The New England Patriots are set to take on the Carolina Panthers Friday night for their third preseason contest. With training camp concluded and some transactions already taken place, the roster is beginning to take shape.
Here’s my prediction who will make the cut position-by-position before the team hits the field opening day. —
Quarterback (2): Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett
With Tom Brady suspended for the first four games, he does not count against the team for this prediction. Obviously when he’s allowed to rejoin the team on Oct. 3, they’ll have to make a corresponding move.
There was an outside shot of Bill Belichick bringing in a veteran QB as a backup, but it looks like the team will go with these two unless an injury occurs.
Running back (5): James White, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney, LeGarrette Blount, James Develin
The tailback group is still a somewhat of a question mark and one that will be fascinating to watch until week one in Arizona. Dion Lewis will stay on the Physically Unable to Perform list after a recent knee clean up surgery will reportedly keep him sidelined for two months.
James White and Brandon Bolden are locks. They have defined roles and will be leaned upon in various ways. Devilin could be in jeopardy, but his toughness and versatility will make it difficult to cut him.
As for the inside the tackle runners? That’s a whole other story. Gaffney and Blount have had their moments, but neither look threatening. The team could still be looking around the league for some more firepower. For now, these two make the cut.
Wide receiver (5): Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Keshawn Martin
Edelman and Hogan seem ready to go despite bumps in the road throughout camp. While Amendola hasn’t returned, it’s still my belief he’ll be ready for week one. Mitchell stood out in practice and during his preseason debut before suffering an elbow injury. While his timetable could conflict with the start of the season, he’s in as well.
The real question is the fifth receiver spot. Martin has been unable to get back on the field, so Aaron Dobson has closed the gap and could ultimately sneak in. But Dobson will have to make a strong case the last two weeks in order to secure his place on the team.
Tight End (3): Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, AJ Derby
The first two are easy. Gronk and Bennett could be the league’s most impressive tight end duo unleashed in years.
With the money New England threw at Harbor in free agency, it was hard to see him not making the team, but AJ Derby has taken over. Derby made more plays in practice and in both preseason contests. If he were to be cut, he won’t be available long because other team’s will be calling.
The versatility with these three will keep opposing defensive coordinators up before games.
Offensive line (9): Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, Marcus Cannon, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, LaAdrian Waddle, Josh Kline, Cameron Fleming, Ted Karras
The offensive line has taken a beating since the first projection. Sebastian Vollmer will stay on PUP likely until the midseason deadline to see if he can return after a hip injury. Bryan Stork’s trade to the Washington Redskins locked up Andrews as the starting center for the time being.
Also of now, the current line projects — from left to right — Solder, Thuney, Andrews, Kline (until Mason is healthy) and Cannon.
New England’s tackle depth was weak before the preseason, but it’s nearly non-existent now. Fleming makes the roster purely as a body, but the team should be looking for a veteran option.
For now, positional coach Dante Scarnecchia returns in hopes he can settle a group that crumbled towards the end of last season. He has his work cut out for him.
Defensive Line (9): Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, Terrance Knighton, Alan Branch, Vincent Valentine
For this exercise I combined the edge and interior players. While nine are listed, 10 are not out of the realm of possibility. The flexibility Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will have at their exposure is exciting.
Expect a rotation inside and out. Anthony Johnson’s performance in camp and against Chicago last week makes him a very tough cut. Markus Kuhn has also thrown his name into the conversation.
Alan Branch’s one week team-issued suspension and Terrance Knighton’s somewhat underwhelming performance so far have them on the edge. For now, they’re both safe.
Linebackers (6): Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo, Brandon King, Kamu Grugier-Hill
Collins and Hightower will get plenty of run. It will be interesting to see how the staff utilizes McClellin after an underwhelming start to his career in Chicago. Based on his contract, he’s safe for at least this season.
Depth was an issue last season at linebacker so it will be under a microscope going into the year. Belichick looked to bolster that with the recent addition of Mingo Thursday afternoon. Grugier-Hill has played himself into the roster and looks to play a hybrid safety role like second-year player Brandon King.
Ramon Humber and Jonathan Freeny are on the edge, but both fall short.
Cornerback (5): Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, Cre’von LeBlanc
No changes from the first projection. Butler, Ryan and Jones are easy locks. Jones has been impressive to this point in his very young rookie campaign.
Justin Coleman is by no means a lock, but he looks to be safe as the fourth or fifth guy on the depth chart. The final spot is a battle between LeBlanc and other UDFA Jonathan Jones. LeBlanc gets the nod because of his playing ability, fight and short-term memory. He stood out in a tough cornerback competition this summer.
Safety (5): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner, Jordan Richards
This position is very solid overall. McCourty and Chung were a terrific combination last season. Harmon is a good third safety. We’ll see if Jordan Richards can take a year two jump as a pro. After his time with the US Rugby team for the Olympics, Ebner returns to reclaim his roster spot as a depth player with great special teams ability.
Matthew Slater – Slater is the team’s core special team ace. It’s hard to classify him, but he’s a lock and one of Belichick’s favorites.
Kicker – Stephen Gostkowski
One of the best in the business. Needless to say, he’s safe.
Punter – Ryan Allen
Allen has had some up-and-down moments, but is a true field position weapon. Solid player.
Long Snapper – Joe Cardona
His Navy commitments were thought to prohibit his NFL career, but he’s good to go.
Offense – 24
Defense – 25
Specialists – 4
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