry has shown more versatility after having seen some action as a rotational outside linebacker at Ohio State. Burt, on the other hand, is a more one-dimensional player at this stage in his career.
G/C Najee Toran: Toran spent the majority of his first year in the NFL on the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad as well as all of his second on New England’s. While the 24-year-old does have practice experience and has played considerable preseason snaps at both guard and center, he is still entering Year Three as a comparatively green option — and one who faces an uphill climb on what is a deep Patriots interior offensive line.
DT Nick Thurman: For the second year in a row, the odds do not work in Thurman’s favor at the defensive tackle position. Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Beau Allen are locks to fill three of the spots, with Byron Cowart on the inside track to earn the fourth. With undrafted rookies Bill Murray and Courtney Wallace appearing to have better developmental upside, the 25-year-old might be on the outside looking in.
DE Tashawn Bower: Bower is in a similar situation as Thurman: he has been in the league for quite some time now — Thurman arrived in 2018, Bower one year before that — but has shown little actual development. As a result of this, the Patriots could prefer to go with younger prospects along the defensive edge who still have a shot at reaching a higher ceiling than the 25-year-old (see: Nick Coe or Terez Hall).
LB De’Jon Harris: One of five rookie linebackers brought aboard by the Patriots this year, Harris might be the least versatile of the bunch: he is a rather one-dimensional downhill force player who attacks with a physical edge but offers limited upside outside the box. This in combination with his rather average athleticism and non-prototypical size could lead the team to prefer other options at the position over him.
CB Lenzy Pipkins: The first free agent to be signed by the Patriots this year, Pipkins has been near the bottom of the depth chart ever since his arrival. New England, after all, has as deep and talented a cornerback group as any team in football. While he offers some experience on defense and special teams, the numbers and his stagnant development since 2017 simply work against Pipkins.
S Adarius Pickett: The Patriots invested some considerable resources in their safety position this offseason, which in turn created a difficult environment for Pickett to begin with: four safeties — Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips — are either locks or near-locks to make the team, with little to no room for the second-year man to carve out a role.
What has to be kept in mind, of course, is that this list is merely a projection: the Patriots could also opt to trim their roster elsewhere. Neither the team’s other undrafted rookie wide receivers — Jeff Thomas, Isaiah Zuber, Sean Riley — nor fourth-year edge defender Derek Rivers or second-year men D’Angelo Ross or Malik Gant are safe when it comes to reducing roster sizes from 90 to 80 players.
However, the expectation is that the team will try to create a mix of experience and developmental upside heading into training camp. Undrafted rookies, who make up almost half of the players listed above, are therefore naturally in a bad spot after the league decided to cancel offseason workouts.