The Patriots have released three more veterans today as they cut ties to CB E.J. Biggers, RB Donald Brown and DE Frank Kearse according to sources. Bill Belichick has always favored cutting loose veterans as early as possible if they don’t fit into the team’s plans, to give them a better chance of latching on with other teams. This seems to be the case here as none of the three appeared close to landing a roster spot.
Brown seemed to have a good shot at making a roster spot. LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis were coming off of serious injuries, Tyler Gaffney is unproven and Brandon Bolden is mainly a ST’s player. That left James White and a bunch of question marks.
Brown takes a breather after running some drills
But Brown, got hurt early and camp and struggled to get back on the field. Both Gaffney and Blount had solid preseason outings in back-to-back weeks so the team will probably roll with them, White and Bolden to at least initially start the season.
Kearse was a DE in Washington and projected to be an interior player here. He didn’t stand out much during training camp and with others playing at a higher standard, he wasn’t projected to make the team.
Biggers came from Philadelphia as a free agent and signed a 1-year, $840,000 contract with a modest $25,000 signing bonus. With a lack of depth from 2015 in the Patriots secondary, he was thought to be at least in the mix for a veteran presence at cornerback.
But undrafted rookies Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc as well as 2nd-year player Darryl Roberts have all outplayed him this summer. Not that Biggers play was poor, but the younger, faster and more athletic players were standing out daily. That forced the team to release V’Angelo Bentley and now Biggers.
With his release, the corner position now has Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, LeBlanc and Roberts as their six top players. They may only opt to keep five so the competition will heat up in the final two weeks.
The Patriots head into training camp next week and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up is the Defensive Line.
Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.
So next on deck are the defensive linemen. The Patriots lost three of their linemen from a year ago. They traded Chandler Jones to Arizona, lost Akiem Hicks in free agency and released former first-round pick Dominique Easley. But the team is poised to be very good and is deep along the front four.
After years of trying to search for an undersized penetrator in the interior to beef up the pass rush, the Patriots and Belichick made a shift in their approach in 2016. The interior players that they brought in via free agency and the draft are all big men that are space eaters and run stuffers first. It is clear that the pass rush will come from the edge guys who are versatile and can slide inside on obvious passing downs.
They added Terrance Knighton, Frank Kearse and Markus Kuhn in free agency. Picking up Vincent Valentine in the draft and Woodrow Hamilton as a UDFA adds a lot of beef to the interior of the line.
On the edge, the team brought in Chris Long who has the last two seasons end in injury but is healthy in 2016 and is this season’s reclamation project. Jabaal Sheard will take Chandler Jones’ previous starting spot opposite Rob Ninkovich.
So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Malcom Brown, Terrance Knighton, Alan Branch, Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Vincent Valentine Sheard and Ninkovich, who played LB in the spring are the starters on the edge. They are both productive and set the edge in the running game extremely well, (something Jones’ game lacked in his time here). Long will be the dedicated pass rush specialist, something that should keep him fresh this season. He and Flowers provide the depth.
Malcom Brown had a solid rookie campaign and should be a key cog of the defense for years to come. (SBalestrieri Images)
The interior will feature a mixture of Brown who in his second season is primed for a big year, Branch and Knighton. Branch has played some of his best football as a member of the Patriots and provides that veteran leadership. Valentine by virtue of his draft position is a lock. Pot Roast came over from Washington and gives the Patriots that big (6’3, 354-pounds), immovable object inside, like Vince Wilfork.
One of the things the Patriots liked to do in Big Vince’s time was to play a hybrid scheme that Knighton should fit well in. Knighton will line up on the center and two gap his area on either side of the center. The strong side defensive end, (Ninkovich) will two-gap his area. The other side with Brown and Sheard will be a traditional 4-3 one-gap attacking style. It will also open up opportunities for the linebackers to blitz in openings on the outside as well. Lots of versatility and flexibility with this group as well as a nice mix of youth and experience.
On the Bubble: Geneo Grissom, Frank Kearse, Markus Kuhn These three are competing for one or possibly two spots if the Patriots opt to keep 10 linemen on the defensive side. Grissom is a big guy who seems larger in person than his listed 6’4, 265 pounds. He brings the element of versatility and athleticism to the table. He can play special teams, something that always resonates with Belichick.
Geneo Grissom made the team out of training camp as a rookie but the team will have to find a niche for his talents. (SBalestrieri Images)
Both Kuhn and Kearse are big guys who will be looking to add some depth inside. Kuhn saw a lot of reps this spring and that may bode well for him this summer. He came over from the Giants and was considered a favorite of coach Tom Coughlin although his numbers didn’t translate on the field. Kearse is a 6’5, 310-pound defensive end who projects to move inside here with the Patriots. He’s spent time with the Panthers, Cowboys, and Redskins (2014-15) and will look to latch on as a backup.
The competition here should prove to be spirited. All of these players are worthy of a roster spot but it may come down to a simple numbers crunch unless the inevitable injury or two occurs in training camp.
Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Woodrow Hamilton, Anthony Johnson, Joe Vellano Odds are long for Joe Vellano this season to make the cut. He’s one of those guys that you can’t help but root for. After being signed as a UDFA from Maryland in 2013, he made the team out of training camp and played in all 16 games with eight starts. But in 2014 he played in just four games with a single start and one playoff game. He was hurt early in training camp last season and will have a tough time to garner the reps this summer.
Johnson was signed by Miami as a UDFA in 2014 and appeared in seven games. He was cut by the Dolphins and spent part of 2015 as a practice squad player for the Redskins. The Patriots signed him to a free-agent contract in May.
Woodrow Hamilton is a big interior lineman from Mississippi. The 6’3, 319-pound tackle faces long odds. He and Bryan Stork were tossed from practice during minicamp for throwing punches at one another. That may set up something to watch this summer.
Texas Two-Step? Could the Patriots re-unite Ridgeway with Malcom Brown?
As the 2016 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar that we feel would be a great fit.
The Patriots still have a need at defensive tackle following the loss of Akiem Hicks during free agency. The team signed journeyman Frank Kearse but could use another big body inside who can help stuff the run and push the pocket from the interior.
The team used a nice rotation last year of rookie Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Hicks and Dominique Easley during 2015. With Easley’s injury concerns still an issue, more depth is needed. Branch and Brown may prove to be the top two players but keeping fresh legs and bodies is imperative for the big men inside.
The Patriots kicked the tires on free agent Nick Fairley of the Lions and Rams but were thought to be out of the loop now for a deal. While there are still other free agents still available and still a possibility, the draft is chock full of prospects right thru the middle rounds of players who can step up and play immediately.
Hassan Ridgeway from Texas is a player who immediately comes to mind and could become a Patriots draft target. One of the more underrated defensive tackle prospects, he was brought to the Longhorns as a 250-pound edge rusher. He put on 50 pounds and is now an interior presence. Powerfully built at 6’3, 307 pounds, he’s an interior disruptor who can stuff plays in the backfield and push the pocket from the inside.
When teamed with the Pats Brown during his sophomore season, he was immense, stuffing 11 plays for a loss. In his final season at Texas, he was again a factor notching 36 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss.
Ridgeway played mostly five-technique in Charlie Strong’s 3-4 defense but switched to a one-technique when the Longhorns went to a four-man front. He decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft a year early. So for the second season in a row, Texas loses its top defensive lineman to the NFL Draft. The last one ended up in New England. Where will Ridgeway end up?
Ridgeway turned heads at his Pro Day by running the 20-yard short-shuttle in 4.69 seconds and the 3-Cone Drill in 7.33 which for a big man of his size is pretty impressive. At the NFL Combine he ran a 5.02 in the 40-yard dash with a 1.71 time in the 10-yard split. That is outstanding short area burst and quickness something NFL Network’s Mike Mayock was pointing out when evaluating big men.
– Very strong and powerful and extremely difficult to move at the point of attack
– Quick first step and will blow thru gaps to make the play
– Good vision, can sniff out plays at the snap and adjust
– Violent hitter, will punish ball carriers
– Conditioning was an issue at Texas
– Had a lot of nagging injuries that could be an issue
– Not yet the sum of his parts, needs to step up his production
What his Role Will Be:
His role is part of the rotation inside for the Patriots defensive line. He’d project initially as an earlier down run stuffing player, but he’s a guy who can shed blockers quickly and get after the quarterback.
Will his Role Change from Year 1-2? Yes, with some better conditioning and experience in the pro game, he’ll be looked at in Year 2 to produce more in the pass rush department
How Many Downs Can He Play? Three
What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace? He’ll push Kearse, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen and Chris Jones for a roster spot
What is his ST Value? None
Conclusion: Ridgeway would fit in very well in the New England system. He’s a powerfully built young man who won’t be easy to move at the point of attack. He has a good football I.Q. and can diagnose plays at the snap, anticipate the design of the play and disrupt.
He’s mature and that will play out well with Bill Belichick and the coaching staff. With the Patriots rotating interior men in and out, he’ll benefit playing with veteran Alan Branch and his former Texas teammate Brown.
He’s versatile (another Belichick checkmark), and having played both inside and outside on the defensive line will serve him well. As a former edge rusher, he shows good hand work which can still be improved. His pass rushing skills are good, not top notch but can definitely improve with time.
There are some conditioning and nagging injury issues but he’d be a very good addition to an already stout defense in 2016.
He projects in the Patriots system to be a Potential Starter on Day 1. He should fit in very well into the NE defense as a member of the defensive line rotation.
Ridgeway was initially thought to be available around the 4th round of the draft. His impressive Pro Day with Texas may have him moving up draft boards.
Ridgeway’s highlight film can be found here, courtesy of Harris Highlights: