New England Patriots Roster Bubble Battles Headed into Training Camp
With several camp battles heating up as we enter the dog days of summer, this year appears to be no different. The Patriots have made several additions, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, which open up the possibility of some known commodities landing on the waiver wire or in free agency by the end of summer.
As we know with the Patriots, the more ways you can contribute, the better chance you have of making the roster, which makes a few of this year's battles particularly interesting.
Here are some that will be watched closely through August.
James Ihedigbo vs. Nate Ebner vs. Josh Barrett vs. Sergio Brown
With safeties Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory likely to earn the three top spots at safety, that leaves a heated battle for the fourth (and possibly fifth) safety spots.
Of the four safeties, Josh Barrettt is the most likely to say goodbye. The Patriots claimed Barrett off waivers in 2010 before the Broncos could put him on injured reserve, but as a result of his injury, he missed the entire season. He suffered a hamstring injury in 2011 which ended his season once again.
He also doesn't offer as much in special teams coverage as James Ihedigbo and Nate Ebner; special teams was Ihedigbo's bread and butter for three seasons with the Jets, and although he is a talented role-playing safety, he may not have started if Barrett hadn't been injured.
Ebner, on the other hand, was a rugby player at Ohio State and was a walk-on for the football team, earning the respect of his teammates through dedication in practice and on special teams; however, he only played three defensive snaps at safety for the Buckeyes last year, and still has a lot to learn in terms of the mental aspect of the game.
Finally, Brown has experience in the system and has contributed on special teams in spots, but he had the rug pulled out from under him after starting two of the first three games of the season; he played 163 snaps in the first three games of the season according to Pro Football Focus (average of 54.33 per game), and 186 for the remainder of the season (23.25 snaps per game).
That decreased workload could signify a decrease in the team's confidence in Brown, and if only four safeties are kept, Brown is another likely candidate to be cut. Ebner, however, is practice squad eligible. The Patriots may elect to try to keep him that way, but would be running the risk of another team snatching him off waivers.
Jeff Tarpinian vs. Tracy White vs. Niko Koutouvides
This is a case of three players who largely fit the same mold, all competing for the same spot. All three linebackers have a place on the special teams unit and as backup inside linebackers.
White has been a core special teams player for the past few years, and filled in sparingly in sub packages. Tarpinian's spry young legs might be too enticing compared to White, whose 31-year-old body has taken many special teams collisions in his career; what's more, he missed organized team activities with a sports hernia.
Tarpinian was primarily a special teamer in 2011 (eight special teams tackles according to ESPN Boston), but he earned a start against the Jets in Week 9. He may not have earned those opportunities without significant injuries at linebacker, but Tarpinian (and all three listed here) have an increased opportunity with the departure of linebacker Gary Guyton.
Koutouvides filled Tarpinian's role when he was placed on injured reserve shortly after the Jets game, and earned a start of his own against the Colts in Week 12. It should be noted, however, that he was unable to earn a roster spot last season up against largely the same competition he'll face this year.
Tony Fiammetta vs. Spencer Larsen vs. Eric Kettani
The Patriots carried fullback Lousaka Polite at the end of the 2011 season and through the playoffs, but the position as a whole has largely fallen to the wayside since Josh McDaniels left in 2008. Now that he's back, perhaps they'll look for a fullback once again; they added both Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta this offseason.
Larsen may have the upper hand; he is a veritable Swiss Army knife—listed as a fullback, but his ability to contribute on offense, defense and special teams is something head coach Bill Belichick will likely covet, and that should come in handy. According to Belichick via ESPN Boston, the value of the fullbacks will be measured "relative to the running backs, the tight ends, the linebackers and the kicking game and how big of a role those other players would have offensively or defensively."
Fiammetta, on the other hand, is strictly a fullback and doesn't offer much in terms of special teams. His limited utility could be a huge setback for him in his endeavor to land on the right side of the bubble.
Eric Kettani was placed on the reserve/military list at the end of the 2011 preseason, but pulled some strings and won an appeal against the United States Navy which exempts him from service so that he can play football instead. According to Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald, Belichick may have been the X-factor in the process, as he vouched for Kettani's "legitimacy as an athlete."
Marcus Forston vs. Ron Brace vs. Gerard Warren vs. Myron Pryor
The battles on the defensive line are always among the most talked-about leading into training camp, and this year looks to be no different. While the Patriots will likely employ a mix of 3-4 and 4-3 looks, the outcome of the camp battles could depend on which front they intend on using more in 2012.
Kyle Love, Vince Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick are locks for the roster, but beyond that, there are a number of players competing for one, or maybe two spots at defensive tackle.
Ron Brace is in the roster bubble discussion year after year, whether it be a result of injuries or simply not living up to the billing as a second-round draft pick in 2009. His value lies mainly in 3-4 packages, as he doesn't bring the interior rush presence of guys like Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene.
Marcus Forston was highly touted headed into the 2011 season, and is seen as a solid addition for the Patriots in undrafted free agency despite a one-game suspension (improper student benefits) and injury (knee) cutting his 2011 season to just three games. Unlike Brace, Forston's best chance at making the roster seems to be if the Patriots run more 4-3 looks and sub packages, which would call for his skill set as an interior rusher.
That role, however, has been occupied by Myron Pryor since 2009 and Gerard Warren since 2010.
Warren was cut prior to the 2011 season, but was brought back shortly thereafter; that may have been a result of the team not wanting to guarantee his salary. He'll be turning 34 by the time training camp opens, and younger options may be more enticing at this stage.
Pryor is versatile enough to fit both the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, but that's only if he can stay healthy; Pryor has missed 24 games over his three-year career, and was absent from both OTAs and mandatory minicamp.