By 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the New England Patriots will have reduced their roster from 80 down to 53 players. The process of doing so, and the results emerging from the moves, will tell us quite a bit about the team and how the coaching staff views its strengths and weaknesses at this point in time.
It will also give us answers to some questions that remain unaddressed heading into cutdown day. Here are four big ones we will be keeping an eye on throughout the day and heading into the post-deadline portion of the week.
How many players will be let go? Either through release, trade or other transaction, New England needs to part ways with at least 27 players on its current active roster by Tuesday afternoon. Of course, NFL rules say nothing about a maximum number of players to be released or otherwise moved ahead of the cutdown deadline: the Patriots can go below the 53-man threshold as much as they like.
While 27 players will definitely be impacted, the other 53 are not entirely safe either. That is especially true in case some follow-up transactions are already in the works such as acquiring players via trade or adding them through the waiver wire.
Will there be any surprise moves? The Patriots under head coach/general manager Bill Belichick have never shied away from making the shocking move if they think it will help their team in the long run. Accordingly, fans, media and players like need to be prepared for (almost) everything: one or more surprising moves taking place could very well happen.
So, who would be the most realistic candidates to fall into this category? When looking at cutdown day from a purely economic point of view, several can be identified: wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor have both looked good this summer, but their contracts would allow moving on from them rather easily; the same is true for long-time defensive tackle Lawrence Guy.
The Patriots moving one or more of them would be quite surprising, but not entirely unrealistic when looking simply at their contract situations. Of course, decisions go far beyond numbers on a spread sheet, which is why all three are expected to be on the team when all is said and done.
The same cannot be said with quite the same confidence about core special teamer Cody Davis. Not only could the Patriots generate gross cap savings of $1.8 million by moving on from him, the veteran also has undrafted rookie Brenden Schooler breathing down his neck. Speaking of whom...
Which undrafted rookies will make the team? New England has had at least one undrafted rookie make its opening day roster each of the last 18 years — among them future cornerstones such as David Andrews or Jonathan Jones. At the moment, there are eight candidates on the roster, with several of them having a real shot at sticking around on the 53-man team.
Going through the list, the following four can be identified as candidates to keep the UDFA streak alive:
LB DaMarcus Mitchell: Coming off a solid preseason that saw him register a sack and a forced fumble, Mitchell saw plenty of action as an outside linebacker and on special teams.
DT LaBryan Ray: The Alabama product has lined up all over the New England defensive line since his arrival after the draft and has shown his disruptive skills on several occasions in practice and preseason.
C Kody Russey: If the Patriots feel confident in Russey’s ability to offer depth outside of the center position he exclusively manned in preseason, he might have a shot at making the team over a more experienced option such as James Ferentz.
S Brenden Schooler: The aforementioned Brenden Schooler has seen some action on defense, but his most prominent contributions have come as a five-unit special teamer — including, among other roles, filling Cody Davis’ spot as the personal punt protector.
Time will tell whether or not those four will make the team, but they appear to have as good a shot as any undrafted rookies in recent memory. The same, however, cannot be said about the other four UDFAs still on the team: tight end Jalen Wydermyer, linebacker Nate Wieland, defensive tackle Jeremiah Pharms Jr. and safety Brad Hawkins are all expected to be released on Tuesday.
“I think we have some very competitive guys in that category,” head coach Bill Belichick said on Monday. “It’s a very competitive situation, and some of those guys take that and make the most of it. We’ve had plenty of that in this camp.”
Will some offseason hype trains derail? The offseason is a time of hype and hope alike, but Tuesday’s cutdown deadline has the potential to put an end to both. While some players such as Josh Uche appear to be safe, the same cannot be said for fellow hype-getters: wide receiver Tre Nixon, linebacker Cameron McGrone and safety Joshuah Bledsoe are all on the roster bubble after some strong performances earlier during the year.
Fans and media alike have fired up the hype trains. Now, they might see them derail for good after some up-and-down training camp and preseason performances (especially out of Nixon and McGrone).
How do they view their overall depth? As noted above, the initial 53-man roster and who is left off of it will say a lot about how the Patriots view their depth across the board. Some positions in particular are worth keeping a close eye on in that regard, given that they faced some questions heading into, and throughout, training camp:
Running back: With James White retired and Ty Montgomery nursing an ankle injury, will New England keep third-year man J.J. Taylor around? Or will the team show trust in one or both of its rookies — Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris — to offer depth behind Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson?
Wide receiver/Tight end: Let’s jointly discuss those spots because they are somewhat related: Will New England keep a projected sixth wide receiver, or a third tight end? Or, maybe, both?
Interior defensive line: The top spots appear to be set in stone, but the Patriots’ impressive rookie class might make for some interesting decisions. Is a fifth D-lineman more valuable than additional depth at linebacker or cornerback, for example?
Off-the-ball linebacker: The Patriots’ top linebackers — Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson — will likely not be going anywhere. The depth players behind them? Neither Jahlani Tavai nor Cameron McGrone, Harvey Langi or Nate Wieland appear to have emerged; Tuesday will show whether the team agrees with that assessment.
Cornerback: Terrance Mitchell started training camp as a starter, but he has slid down the depth chart due to the new role handed to Jonathan Jones. Will he make the team, or is fellow depth cornerback Shaun Wade viewed as a more favorable option?
On paper, the Patriots do have some positions head coach Bill Belichick would describe as “competitive.” And while those six are among them, there are some questions about the depth and bottom-of-the-roster players within each group.