Patriots Roster Watch: Locks, Bubbles, and Long-Shots - NECN

Patriots Roster Watch: Locks, Bubbles, and Long-Shots

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Patriots Roster Watch: Locks, Bubbles, and Long-Shots

    Seventeen days and three preseason games remain before Patriots head coach Bill Belichick must pare his roster down from 90 players to 53.

    Plenty can happen between now and then, but the majority of the roster seems to be rounding into form.

    Roughly 75 percent of the roster – 39 players – feel locked into place already, with another eight that should still have a locker come Sept. 2.

    That doesn’t mean there isn’t an assortment of talented players still fighting for a roster spot. Some 19 players are squarely on the roster bubble, but can make an impression – one way or another – in the coming weeks to solidify their spot with the Patriots.

    Players who are “locks” needn’t worry about their status between now and the opener. Players who “should be in” may have a bit of work left to do, players who are on the “bubble” have about a 50-50 shot at making the roster, and players who are “long shots” will really need to shine during the dog days of the preseason.

    Here’s a look at where the Patriots’ roster stands today and what could change within each position group in the weeks ahead:

    Quarterbacks

    Locks: Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo

    Should be in: None

    Bubble: Jacoby Brissett

    Long shot: None

    The next several weeks are key for Brissett, one of the team’s third round picks in 2016. While he no doubt has the arm strength to play in the NFL, he’s had an inconsistent training camp and did nothing to stand out in the preseason game vs. Jacksonville. Bill Belichick hasn’t kept three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for a full season since 2011, but the decision on Brissett may not be made solely for 2017; Garoppolo is a free agent at season’s end. The quarterback situation is something to watch well beyond final cut downs on Sept. 2. I believe Brissett can make the team, but he’s far from a lock.

    Running Backs

    Locks: James White, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead

    Should be in: Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden

    Bubble: None

    Long shots: LeShun Daniels, Jr., D.J. Foster

    We should know more about where Lewis stands within this group after Saturday’s preseason game vs. Houston. Was there a reason he figured so prominently into the team’s approach vs. the Jaguars last week, while some 40 other Patriots sat out the game? Bolden carried the ball five times and added two receptions vs. Jacksonville, but his status has nothing to do with what he can do on offense. Bolden, who had just one carry during the 2016 regular season, will be counted on as a core special teams player - particularly if Matthew Slater is out for any extended period of time. Also of note: the Patriots are 17-0 with Lewis in the lineup since he joined the team in 2015.

    Fullbacks

    Lock: James Develin

    Should be in: None

    Bubble: Glenn Gronkowski

    Long shots: None

    The Patriots don’t have fullback as a position on their unofficial depth chart, but that’s exactly what Develin and Gronkowski are. Develin is in many ways a prototypical battering ram of a seemingly bygone era, but he was lined up in front of LeGarrette Blount for 14 of his Patriots-record 18 touchdown runs last season. Just because Blount is gone doesn’t mean the Patriots will abandon jumbo packages on the goal line. Don’t be stunned if Rob’s younger brother finds his way back on to the New England practice squad.

    Tight Ends

    Locks: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen

    Should be in: None

    Bubble: James O’Shaugnessy, Matt Lengel, Jacob Hollister

    Long shot: Sam Cotton

    Allen looks more Alge Crumpler than, say, Marty Bennett as a compliment for Gronk; he’s an excellent blocker but his hands have been a work in progress since arriving in New England this offseason. He’s been much better in training camp than he was in OTA’s. The role for No. 3 tight end is one of the best battles to keep an eye on as the preseason continues to unfold. All three players have an advantage in their own right: Lengel already has a full year in the Patriots’ system under his belt. O’Shaugnessy comes from Kansas City with a special teams pedigree and was seen working with core players from that unit at Monday’s practice. Hollister’s seven catch, 116-yard performance vs. Jacksonville last week – bearing in mind it was preseason – proves he has at least some acumen as a pass catcher. Gronk isn’t likely to play much, if at all, in the preseason, so chances remain for all three players on the bubble to show they have what it takes to stick.

    Wide Receivers

    Locks: Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Matthew Slater

    Should be in: None

    Bubble: Austin Carr, Devin Lucien

    Long shots: Cody Hollister, K.J. Maye, Tony Washington

    In reality, Carr and Lucien are closer to being long shots than even on the bubble. But consider the following: Amendola, in the final year of his contract, has played in all 16 regular season games just once for the Patriots, while Edelman has also reached the 16-game threshold just twice in his Patriots career. Both players are 31 years old. Mitchell had an encouraging rookie season for New England last year, but has been banged up during training camp. Slater, while on the roster for special teams purposes, may not be ready for the season opener. Is it impossible to see a scenario where Carr or Lucien are the beneficiary of an injury between now and cut down day? Above all else, both players – particularly Carr – have had strong training camps. Carr had an undeniable chemistry going with Garoppolo against the Jaguars in the team’s preseason opener. Do not totally rule out the undrafted Northwestern product hanging around.

    Offensive Line

    Locks: Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Tony Garcia

    Should be in: Ted Karras

    Bubble: Cameron Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle, Conor McDermott

    Long shots: Cole Croston, Jamil Douglas, Max Rich, James Ferentz, Andrew Jelks, Jason King

    From left to right, the first five locks comprise New England’s starting offensive line. Garcia was a third round draft choice this April and could be the heir apparent to Solder at left tackle sooner than you think. Karras can play across the interior line, a place where the Patriots are not deep and saw Thuney struggle a bit as his rookie season wore along. Fleming, a fourth-round pick of New England in 2014, has yet to take any meaningful step forward to prove he can be a starter in the NFL. But thanks to the continuing struggles of Waddle, who got beat twice badly vs. Jacksonville, Fleming has the upper edge as a reserve tackle. McDermott, the Patriots’ sixth round pick this April, should be able to essentially redshirt this season on the practice squad.

    Defensive Line

    Locks: Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Trey Flowers, Derek Rivers, Vincent Valentine, Deatrich Wise Jr., Lawrence Guy

    Should be in: Kony Ealy

    Bubble: Adam Butler, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

    Long shots: Woodrow Hamilton, Josh Augusta, Darius Kilgo, Caleb Kidder

    There’s a reason Ealy, who had three sacks of Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 50 just 18 months ago, was available via trade this offseason. Stunning may not be the right word to describe the potential of Ealy not making the roster, but disappointing sure would be. While the Patriots gave up a second round pick to get Ealy, they received a third rounder back from the Carolina Panthers – a matter of just eight draft slots. Still, the guess here is that Ealy is given every shot over the next few weeks to lock down a roster spot. A player with that kind of talent seldom falls into your lap. But it’s up to him. Meanwhile, Davis is worth monitoring. Initially pegged as a mid-round pick, he went undrafted in April due to a bulging disc in his neck. The practice squad is much more likely, but he’s also been the lone new addition to New England’s roster during training camp. Butler has looked good in camp but is likely the victim of a numbers crunch, while Grissom could certainly benefit if Ealy fails to get on the same page as the coaching staff.

    Linebackers

    Locks: Dont’a Hightower, David Harris, Shea McClellin

    Should be in: Kyle Van Noy, Jonathan Freeny

    Bubble: Harvey Langi, Elandon Roberts

    Long shots: Brooks Ellis, Trevor Bates

    Hightower remains on the PUP list, meaning the 33-year-old Harris has been leading the first-team defense throughout training camp. It’s not a very deep unit, but Langi is arguably the biggest surprise from Foxboro thus far. The undrafted rookie out of BYU signed with the Patriots shortly after April’s draft and has spent plenty of time along the edge with the first-time defense, as well as taking part in drills with core special teamers. Frankly, it would almost be a surprise if Langi didn’t make the team at this point. Van Noy and Freeny would have to become completely invisible to not breakthrough to the opening day roster. Roberts, a sixth-round choice of New England in 2016, saw his snap count decrease as the postseason went along for the Patriots last winter. He played 36 snaps at linebacker vs. the Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional Round, 22 snaps vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game and just 14 snaps vs. the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Did he hit a rookie wall, or was it something else Belichick saw?

    Safeties

    Locks: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner

    Should be in: None

    Bubble: Jordan Richards, Brandon King

    Long shots: Damarius Travis, Jason Thompson, David Jones

    Quarterback aside, the Patriots seem to have more experience at safety than any other position on the roster. McCourty, Chung, Harmon and Ebner have all been with New England for four seasons or more. If anyone can join the group, it will be King – though like Ebner, special teams are his bread and butter. Richards did not have a particularly strong game against Jacksonville last week.

    Cornerbacks

    Locks: Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore

    Should be in: Jonathan Jones, Eric Rowe

    Bubble: Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones

    Long shots: Kenny Moore II, Will Likely, D.J. Killings

    Jonathan Jones appears to be the latest in a long line of special teams gurus for the Patriots. Rowe was a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, a team which gave up on him after just one season…which is a position Cyrus Jones just may find himself in, although Belichick has never cut a first or second-round pick before their second season (the Eagles traded Rowe rather than release him). Either Cyrus Jones, Coleman or one of the long shots will make the team – there’s no way the Patriots go into the regular season with just four corners. The question is: which one? Coleman has done nothing to weaken his case in the preseason, while Cyrus Jones played a pivotal role in two negative plays against the Patriots in their game vs. the Jaguars. He allowed touchdowns of 97 and 79 yards while in coverage against players listed as backups on Jacksonville’s depth chart in Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook. Granted, he received no help from safety Jordan Richards on Westbrook’s score. But the fact that Westbrook could create that much separation from Jones to begin with might say it all. The wild-card in all of this is the return game for New England. The health concerns and ages of Edelman and Amendola, players who excel at returning punts and kickoffs, are no secret. Cyrus Jones has the capability to do both; why place an extra burden on them if it’s avoidable? Due to the lack of a first round pick in 2016, Cyrus Jones was the highest-drafted player by the Patriots that year at No. 60 overall. Their highest-drafted players in 2014 (Dominique Easley, No. 29), 2013 (Jamie Collins, No. 52) and 2012 (Chandler Jones, No. 21) are already gone. There are so many factors to consider when it comes to Cyrus Jones.

    Specialists

    Locks: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen, long snapper Joe Cardona

    Should be in: None

    Bubble: None

    Long shots: None

    Gostkowski had connected on 91 percent or more of his kicks for three straight seasons before regressing to the mean in 2016, when he was perfectly average. He finished tied for 15th out of 31 qualified kickers with an 84.4 (27 for 32) field goal percentage. Gostkowski is 33, far from ancient as far as kickers go. Belichick has made it perfectly clear he has faith in Gostkowski to turn things around by not having an extra kicker in training camp. If he gets off to a slow start in the regular season? His status will be revisited. Until then, he’s your kicker.