The New England Patriots will have many difficult decisions to make at the end of training camp this summer. They enter the 2017 season fresh off a Super Bowl win and have re-tooled their roster to an even more dangerous (on paper) group that was victorious in February.
They seem to have more than made up for the players that they’ve lost in free agency and appear poised for another deep playoff run in 2017. Bill Belichick went against the grain once again and traded most of his draft picks in what was considered a very deep draft and came away with a slew of established veterans.
The team only drafted four players in April with two each from the offensive and defensive lines, but even those are with an eye to 2018 as this team appears loaded. First up are the key players lost and then the ones added.
Key Players Lost:
TE Martellus Bennett
DE Jabaal Sheard
DE Chris Long
RB LeGarrette Blount
CB Logan Ryan
LB/ST Barkevious Mingo
WR Michael Floyd
RT Sebastian Vollmer (injured/retired)
Andrew Hawkins (retired during training camp)
*DE Rob Ninkovich (retired during training camp)
Key Players Added:
LB Dont’a Hightower (re-signed)
DL Alan Branch (re-signed)
S Duron Harmon (re-signed)
FB James Develin (re-signed)
RB/ST Brandon Bolden (re-signed)
CB Stephon Gilmore
DL Kony Ealy
DL Lawrence Guy
WR Brandin Cooks
TE Dwayne Allen
TE James O’Shaughnessy
RB Mike Gillislee
RB Rex Burkhead
WR Andrew Hawkins
LB David Harris
This doesn’t take into account their four draft picks and the UDFAs that they’ve signed thus far. While the inevitable injuries will occur, as its part of the game, the team seems in very good shape to handle whatever gets thrown at them in 2017. Our first attempt at an early roster projection was done on July 1 prior to training camp. We’ll highlight any changes we make from our earlier version.
First up is the offense…
QUARTERBACK (3): Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett
New England has an embarrassment of riches at the position. They have three QBs that have started and won games for the team. Garoppolo was the guy everyone had being traded this spring but they held on to him … at least for this season. And can we please cease and desist with the “is Jimmy G injury prone?” talk? He has proven he can take over the team in a pinch and he’ll be watched closely this summer to see where his progression is at.
Neither Garoppolo nor Brissett has really shined in the first week of camp. Both have struggled at times and both have thrown a lot of interceptions. Brady has been Brady. The incessant, inane talk of him “falling off a cliff” this year is ridiculous. We’ve been hearing that for 5-6 years. So, keep it up, and one year the writers who spout that stuff off will finally get it right and take victory laps. But for now, he’s as sharp as ever.
RUNNING BACK (5): James White, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James Develin
Out: D.J. Foster, Brandon Bolden, Glenn Gronkowski, LeShun Daniels
I was a big fan of the additions of Burkhead and Gillislee this spring. Now, I’m an even bigger fan of these moves. I love the versatility that Burkhead brings to the table. One issue the offense had a year ago, depending on who was on the field, opponents could tell if the play was run or pass. With him and a healthy Dion Lewis? That has changed.
Burkhead can run the ball between the tackles and in the passing game, will find those sweet spots in the flat when Brady spreads the field. Gillislee has shown that the power running game will look a bit different this year, but may be better. He hits the hole quick and he’s a faster, one-cut runner.
James White hauls in a pass. (SBalestrieri photo)
Foster is still the tough cut here. He’s getting a lot of work with the backups but is a very competent receiver with speed and quickness out of the backfield. Strictly a case of numbers for Brandon Bolden who is a core STs player. Daniels is a great candidate for the practice squad.
TIGHT END (3): Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James O’Shaughnessy
Out: Jacob Hollister, Matt Lengel, Sam Cotton
A healthy Gronkowski is a wonderful thing to behold. He and Allen are locks. The real battle comes down to the number three slot. We originally had O’Shaughnessy beating out Lengel on the basis of his blocking and STs skills. But he’s shown soft hands and the ability to find the open spots on the field.
Hollister is an intriguing case as he’s more of a “move” tight end that can stretch the field. He’s getting a ton of reps with the top STs unit. What does that mean? They want to keep him around and he’s a primary practice squad candidate.
WIDE RECEIVER (5): Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola
Out: Devin Lucien, Austin Carr, Cody Hollister, Tony Washington, K.J. Maye
Brandin Cooks has been everything as advertised. His speed is incredible to watch. Imagine if Tom Brady didn’t have diminishing arm strength (sarcasm). He’s going to be fun to watch in this offense.
Edelman and Hogan seem in mid-season form and the top three are going to be a versatile, dynamic group. Mitchell and Amendola are working with the training staff so they haven’t practiced but there are no worries there.
Carr has been electrifying at times as he’s building a nice chemistry with Jacoby Brissett when working with the backups. He seems to make a big play in every session and the team may have to get creative to keep him around.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE (4): David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, Ted Karras
Out: Jason King, James Ferentz, Chase Farris
Center David Andrews and guards Mason and Thuney were all starters last year and are locked. It comes down to Ferentz and Karras and so far, I haven’t seen anything to change my earlier call of the 2nd year guy sticking around.
OFFENSIVE TACKLE (4): Nate Solder, Antonio Garcia, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming
Out: LaAdrian Waddle, Conor McDermott, Cole Croston, Max Rich, Andrew Jelks
The starters and the swing tackle from 2016 (Solder, Cannon, and Fleming) return this season. Garcia isn’t that big but plays with a bit of a mean streak that I like. McDermott is in a red shirt year and will go to the practice squad.
Next up in the defense.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE (4): Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vince Valentine, Lawrence Guy
Out: Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Josh Augusta, Adam Butler
Alan Branch is on PUP to begin camp but he’s a lock. Brown has been steady but unspectacular as has Valentine. Guy was a nice pickup from Baltimore and projects as an interior guy with New England. Bill Belichick spoke about his versatility and dependability before practice on Tuesday.
EDGE RUSHER (4): Kony Ealy, Trey Flowers, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise,
Out: Geneo Grissom, Caleb Kidder
With Rob Ninkovich’s retirement, this puts Ealy and Flowers firmly in the starters position with the two rookie draft picks Wise and Rivers as the backups. Depth is definitely thinner now. Combined the team lost 26 years of experience at the position.
Deatrich Wise has had a nice start at training camp. (SBalestrieri photo)
Grissom is getting a ton of reps with the starting unit to see if he can break thru in season #3. He may be kept or the team may opt for another linebacker. Wise has really turned some heads so far in camp. He’s shown good explosion off the ball and the strength to hold up and set the edge. Can he keep it going? We’ll see.
Rivers has struggled a bit with the speed and physicality of the NFL game which isn’t a surprise given he’s a rookie from Division 1AA. I had one fan DM me asking if he was a bust… Really? After five practices? Relax folks, he’s going to be fine.
LINEBACKER (6): Dont’a Hightower, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Harvey Langi
Out: Jonathan Freeny, Trevor Bates, Brooks Ellis
Hightower is on PUP but should be ready soon, he’s been out at practice in sweats, usually a good sign. Harris looks like he’s still a thumper inside and with Roberts gives them good depth in the middle. This will allow the team to move Hightower outside more where he can be more of a disruptor.
Van Noy and McClellin will probably be asked to fill in at times as edge rushers (Hightower as well) so the team may opt for an extra linebacker. Harvey Langi is a good sized, athletic kid who can play inside or outside and even as DE in a pinch but this unit will have to work out some roles during the season.
CORNERBACK (5): Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones
Out: Justin Coleman, DJ Killings, William Likely, Kenny Moore, Dwayne Thomas
This has been a fun group to watch. Butler and Gilmore have played as advertised. Jonathan Jones and Eric Rowe have both played well thus far in the slot. This may be a case where they’ll use both depending on matchups.
Stephon Gilmore looks to be a good fit in the Patriots defense.
All of the others have played well. It is strictly a numbers crunch. If they had the slots they would keep them all. Moore has had a great nose for the ball and has made some nice plays so far.
SAFETY (4): Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards
Out: David Jones, Damarius Travis, Jason Thompson
Richards leap frogs Jones from our earlier projection as he’s played fairly well so far and Jones, who we are really high on, has been working with the training staff on the lower fields thus far.
The top three of Chung, McCourty, and Harmon have been solid. Harmon had an injury scare the other day and missed Tuesday’s practice but it isn’t considered serious.
SPECIAL TEAMS (6): Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona, Brandon King, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner
A good solid group who has had a good camp thus far. Allen had a weird sequence of two straight shanked punts on Saturday but that was an anomaly. The Patriots under STs coach Joe Judge have a very solid core group and they should be fine in 2017. Gostkowski is looking for a rebound year and has looked his normally solid self in camp.
They will need a backup long snapper now, something that was always covered by Ninkovich in the case of an injury to Cardona. Slater is still a marvel and has tremendous speed for a guy in his 10th season.
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