New England Patriots: 6 Players Whose Roster Spots Are Not Locks
Over the past week, I've tried to predict the 53 players who would make the New England Patriots roster in an "if the season started today" scenario.
Here were the lucky 53. Players in bold are ones whose contracts and/or production render them essentially loster rocks, barring injuries:
QB (3): Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett
RB (3): Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead
FB (1): Spencer Larsen
TE (3): Daniel Fells, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
WR (6): Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Brandon Lloyd, Matthew Slater, Donté Stallworth, Wes Welker
OL (9): Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, Robert Gallery, Logan Mankins, Nick McDonald, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Brian Waters, Ryan Wendell
DL (6): Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Jonathan Fanene, Kyle Love, Myron Pryor, Vince Wilfork
LB (9): Markell Carter, Jermaine Cunningham, Dane Fletcher, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Trevor Scott, Brandon Spikes, Jeff Tarpinian, Tracy White
CB (5): Will Allen, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Devin McCourty, Sterling Moore
S (5): Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Ross Ventrone
ST (3): Danny Aiken, Stephen Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko
For various reasons, some of the players above will not make the roster. The most obvious reason is that the Patriots currently have six draft picks in the first four rounds of the draft. Historically, the Patriots have not used all of their early picks, and it's not at all a given they'll do so this year.
On the other hand, in the Belichick era, essentially every player drafted in the first four rounds has made the opening day roster his rookie season (albeit sometimes on injured reserve, as Tyrone McKenzie did in 2009).
So let's look at some players whose roster spots aren't a given this fall.
QB Brian Hoyer
Why isn't Hoyer a Lock?
Hoyer was an undrafted rookie in 2009 when he beat out several other quarterbacks to become Tom Brady's only backup in 2009 and 2010.
In 2011, seeing Arkansas gunslinger Ryan Mallett still available in the third round, the Patriots pounced on him. Since Mallett was healthy all year, the Patriots were forced to keep him on the 53-man roster the entire year, as he would never have cleared waivers to end up on the practice squad.
This year, Hoyer, a restricted free agent, was given a $1.9 million RFA tender, which would have required a team to give the Patriots a second-round pick to get Hoyer. No one bit, and Hoyer signed his tender. That means the Patriots can now trade Hoyer for any compensation they deem appropriate, and can choose his landing site, if they so desire.
It's clear that they like Hoyer enough that they were willing to keep him at that RFA tender for the 2012 season. It's not at all clear, however, if they want Hoyer to remain a Patriot all year.
It's possible that Hoyer ends up being trade bait during the draft for a team that doesn't like the QBs available in the late first or second rounds, or during preseason if a team suffers an untimely QB injury.
WR Donté Stallworth
Why Isn't Stallworth a Lock?
He's lost his starting position as a Patriot before.
Back in 2007, after the two-headed monster of Wes Welker and Randy Moss, Donté Stallworth was the No. 3 receiver: As the season progressed, though, he found himself falling behind Jabar Gaffney, one of the only holdovers at WR from the much-criticized 2006 receiver corps.
The Patriots had signed Stallworth to a six-year contract with a "prove-it" first year, so they were able to part ways with Stallworth after the 2007 season at almost no cost.
Now, five years later, it's not clear how much Stallworth has left in the tank. It's possible that he could be overtaken by Chad Ochocinco—who clearly wants to stay in Foxboro—or by a draft pick at the position. Even Anthony Gonzalez has at least a chance to win a spot over Stallworth.
OL Ryan Wendell
Why Isn't Wendell a Lock?
This is purely a numbers game. Wendell has been on the active roster for nearly every game the last two seasons, and has started five regular-season games over that span.
He's not the full-time starter, though, and his contract is that of a backup: a three-year deal for about $2.4 million that runs through next year. Most importantly, there's no signing bonus, so the cap hit if the Patriots cut (or trade) Wendell is minimal.
With the current uncertainty among guards on the roster—Logan Mankins is injured, Brian Waters is considering retirement and it's not clear where the Patriots envision Robert Gallery and Marcus Cannon playing—Wendell's spot seemed fairly secure.
But that was before we found out that the Patriots haven't ruled out the possibility of Koppen returning to the team. Moreover, it's not at all out of the realm of possibility that the Patriots will bring in another offensive lineman in the draft (especially if said lineman has the seal of approval from offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia).
Given all the pieces in motion at the moment, it's quite possible that Wendell could find himself on the outside looking in, or as trade bait.
DT Ron Brace
Why Isn't Brace a Lock?
One of the biggest mysteries about the Patriots' recent drafts is why the Patriots drafted Ron Brace in the first place. The only plausible suggestion I've seen is insurance in case Vince Wilfork couldn't be resigned.
The Patriots, who traded up to draft Brace in the second round of the 2009 draft, passed on a number of other players—especially OLB Connor Barwin—who could have helped them far more than Brace has.
Brace has been a disappointment, as he's been passed on the depth chart by a number of unheralded players, such as 2010 seventh-round pick Brandon Deaderick and undrafted free agent Kyle Love.
While Brace is certainly experienced, his playtime plummeted in 2011, from about 25 percent in 2010 to about five percent in 2011. While that was partly the result of injuries, the Patriots are likely to add at least one defensive lineman high in this year's draft, which means one current DL has to go.
Right now, that DL is Brace.
LB Dane Fletcher
Why Isn't Fletcher a Lock?
LB Dane Fletcher, entering his third year out of Montana State, was an undrafted rookie.
He's been used primarily in a backup role at inside linebacker, especially when either Jerod Mayo or Brandon Spikes were injured.
His playing time did increase somewhat, from about 14 percent of defensive snaps in 2010 to about 22 percent of defensive snaps last year.
While that's a good start, there's one glaring stat that stands out: In the Patriots' loss in Super Bowl XLVI, Fletcher only had one snap, while Tracy White had 22.
Since the Patriots are expected to address the defense in the 2012 NFL draft, it's certainly possible that Bill Belichick will decide that another player offers more upside than Fletcher.
On the other hand, Dane Fletcher has one thing going for him—his roommate is All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, and an angry or upset Gronk is not in the Patriots' best interest.
S Josh Barrett
Why Isn't Barrett a Lock?
Quite simply, it's a matter of whether the Patriots feel they have faith in his ability to stay healthy.
They claimed him off waivers in 2010 after the Broncos tried to sneak him through to injured reserve (teams that place players on IR early in the offseason must expose them to the waiver wire first).
The Patriots put him on IR before the 2010 season began, hoping he'd be able to contribute in 2011.
Unfortunately, he didn't get much of a chance before injuries again brought his season to an end. The situation reminds me of Terrence Wheatley's. Wheatley was undeniably talented, but unable to stay healthy, as he played in just 11 games in two and a half seasons with the Patriots.
Since the Patriots are almost certainly going to draft at least one, if not multiple, defensive backs, Barrett's grasp on his position is tenuous at best, especially if he doesn't prove to be a major contributor on special teams.