For the majority of the off-season, the chatter coming out of New England (and the rest of the NFL) is that the Patriots bolster one of the most impressive rosters in quite some time. With that being said, it makes it difficult for many players to have a fair chance at a spot on this team. The Patriots at one point had 19 undrafted free agents signed during the course of this off-season. Most, if not one or two at the absolute most, will make the final cut.
One such player vying for a spot is Northwestern wide receiver Austin Carr. While it’s hard to get overly excited for someone who had five receptions, 44 yards and a touchdown in a preseason game against mostly back-ups and end-of-roster players, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Carr, who won the “triple crown” in 2016 for the Big Ten, had the most receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns of any player in the conference. He certainly showed he was not only capable of handling a big workload as a main skill player, but also being able to produce with that big workload as well.
Surprisingly, he went undrafted in this past April’s NFL Draft. The Patriots scooped him afterwards and was immediately hoisted onto the pedestal of the “Patriots’ slot wide receiver”. Considering that Julian Edelman was a seventh-round pick and that Danny Amendola and Wes Welker were also undrafted, it’s fair for Carr to draw those initial “comparisons”. But Carr has not only shined in training camp so far, but he made the most of his opportunities against another NFL team last week.
Now many are pondering the question, “does Carr actually have a chance?” And the answer is yes. While his odds are probably slim at this juncture, he stands an underdog’s chances. But like D.J. Foster, Jonathan Jones and even at one point, Edelman himself, all Carr needs is a chance.
One of Carr’s biggest hurdles is the current wide receiver depth the Patriots have. Arguably the best wide receiving core in the league with Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Amendola, there isn’t exactly a lot of room for another wide receiver to squeeze in there. But as I have personally mentioned many times in recent weeks (and months even), having Carr on the roster for 2017 is not a move for that season. This would be more of a move for 2018 (and beyond).
Amendola’s contract expires after this season while both Cooks and Hogan will be in the last year of their deals in 2018. Carr could in theory slide right into a slot wide receiver role after this season as Amendola doesn’t seem likely at this juncture to return (especially if he wins another Super Bowl) as he would be 33 before the end of the 2018 season and has dealt with numerous injuries over his career. Carr was a prolific slot receiver at Northwestern and as stated before, has already made a few into believers from watching him play.
If Carr were to make the roster, he likely would be a game-day inactive for the team and would only suit up if another wide-out suffered an injury. But if Carr does keep impressing throughout the preseason and the team tried to slip him through waivers onto the practice squad, it might be difficult as other teams would have the chance to claim him first (see Cre’Von LeBlanc & Kamu Grugier-Hill from 2016). And even if he does make it to the practice squad come week one, there is no guarantee he will stay there the entire time as a team can sign him to their 53-man roster during the season.
Another option could be making the initial roster but then be diverted to the injured reserve with a season-ending “injury” (Foxboro Flu, anyone?). If he is sent to the IR after the roster cut-downs, he wouldn’t be subject to waivers before being placed on injured reserve. The team could also try to stash him on the IR as roster cuts are happening, but he would be subject to waivers first if it’s before the 53-man roster cut-downs are mandatory. He could still pass through waivers as teams would need to commit a 53-man roster spot to him if claimed, which would be a waste if he is dealing with some sort of injury.
In regards to Carr’s actual chances of making the initial 53-man roster, it’s going to heavily come down how many players the Patriots choose to keep at key positions.
One such position is EDGE rusher, where the depth chart seems to be wide open behind Trey Flowers. As I predicted a few weeks ago, I had the Patriots keeping five EDGEs before Rob Ninkovich’s retirement. And actually after his retirement, it is possible that the team only does keep four with it being Flowers, Kony Ealy, Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise.
The reasons behind that include the idea that Shea McClellin plays more EDGE in 2017 as opposed to off-ball linebacker. The team experimented with it a bit in 2016 and we could see more of it this season. Another could be that Dont’a Hightower receives more EDGE responsibilities in 2017 and has David Harris/Kyle Van Noy/Elandon Roberts play more at linebacker. Hightower has proven to be a threat when it comes to rushing the passer, so it could be an option. Carr could prove to be more valuable to the team at the end of their roster rather than someone like Geneo Grissom or Deionta Davis being their fifth option at EDGE rusher.
Another position is cornerback, where the Patriots also bolster impressive depth. While Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe are locks, the team also has Jonathan Jones, who seems likely to make the team and also be the leading candidate for their slot cornerback opening. While I did have the team also keeping second-year cornerback Cyrus Jones on the team, it’s fair to question whether he is a lock to make this team.
Known mostly for his constant mistakes on kick/punt returns, Jones has also contributed very little in pass coverage, where he was guilty part of allowing over 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns against the Jaguars last week (against almost entirely second and third-team players). Jones is a second-year player who was drafted in the second round, so it might seem unlikely on the surface. But seeing as the team may have the best outside trio of cornerbacks in the league (Butler, Gilmore, Rowe) and a budding Jonathan Jones, the team may decide to cut their losses with Cyrus.
Another thing working against Cyrus Jones is that in nickel packages (which the Patriots run quite a bit with a 4-2-5 defensive scheme), Duron Harmon comes in and Patrick Chung (normally plays at strong safety) essentially plays cornerback, which does come in handy. It still seems moderately unlikely at this point, but if he continues to play poorly, Cyrus Jones could be shown his walking papers in only his second season. That could free up a spot for Car in theory, providing another possibility.
One last position (albeit not technically a roster spot) is special teams/specialists. The Patriots certainly have a few core special teamers on the roster, including All-Pro Matthew Slater, Brandon King and Nate Ebner. All three play primarily, if not entirely, on special teams. If Carr is able to expand his impressive play to special teams, whether it be as a returner (which would help Cyrus Jones even less) or as a gunner, that would most certainly help his case. With how much depth the team has at linebacker and safety, it could give someone like King or Ebner a run for their roster spot.
All in all, Carr faces tall odds, there is no doubt about that. But he has a fighter’s chance and there are certainly plenty in his corner. He has a chance to be one of the few undrafted free agents who makes the team and also has a shot at being a serviceable player beyond 2017 if given the opportunity. He has plenty of time to keep making his case in training camp/preseason. But if last week against the Jaguars was any indication, he will make it very hard for the coaching staff to not give him a chance.