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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Cassh Maluia has a pretty big hill to climb in order to make the team

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: OT Trent Brown

NFL: OCT 25 49ers at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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 linebacker Cassh Maluia.

Hard facts

Name: Cassh Maluia

Position: Off-the-ball linebacker

Jersey number: 44b

Opening day age: 22

Size: 5-foot-11, 230 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Maluia’s time in the NFL began when the Patriots selected him in the sixth round of the 2020 draft. His experience in pro football is therefore limited to one season that he spent moving between New England’s active roster and practice squad. Along the way, he saw action in nine games. Despite his comparatively limited experience at the professional level, Maluia has played plenty of football before joining the Patriots: he appeared in a combined 50 games over the course of his college career.

During his four seasons at the University of Wyoming, he repeatedly showed his value as a downhill run defender and a player capable of making the big play in the passing game — especially after being elevated to the starter level during his sophomore campaign back in 2017. All in all, Maluia finished his time with the Cowboys with a combined 198 tackles as well as one-and-a-half sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and three recoveries. He also saw regular action in the kicking game.

What did his 2020 season look like? Even though Maluia proved himself a reliable and productive player during his senior season at Wyoming as well as a leader both on and off the field, he ended his college career having built relatively little momentum heading towards the draft. He was neither invited to one of the college exhibition games nor the scouting combine, and appeared to be headed for rookie free agency before the Patriots picked him up with the 204th overall selection in April.

Upon his arrival in New England, Maluia found himself in a challenging situation. With the Coronavirus pandemic impacting life all over the NFL, he had to make the jump to the next level without traditional offseason workouts or any preseason games. Seeing him fail to make the initial 53-man roster was therefore not a surprise: Maluia was released as part of the Patriots’ final cutdowns and later signed to the practice squad. Just one day later, though, he was promoted to the active roster again.

Maluia spent the next two months on the active team, appearing in six games. Even though he was later released for a second time, he again returned via the practice squad. The youngster was elevated to the game-day squad on two occasions afterwards and eventually re-signed to the 53-man squad for the season finale against the New York Jets. In total, his rookie season ended with nine in-game appearances. Maluia played 10 snaps on defense (of 1,017; 1%) and 75 on special teams (of 399; 18.8%); he did not register any statistics.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Maluia aligned as an off-the-ball linebacker in Wyoming’s 4-2-5 defense, and he continued to play a similar role for the Patriots in 2020 as well. Looking forward, the expectation is that he will be used in the same fashion: he is projected to see the field primarily on early downs and in short-yardage situations, while also bringing experience in the kicking game to the table. Maluia will not be a starter-level, every-down linebacker, but he can be of value as a role player.

What is his special teams value? While listed as a linebacker on the Patriots’ roster, they actually used Maluia more in the kicking game during his rookie season. In total, he saw action on five units: the majority of his playing time came on the kickoff return (34 snaps), kickoff coverage (22) and punt return squads (16), but he also was employed for a handful of snaps on punt coverage (2) and the field goal/extra point blocking teams (1). He will be a factor in the game’s third phase yet again in 2021.

Does he have positional versatility? Maluia has shown that he can play multiple roles in the kicking game, but his versatility on the defensive side of the ball appears to be limited. He is a classic inside linebacker, who will align off the ball and only occasionally if at all move up to the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, the 22-year-old is better suited to fill an early-down role than to drop back into coverage or attack the pocket as a pass rusher.

What is his salary cap situation? Returning to the Patriots after they let him go in March, Maluia re-joined the club on a one-year contract worth $780,000. Given that the deal does not include any guarantees, it does currently not count against New England’s salary cap: the contract is not among the 51 most expensive on the team’s current roster, meaning that Maluia will only hit the books if the makes the active roster, injured reserve list, or gets signed to a practice squad contract at one point.

What is his roster outlook? While Maluia does have some experience in the system and can help out on special teams, he is a long shot to make the team. While the Patriots are a bit thin at the off-the-ball linebacker spots with Raekwon McMillan now on season-ending injured reserve, Maluia has not shown that he can play the position at an adequate level in the NFL. He appears to be a practice squad candidate if he looks good during preseason, but should not be counted on to make the 53-man roster.