Bill Belichick took the podium at Gillette Stadium Tuesday morning and told reporters that quarterback Cam Newton was “definitely moving in the right direction.” Under two hours later, the New England Patriots released the veteran quarterback, signaling that rookie Mac Jones will be the team’s Week 1 starter.
The surprise move was just one of many the Patriots made on cut down Tuesday. While more moves are certainly set to be made, let’s analyze the team’s initial 53-man roster.
Mac Jones: QB1
After Sunday’s preseason game against the New York Giants, Mac Jones told reporters he’d “be ready when my time comes.” Well, his time is now, as the rookie went out and won the Patriots’ starting quarterback job fair and square.
Despite playing second fiddle to Newton throughout training camp and preseason, Jones was often the better quarterback. He was quick with his reads and his accuracy was as advertised. Jones appeared to be a perfect fit in Josh McDaniels’ offense.
The turning point for Jones came in the last week of training camp, as Newton missed five days to a “misunderstanding” of the Covid-19 protocols. In the team’s first joint practice against the Giants, Jones carved up the Big Blue defense — the first moment throughout the offseason that he appeared as a serious threat to dethrone Newton atop the quarterback depth chart. Belichick treats joint practices with just as much importance as preseason games, which surely played a part in the decision.
As Jones won the starting job for New England, he’s also the only quarterback that made the team’s initial 53-man roster. Along with Newton, veteran Brian Hoyer was also released on Tuesday. The move was likely just made to allow New England some initial roster flexibility, however. The Patriots will most likely move a player currently on the 53-man roster to the IR in the coming days (perhaps wide receiver N’Keal Harry), opening a roster spot for Hoyer. It would be a surprise to not see Hoyer back shortly.
With Stephon Gilmore officially starting the season on the PUP and the surprise cut of Myles Bryant, the Patriots enter the 2021 season with just eight active defensive backs. While there is plenty of versatility within the group, it certainly is a position of concern for the team moving forward.
Jalen Mills appears to be the first man up across from J.C. Jackson, but the former Philadelphia Eagle has struggled in man-to-man coverage in both the past and throughout this summer. Joejuan Williams — who had an inconsistent training camp — has the ideal size (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) to fit on the outside, he often is too slow to keep up with opposing wideouts. Jon Jones should be first man up in the slot, but has been nagged by some minor injuries in the last two weeks of camp. The Patriots also acquired rookie Shaun Wade within the past week.
If New England can survive the first six weeks of the season without Gilmore, they will be in great shape for his eventual return from a quad injury. However, they might need to continue to explore for potential upgrades and depth in the meantime.
Kicker competition and UDFA streak continues
After a disastrous preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles — in which undrafted free agent kicker Quinn Nordin missed three total kicks — it appeared like Nordin lost all momentum towards a roster spot. However, as cutdown day came and went, Nordin got the nod over veteran Nick Folk, keeping the Patriots’ 18-year UDFA streak alive as well.
While the former Wolverine has had issues spraying the ball since college, his leg is no joke. At Michigan, Nordin went 42-of-58 on field goals with a long of 57 yards and 119-of-124 on extra points.
Despite the struggles near the end of camp, Nordin impressed while Folk missed an extended period of time in the middle of training camp. Nordin stole the show in a pair of practices inside Gillette Stadium, going 14-for-14 overall, including a pair of 50-plus yard ‘game-winning’ field goals.
Folk, on the other hand, could be kept around on the practice squad. The 36-year old is not required to pass through waivers, so easily could be hung onto as insurance. Folk has been extremely consistent throughout his time in New England — going 42-of-47 without missing inside 40-yards — but a monster leg has never been a club in Folk’s bag. The Patriots believe Nordin has some serious potential, which is why they're keeping him around.
Potential outside wide receiver help
With just five wide receivers on the initial 53-man roster (not counting Matthew Slater), and Harry potentially headed to the injured reserve, the Patriots might be in the market for some wide receiver help. There were plenty of talented options who were released and/or waived on Tuesday, a few who might've caught the Patriots’ eye.
As Belichick is known for picking players off of rosters he faced in joint practices, former Eagles wide receiver Travis Fulgham and Giants wide receiver David Sills could be intriguing options. Both Fulgham (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) and Sills (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) are bigger-bodied receivers that could help replace Harry.
Looking outside of joint practice opponents, veteran receiver John Brown requested and was granted his released from the Las Vegas Raiders. Brown could be worth kicking the tires on as a field stretch beyond Nelson Agholor. The Kansas City Chiefs also waived their fifth-round selection Cornell Powell. New England got a close-up look at Powell this past offseason when they attended his Clemson Pro Day.