Friday is cut-down day in the NFL. For most teams, that means releasing 22 players, as teams go from the previous limit of 75 to the regular-season roster of 53 all at once.
On Sunday, I published a ranking of every New England Patriot’s chance of making the final roster. Some changes have occurred since then, however, including two of the players among my top 53 having already been eliminated from contention (wide receiver Jabar Gaffney released, cornerback Will Allen placed on injured reserve).
In a position-by-position breakdown, here are my final roster projections.
Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer
There is a possibility the Patriots could let Hoyer go or attempt to trade him, but that is unlikely. Neither Mallett nor Hoyer had a particularly strong preseason, but while Mallett should be kept as the No. 2 quarterback, it makes sense to keep Hoyer for position security and to push Mallett.
There is no question about which QB is the starter. As long as Brady stays healthy, the Patriots won't need to play Mallett or Hoyer. In case of injury, however, it makes sense to keep three quarterbacks, even if the third QB spends most of the season as one of the seven players on the inactive list each week.
Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Jeff Demps
One of the most roster battles is for the fourth running-back spot, which could go to one of two undrafted rookies: Jeff Demps or Brandon Bolden. Based on their preseason performances, however, Demps should have the edge.
He was a late addition following his performance on the U.S. Olympic 4x100-meter relay team, and his speed has been evident in the preseason. He is raw as a runner, but he has the talent to contribute as a receiver out of the backfield and a kick returner.
Bolden has been solid but has not stood out in preseason play.
Stevan Ridley, a powerful runner with deceptive speed, will be the Patriots’ feature back. Shane Vereen has made big strides this preseason as a fast, outside runner, while Danny Woodhead is a good situational running back. He can catch passes out of the backfield, pick up blitzes and contribute on special teams.
Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Matt Slater
At one point this offseason, the Patriots had a surplus at wide receiver, having signed such low-risk veteran as Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth and Anthony Gonzalez. All of those players, however, have been released, making it likely that the Patriots will only keep four true wide receivers.
Welker led the NFL in receptions last season, while Lloyd can be the deep downfield playmaker that the team has lacked since Randy Moss’ departure. Branch came into the preseason fighting for a roster spot and proved his worth with a strong preseason.
Edelman and Slater are capable receivers, but are on the team more for what they can do in other areas.
Edelman will back up Welker as the slot receiver, but he is also a special-teams standout, the team’s leading punt returner and able to provide emergency depth in the secondary. Slater almost never lines up as a wide receiver, but he was an All-Pro special teams player last year as arguably the best kickoff- and punt-coverage defender in the league.
If the Patriots decide to keep a sixth receiver, that player will be rookie Jeremy Ebert, one of two seventh-round picks. Ebert, however, has not done enough to prove himself worthy of a roster spot. He is a prime candidate for the practice squad.
Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells
The Patriots made sure this offseason that they would have star tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez for many years to come, signing both players to long-term extensions. The Patriots will likely keep one more tight end, and Daniel Fells has the edge for that roster spot.
The third tight end needs to be a player with blocking ability, which Fells has in addition to receiving skills. The most talented tight end in the battle for the third spot is Visanthe Shiancoe, but he is only an asset as a receiver, and he has missed the entire preseason due to injury.
Fells missed the first three preseason games due to injury as well, so he never really got a chance to prove himself this preseason. But based on his skill set, he should have the edge. The other candidate, Alex Silvestro, is not an NFL-caliber tight end.
Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald, Brian Waters
If Waters decides to play after not reporting during the preseason, the Patriots should bring him back as the starting right guard. But that is certainly no guarantee.
Koppen had a rough preseason at center and is likely to be released, with the team already having two younger, capable centers in Connolly and Wendell. However, if Waters does not return, Connolly will start at right guard and Wendell at center, which could prompt the Patriots to keep Koppen a little bit longer.
Connolly, left guard Mankins and starting offensive tackles Solder and Vollmer are entrenched as starters.
Wendell will make the roster at center whether he starts or not, and Cannon has a spot as the third offensive tackle, even after an awful preseason. Two more spots should be saved for guards Thomas and McDonald, who have received significant work in the preseason and are the best remaining options to provide depth.
Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Jermaine Cunningham, Trevor Scott, Jake Bequette, Justin Francis
Even after releasing defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson this offseason, the Patriots still have their deepest defensive line rotation in years.
They have established a solid starting front four, with Wilfork and Love a formidable duo at defensive tackle, and Jones and Ninkovich a strong pair of defensive ends.
Brace and Deaderick both had strong preseasons at defensive tackle, and both proved that they deserve to have a roster spot. The same can be said for Cunningham, whose game has improved significantly after two disappointing seasons, and Scott, a free-agent addition who should be a solid situational pass-rusher, at defensive end.
Two more rookie defensive ends should also have spots on the final roster. Third-round pick Bequette did not do much in preseason, but his early draft selection should keep his spot safe. Undrafted rookie Francis, however, made a big impression lining up at both end and tackle this preseason and should have earned a spot at the back end of the rotation.
Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Bobby Carpenter, Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides
The Patriots have a tremendous starting trio of linebackers, with Mayo and rookie Hightower holding down the outside spots, with Spikes being a fantastic run-stopper in the middle. Depth at linebacker, however, is a concern.
Carpenter is the team's most solid reserve linebacker, so his spot on the final roster should be safe. Tarpinian and Koutouvides are the other two linebackers who appear to have earned roster spots this preseason.
Tarpinian is the team's next-best linebacker. He's a solid backup outside linebacker who can also contribute on special teams.
As for Koutouvides, he had a solid preseason and is a veteran who can also be an asset on special teams. While Koutouvides played well, veteran Tracy White did not play at all in the preseason, which should mean Koutouvides will take his roster spot.
Mike Rivera also made a strong case for a roster spot with 12 tackles in the preseason finale and could be kept as a true backup at middle linebacker for Spikes. Tarpinian and Koutouvides, however, are better overall players and will likely get the nod over Rivera.
White is not good enough to overcome not having played in the preseason. He would have been on the bubble anyway.
Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Alfonzo Dennard, Marquice Cole, Sterling Moore
McCourty, Arrington and Dowling will be the Patriots’ top three cornerbacks, with McCourty and Arrington starting. But Arrington will kick inside to nickel when Dowling comes on as the third cornerback.
If McCourty can regain his rookie form and Dowling can stay healthy, those three could be a fairly solid trio on the back end of the defense.
After that, however, no roster spot is safe. While many assumed that Moore single-handedly saving the AFC Championship Game with his pass breakup guaranteed him a roster spot, that is not he case. He has performed poorly this preseason, and has likely been surpassed on the depth chart by the rookie Dennard and special-teams standout Cole.
Dennard did not make my original projection, but he has been impressive since returning from a hamstring injury. He looks like a player well worth developing and who can possibly be a significant contributor in the secondary. Cole is no better than a fifth cornerback, but he earns a spot based on his instinctive play, tackling ability and potential to contribute on kick- and punt-coverage teams.
While Moore has slid down the depth chart, the Patriots should still have a spot for him on the roster. He improved steadily last season and deserves a place on the team. He is a hard-working, instinctive player who is good to have as a fourth, fifth or sixth cornerback, even if his pass coverage is still a work in progress.
Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner
Chung is the Patriots’ best all-around safety and is likely to be the only safety to return from last year's roster.
If healthy, he will start at strong safety, while free-agent addition Gregory is an upgrade next to him at free safety. Two rookies, second-round pick Wilson and sixth-round pick Ebner, have had strong preseasons and earned spots as backups.
Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo both started games for the Patriots at safety last season, but that team had much weaker safety personnel. If the Patriots decide to keep a fifth safety, Brown should have the inside track because of special-teams ability. But the Patriots are better off keeping Cole in a special-teams role as one of six cornerbacks.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter: Zoltan Mesko
Long Snapper: Danny Aiken
The Patriots only have one kicker, one punter and one long snapper on their roster, and all three are very good at their jobs.
Gostkowski is among the NFL’s best placekickers. Mesko is among the league’s best punters and Aiken is a solid long snapper who gets his job done. No reason for change there.