With one month to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 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 a member of New England’s offensive line.
Name: Najee Toran
Jersey number: 68
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-2, 305 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 ERFA)
What is his experience? Despite serving as a starter along UCLA’s offensive line the previous two seasons, Toran did not hear his name called over the course of the NFL’s 2018 draft. Instead, he had to find a home at the pro level through rookie free agency — and he did when the San Francisco 49ers added him on a three-year contract. That deal led to only partial stability, however, as the youngster failed to make the team’s 53-man roster after his first training camp and instead had to start the season on the practice squad.
The move was a sign of things to come. Despite a three-week stint on San Francisco’s active roster early on during his rookie campaign, Toran has yet to appear in an actual regular season or playoff contest as a pro: he spent the majority of his first year in the NFL on the 49ers’ developmental roster as well as all of his second on New England’s. Toran does have practice experience and has played considerable snaps in eight preseason games, but is still entering Year Three as a comparatively green option.
What did his 2019 season look like? After ending his rookie campaign in San Francisco on the 49ers’ practice squad, Toran signed a one-year futures pact with the organization after its 2018 season came to an end. This deal allowed the second-year man to compete for a spot on the active roster again during the summer and in preseason. And as was the case the previous year, Toran did see considerable action during the exhibition slate as a versatile interior offensive lineman capable of playing center and filling both guard spots.
In this role, Toran appeared in all four preseason games and was on the field for 187 of the 49ers’ 270 offensive snaps (69.3%) as well as 12 more on special teams (of 108; 11.1%). Along the way, the UCLA product did not just prove his positional flexibility but also that he was capable of performing at a serviceable level both in the running game and as a pass protector: on 93 pass-blocking snaps, Toran surrendered just four combined quarterback pressures when he surrendered one sack as well as two hits and an additional hurry.
For the second straight year, however, his performance in preseason did not earn him a spot on San Francisco’s 53-man roster. Toran was among the players released on cutdown day, which in turn paved the way for him to join the Patriots: three days after he was cut, New England added him to its practice squad. Toran spent the entire 2019 season there and eventually was signed to another futures contract after the team’s season came to an end in early January.
What is his projected role? With starting center David Andrews set to return to the lineup after a one-year absence due to blood clots in his lungs, the Patriots’ starting interior offensive line is set for another year. Accordingly and barring any injury, Toran is projected to once again serve a backup role on either the active roster or the practice squad. Based on his career up to this point, however, he should be able to fill all three interior spots if need be.
What is his special teams value? The Patriots do like to use their offensive linemen in the kicking game as well, and Toran should not be an exception if judged by how the 49ers’ employed him the last two years: he saw regular preseason action on both San Francisco’s field goal and extra point kicking units. Serving as the right guard in those lineups, Toran is projected to be used in similar fashion in New England.
Does he have positional versatility? If Toran wants to make the Patriots’ roster this year or at least earn himself a spot on the practice squad again, he will need to take advantage of his versatility. He has experience playing all three interior spots, and regularly did so last preseason: Toran lined up primarily at right guard, but also was moved to center and the left guard position. If push came to shove, he should be able to play all three positions.
What is his salary cap situation? As noted above, Toran signed a one-year futures contract with the Patriots shortly after the team’s 2019 season came to an end. As part of this deal, he is not just scheduled to enter exclusive-rights free agency next offseason but also on the team’s current books with no salary cap hit: his contract does not include any guarantees and also currently not qualify for the NFL’s Top-51 rule, which means that his salary-only cap number of $675,000 will only count once he makes the active roster in September.
What is his roster outlook? Although he brings one year of experience on their practice squad to the table, Toran is far from a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year and could again be headed for a possible increased developmental team. After all, he is facing some tough competition in the form of Hjalte Froholdt and Jermaine Eluemunor as well as rookies Michael Onwenu and Dustin Woodard. Toran’s versatility could help him make the cut, but he appears to be fighting an uphill battle considering the upside around him.