With training camp underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with safety Malik Gant.
Name: Malik Gant
Jersey number: 19b
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-0, 205 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 ERFA)
What is his experience? Gant’s experience in the NFL is rather limited. While he is already entering his third season after getting signed as an undrafted free agent by the Patriots in 2019, he also spent the majority of his first two seasons at the pro level on the sidelines. 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 2020 season look like? After suffering a season-ending right leg injury during his first NFL preseason, Gant found himself in a challenging position heading into his sophomore campaign. Not only was he near the bottom of the safety depth chart and coming off a season-long stint on injured reserve, he also did not enjoy the benefits of a traditional offseason: the league was forced to cancel offseason workout programs and minicamps due to the emerging Coronavirus pandemic.
Not having set foot on the practice fields during the offseason, Gant was released as part of New England’s first wave of roster cutdowns ahead of training camp. The former rookie free agent went undrafted, and stayed unsigned for more than a year. While he did work out for both the Indianapolis Colts (August) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (October), neither team decided to bring him aboard. The 2020 NFL season therefore passed without Gant having found a new team following his release from the Patriots.
Remaining unsigned well into the 2021 offseason, he tried his luck in the developmental Spring League. Playing with the Generals alongside former New England quarterback Ryan Mallett, Gant initially failed to catch the eye of any NFL team. Earlier this week, however, he finally signed another deal to return to the organization that gave him his start in the pros.
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 current Patriots safety Adrian Phillips. As such, the third-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 the 2019 exhibition slate. Playing half of New England’s special teams snaps that summer, 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, more realistically, practice squad in 2021.
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), and was used in various cornerback alignments (21). Furthermore, he showed that he can successfully handle a heavy workload in the kicking game as well. While it remains to be seen how New England opts to use him in 2021, his positional flexibility is noteworthy.
What is his salary cap situation? Gant returned to the Patriots on a one-year contract at the minimum level for a player of his experience. He will therefore spend the 2021 season on a $660,000 salary with no guarantees. His deal does not qualify for the NFL’s Top-51 rule at the moment, meaning that he will not count against the Patriots’ salary cap until he either makes their 53-man roster, gets signed to the practice squad or is placed on injured reserve.
What is his roster outlook? Returning to the Patriots just two days ahead of their preseason opener, Gant needs to get up to speed quickly to have a chance of making their roster or practice squad. The latter appears to be a more realistic destination for the 24-year-old, even though he would likely have to prove himself against other depth defensive backs such as Adrian Colbert, D’Angelo Ross or Dee Virgin. If he can do that he might just be able to stick around. The odds, however, appear to be against him.