6. Which backup tight ends will earn spots on the final roster?
There are currently six tight ends on New England’s roster: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe, Alex Silvestro, and Tyler Urban. Mike Loyko’s historical roster breakdown calculates an average of 2.91 tight ends on the final roster each season; only once during Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach has he carried more than three players at the position into the regular season. That likely means that three of the players currently on the roster will be released. Daniel Fells must be considered the front-runner for the third spot behind Gronkowski and Hernandez because of Fells’ $2 million in guaranteed money. However, the game is also important for converted defensive end Alex Silvestro, who has caught three passes for 29 yards and a touchdown this preseason; Silvestro is considered a likely candidate for New England’s practice squad. Tyler Urban will almost certainly be a cutdown casualty, while Visanthe Shiancoe’s inability to get onto the field for New England will likely force the team to release him despite offering him $400,000 in guaranteed money.
7. Can any reserve offensive linemen impress the Patriots’ coaching staff?
At this point, only seven offensive linemen can be considered near-locks for the final roster: offensive tackles Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, and Marcus Cannon, offensive guards Logan Mankins and Donald Thomas, and interior linemen Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell. Consequently, the Patriots should have at least one offensive line spot up for grabs in the final game of the preseason. Nick McDonald is considered likely to make the roster because he has experience and tackle, guard, and center, but he is likely to miss tonight’s game; Matt Kopa should be inactive as well. Tenth-year veteran Dan Koppen must impress in order to make the team; other players who could benefit from strong performances include Derek Dennis, Dustin Waldron, Jermiah Warren, and Darrion Weems. All four players are eligible for the practice squad (along with Kopa) and can earn spots with strong showings, especially considering the lack of depth along New England’s offensive line.
8. How many defensive linemen will be on the 53-man roster?
Mike Loyko’s combined totals for defensive tackles, nose tackles, and defensive ends indicate an average of 7.59 linemen per season on the opening roster; that number is likely to increase in 2012. Defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Ron Brace, and Brandon Deaderick are projected to make the team along with defensive ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jake Bequette, Jermaine Cunningham, and Trevor Scott. That makes nine players, and there is also an outside chance that an additional player such as defensive tackle Marcus Forston or defensive end Justin Francis makes the final roster, although both Forston and Francis are eligible for the practice squad and seem more likely to end up there. Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison is expected to be left off of the final 53-man roster as well.
9. Will New England release either Marquice Cole or Alfonzo Dennard?
The decision to place Will Allen on injured reserve opens the door for New England to carry both Cole and Dennard on the final roster if they so choose; however, Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, and Sterling Moore are the top four cornerbacks on the depth chart and Mike Loyko’s roster breakdown calculates a 4.58 cornerback average per season. Then again, the Patriots also carried six into the 2011 season. Both Cole and Dennard are worth keeping on the team; Cole as a special teams ace and reserve cornerback, Dennard as a developmental project who slid too far into the draft and could contribute via his press-coverage skills or even potentially convert to free safety. Both players must turn in strong performances tonight in order to boost their chances of making the team.
10. Is there room for both Nate Ebner and James Ihedigbo on the final squad?
Sixth-round pick Nate Ebner was considered a raw safety who would likely only contribute as a special teams player, but his play on the defense has been impressive this preseason and he now appears destined for the final 53. James Ihedigbo’s injury troubles have caused him to miss a substantial amount of time this preseason, which may cause the Patriots to part ways with him despite his special teams contributions and extensive 2011 snap count. The Patriots have averaged 4.75 safeties per season, so it’s possible both players can make the squad, but at this point it makes more sense to allow Ebner to assume Ihedigbo’s previous role while freeing up an extra roster spot for a defensive lineman or defensive back. If Ihedigbo does not impress tonight, he will likely be relegated to the Patriots’ emergency list.