NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
With organized team activities and mandatory minicamp all wrapped up, it’s officially summer for the New England Patriots. But come July 24, the rest and relaxation will be over for the 90-man roster.
It is then that training camp on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium will commence. It is then that the competition for roster spots will be heightened to a level far exceeding offseason workouts. It is then that head coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and staff will start the clock.
Time will be of the essence.
By 4 p.m. on Aug. 27, the organization’s brass will have to whittle the roster to 75 players. And by 6 p.m. on Aug. 31, they’ll have to cut it down to 53.
Additions and subtractions, as well as joint practices and preseason games will transpire between now and then. Yet as we enter the June calm before the July storm, here is a 53-man roster forecast.
Quarterback (3) – Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Garoppolo
Cuts – None
New England’s quarterback position is in good standing behind Tom Brady, and the return of fourth-year backup Ryan Mallett affords rookie second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo a chance to acclimate to the NFL level from the FCS level. While Mallett and Garoppolo are two very different kinds of QBs – one a strong-armed pocket passer, the other an accurate maneuverer – both could solidify the present and future of the organization under center.
Running Back (4) – Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, James White, Brandon Bolden
Cuts – Roy Finch, Stephen Houston, Jonas Gray
While there are concerns – whether it is ball security or health – there has been a symbiotic relationship between the physical, slashing running style of Stevan Ridley and the change-of-pace, receiving impact of Shane Vereen. Both 2011 draft choices are in line to head the running back committee in 2014, but there are reinforcements. Fourth-round pick James White is a small, strong and elusive runner with tremendous vision, while Brandon Bolden is more of a between-the-tackles rusher with respectable hands and special teams experience. Due to their well-versed capabilities on the back end, it will be tough for first-year player Jonas Gray, as well as undrafted acquisitions Roy Finch and Stephen Houston to crack the team. Even so, the rookie collection behind White carries some diversity.
Tight End (3) – Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, James Develin
Cuts – D.J. Williams, Justin Jones, Asa Watson
Under this scenario, Rob Gronkowski is on the active roster Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins, just nine months after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee. And if that were the case, the tight end depth chart might delve just two deep – in some sense. Behind Gronkowski and re-signed utility man Michael Hoomanawanui, there’s fullback James Develin. As a special-teamer, a blocking back in “21” personnel, and a third tight end in jumbo sets, the well-traveled Brown product has had to do more than job title before. That versatility could very well save the Patriots a roster spot once again. Now, a veteran acquisition could change the complexion of the position, but it looks like a heavy dose of three-receiver sets are in the offense’s future. D.J. Williams, Justin Jones and Asa Watson are vying to change that.
Wide Receiver (7) – Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater
Cuts – Jeremy Gallon, Reese Wiggins, Wilson Van Hooser, Jeremy Johnson
New England’s wide receiving corps retooled last year, drafting Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce while also catching a boost from undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins. The young collection that had its share of growing pains behind the 100-catch, 1,000-yard emergence of Julian Edelman, yet now it has continuity. Adding Brandon LaFell into the mix adds some height and inside-out flexibility, while drafting 5’7” Michigan wideout Jeremy Gallon adds insurance and strong hands to the slot. In result, the number of capable players outweighs the number of roster spots. But regardless of what position is next to his name, Matthew Slater – who’s played 209 offensive snaps in his NFL career – is considered a lock for his expertise on special teams.
Center (2) – Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork
Cuts – Braxston Cave
Though his performance declined after a quality 2012 campaign, Ryan Wendell re-signed with the Patriots this offseason. The 2008 undrafted signee seems to have company at center, though; it comes in the form of Florida State fourth-round pick Bryan Stork, guard Dan Connolly and former practice-squadder Braxston Cave. Currently, Wendell gets the edge and Stork gets an opportunity as a mid-round draft investment.
Guard (4) – Logan Mankins, Marcus Cannon, Jon Halapio, Josh Kline
Cuts – Dan Connolly, Chris Barker, Chris Martin
A fifth-round selection out of Texas Christian in 2011, Marcus Cannon has proven to be serviceable to the Patriots at both right guard and right tackle. He’s started only seven of his 37 NFL regular-season games, but the 6’5”, 335-pounder is more than capable of securing a full-time gig on the line. Promoting the 26-year-old Cannon would come at the expense of the 31-year-old Connolly, whose three-year, $9.75 million pact expires in 2015, according to Spotrac.com. At this time, it could make sense; Florida sixth-round rookie Jon Halapio and returning Kent State product Josh Kline are also in the wings. Kline and five-time All-Pro Logan Mankins worked in tandem on the left side late last season.
Offensive Tackle (3) – Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Cameron Fleming
Cuts – Jordan Devey
Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are entrenched as New England’s starting bookends. After them, Stanford fourth-rounder Cameron Fleming is on deck as a swing tackle, providing Cannon a chance to kick inside to guard. And if need be, Mankins can also filter back to his collegiate position as he did in 2013. Jordan Devey – who was on the practice squad last season – will be striving to prove he’s not a redundancy.
Defensive Tackle (5) – Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Dominique Easley, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones
Cuts – Joe Vellano, Marcus Forston, Armond Armstead, Seali’i Epenesa, L.T. Tuipulotu
New England’s unproven defensive tackles were thrown into the fire when Vince Wilfork and Tommy landed on injured reserve last season. But now that the two vets are back for what will be their 11th year, the trees have grown up around them. Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Marcus Forston all gained valuable experience from the attrition, and all have a shot to make an impact because of it in 2014. Yet with Florida first-round pick Dominique Easley rushing his way into the mix, the snaps will be hard to come by. It’s early, but Vellano, Forston and the enigmatic Armond Armstead are firmly on the bubble.
Defensive End (4) – Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Michael Buchanan, Will Smith
Cuts – Zach Moore, Jake Bequette
The Patriots often played just three defensive ends in 2013, and that gave way to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich leading all 4-3 defensive ends in snaps. Rookie seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan earned a role as a nickel rusher early in the year before Andre Carter was brought back, but they finished a distant third and fourth at the position. Yet now, the 35-year-old Carter is a free agent and Buchanan has competition from longtime New Orleans Saints right end Will Smith and Concordia-St. Paul sixth-rounder Zach Moore. Moore could certainly make a run at spot, though the interchangeability along the interior could crunch the outside depth. Both he and 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette – who played 14 snaps last season, per Pro Football Focus – are on the fringe.
Linebacker (5) – Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, James Anderson, Steve Beauharnais
Cuts – Chris White, Ja’Gared Davis, Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Deontae Skinner, Darius Fleming, Taylor McCuller
With the departure of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher via free agency, the Patriots are hoping 2013 second-rounder Jamie Collins can pick up where his postseason left off. Aiding his development is a healthy Jerod Mayo and a comfortable Dont’a Hightower, who will assemble alongside him in New England’s base defense. On the other hand, in the sub-package defense and on special teams, eight-year vet James Anderson and former seventh-rounder Steve Beauharnais provide some food for thought. If the Patriots decide to keep the aforementioned five, that would likely leave special-teamer Chris White and practice-squad promotion Ja’Gared Davis on the outside looking in. Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Deontae Skinner, Darius Fleming and Taylor McCuller will also need strong training camps.
Safety (5) – Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Jemea Thomas, Patrick Chung, Nate Ebner
Cuts – Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis, Shamiel Gary
With the Patriots sporting primarily two deep safeties in 2013, the line between free and strong safety was a thin one. Look for a similar arrangement in 2014, particularly with the ascending Devin McCourty and second-year pro Duron Harmon manning the back end. Sixth-round Georgia Tech product Jemea Thomas – who has experience at cornerback, nickelback and safety – and the reunited Patrick Chung are also in the mix. And if the organization opts to keep a fifth safety, it’s likely between special-teamer Nate Ebner, 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson and former Troy linebacker Kanorris Davis.
Cornerback (5) – Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Daxton Swanson
Suspended – Brandon Browner
Cuts – Justin Green, Travis Hawkins, Malcolm Butler
Though it may be an oversimplification, the Patriots were able to improve all areas of the defense with one signing this offseason. The presence of Darrelle Revis should not only make New England’s safety play better, it should have a ripple effect in linebacker zone drops, pass rush, and elsewhere at the cornerback position. It is there that Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are looking to make an impact both outside and in. And with the 6’4”, 221-pound Brandon Browner set to return from suspension after Week 4, there could be another name in the carousel until then. NESN.com’s Doug Kyed made note of former Sam Houston State standout Daxton Swanson, who turned in an impressive spring. If Swanson can continue to look the part this summer, second-year special-teamer Justin Green will have to stand apart.
Special Teams (3) – Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Danny Aiken
Cuts – Tyler Ott
The Patriots are playing cover-one at placekicker and punter with Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen. There is, however, a cover-two scheme going on at long snapper between third-year incumbent Danny Aiken and Harvard alum Tyler Ott. Ott also played tight end for the Crimson Tide, catching 15 passes for 188 yards and four touchdowns as a senior, but Aiken gets the nod for now.
The weather is subject to change.