The New England Patriots opened training camp yesterday, and it is fitting for me to pen my first 53-man roster projection at this time. It’s especially difficult to guess where the pieces at the back end of the roster fit, and I can only hope that scheduling this piece three days in advance doesn’t bite me in the butt (the Patriots have been known to make surprise cuts earlier than expected, with Donald Jones being a recent example). Before we get started, you can also compare my 53-man to staff writer Cyrus Geller’s projection, and his piece his well worth the read.
Both Brady and Mallett are locks to make the final roster, and I think Tebow also ends up finishing out training camp with a gig as the third-string QB who never gets activated. The Patriots have to have something in store for Tebow, and I have a feeling he stays on so that Josh McDaniels and the Pats can try and develop him into a capable backup behind Brady and trade Mallett. Tebow’s roster spot is right on the 50-50 line, but I am at north of 50 on him right now. If he flops in training camp and shows no prospects as a project QB without upside to develop, then the Patriots will have no issues cutting him loose.
Stevan Ridley is a lock for the Patriots as the workhorse back who will once again run for over 1,000 yards behind a great offensive line, and the Patriots have plans for Shane Vereen. He will help partially replace some production and scheme versatility that Aaron Hernandez was responsible for, and there is no doubting Vereen’s explosiveness and pass-catching ability. He’ll be used all over the formation to try and get mismatches, and it will be interesting to see how much his rushing improves. It’s easy to get too worked up on Vereen, though, and you can’t forget some injury issues with him.
Keeping five running backs on the roster is a bit unorthodox, but both Nick Underhill and Jeff Howe told me some time ago that the Patriots are willing to give five guys if those players prove that they are worth it. I think both Bolden and Blount will prove worthy of roster spots, and Blount has so much talent as an explosive, agile, home-run back who once ran for 1,000 yards. As for Bolden, it sounds like the coaching staff likes him, and he showed plenty of promise as a rookie (we all remember the bruising back’s great game against the Buffalo Bills).
Yes, I’ve been suckered in by the whole Kenbrell Thompkins madness that stemmed from his excellent performances in OTAs and minicamp, and my logic for putting Thompkins on the 53-man is the same logic that reportedly motivated the release of Donald Jones. I can see Michael Jenkins making the roster to provide a veteran presence, but I believe that the Patriots want to go younger at the position. While Thompkins has practice squad ability, the Pats did release Jones partially due to Thompkins’s explosion, and he has interesting upside. We’ll know more about whether or not Thompkins is a fluke sleeper, and I’ll adjust my projections accordingly based on his camp play. But he is the best of the UDFAs on the depth chart and provides more upside than Jenkins. I may have picked too many uncertain young guys, but I also believe the other five receivers are locks or close to that; I can’t see any of them getting cut.
There’s a very real chance of Rob Gronkowski getting placed on the PUP list, and that would make Zach Sudfeld a lock to crack the 53-man roster. Nobody on this list is a lock, though, except for Gronkowski, and I had to make a tough cut at the end to keep my roster at 53. I love Daniel Fells and view him as an underrated player who is an excellent run blocker, but Michael Hoomanawanui is a very good blocker in his own right. He’s also younger, cheaper, more athletic, and he is more versatile (plays H-back). Sudfeld has too much upside for me to cut, and he was a top blocker in college as well. All four of these tight ends are well-rounded, and these are the most individually talented four.
I decided to classify Marcus Cannon as a right guard, because I believe he will make a legitimate case for starting over Dan Connolly and has a fair shot of unseating Connolly (though Donald Thomas really should have unseated him last year). Markus Zusevics was almost my fourth tackle, but I had to shave him off in order to help keep Tebow and Blount on the roster (I believe in talent over positional scarcity).
These four speak for themselves, though McDonald‘s younger brother Chris is a UDFA to watch.
C: Ryan Wendell (1)
Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch intrigues, but Wendell is a lock as an amazing run blocker. He took a lot of snaps last year in the no-huddle and is already one of the best centers in the NFL heading into his second year as a starter. Could the PSU C make it as a second center? I doubt the Pats keep two, especially since they could move Cannon to RG and kick Connolly inside if need be.
Michael Buchanan was as tough a cut as there is on this roster, so I’ll have to stick him on the practice squad. I think Bequette shows improvement in training camp, but I am starting to get worried about the high-upside DE. Justin Francis isn’t as good of a pass rusher as some people think, but the Rutgers product does his job and is very productive against the run. This is list is subject to change a lot behind the two starters.
The Patriots made a commitment to actually get defensive tackles that can go after the quarterback and generate pressure, and they delivered in a big way. Tommy Kelly is an elite interior pass rusher with his head on straight, playing disciplined football, and the Patriots are the perfect team for a DT in need of motivation (as long as it isn’t Albert Haynesworth, who was just beyond hope). The first three guys are locks, while I have Cory Grissom as a UDFA that is just too good to cut for Marcus Forston, who doesn’t have quite the upside. Grissom looks like a solid fourth DT that can provide some beefy run defense and good depth at the position. Why the USF product was drafted, I’ll never know.
Dane Fletcher gives Brandon Spikes the perfect foil in coverage, while Jamie Collins always has a spot as a hybrid DE/OLB (part of the reason why I only kept four DEs in name) and second-round pick with his promise and athleticism. Steve Beauharnais is a “do your job” player who will have a role on special teams, and he’s the guy replacing the old Tracy White role.
Alfonzo Dennard’s precarious legal situation gives more though to special teamer and backup nickel corner Marquice Cole, but the Pats already have enough players who can play the nickel. The drafting of Logan Ryan basically makes Cole’s role on this defense obsolete, and I would also like to add that there is almost no way Dennard gets cut for a DUI.
I like all five guys, and the depth at safety helps the situation at corner. If the Patriots want to, they can always play McCourty for Dennard at corner, keep Arrington in the slot where he belongs (please do not play him out of position on the outside again). Contrary to what some think, McCourty is a very good CB who merely suffered from a putrid sophomore slump in 2011? Don’t believe me? Go back and watch his play at CB last season again, and I’ll also be happy to provide some PFF numbers.
Mesko is the only player that isn’t a lock here, but I won’t take Ryan Allen over Mesko until we see what Allen can do in camp. There are two kickers on the roster, but the kicker going after Gostkowski barely registers a blip to me. Gostkowski is set to make a lot of dough, but he’s also a great kicker and has little competition. Meanwhile, Allen is a former Ray Guy winner and has a fair shot at winning the gig. Will he? I don’t think so.