New England Patriots: Grading the Entire 53-Man Roster
After weeks of speculation, the roster mysteries are over and done with for the New England Patriots.
The final cuts have been made (at least, the ones to trim the roster down to 53 players), the preseason games are over with and the Patriots who will take the field in Week 1 have taken form.
Some changes are yet to occur (such as an answer to the Brian Waters question), but for the most part, the Patriots have established themselves. And as always, there were surprises.
Deion Branch, considered a sure bet to make the team, is gone. Jeff Demps, the Olympic silver medalist who was supposed to revitalize New England's special teams, is on injured reserve and done for the year. Mike Rivera, Marcus Forston and Visanthe Shiancoe, widely considered cut-day fodder, are Patriots as of this writing.
Cut day rarely goes according to plan in Foxboro, but this one was one of the crazier editions. Here's how the roster's looking right now.
Tom Brady: Sure, the preseason was rough, and Brady probably has more bumps and bruises than he expected to have going into the season opener. But, this is still an elite player on the verge of a big year. Grade: A+
Ryan Mallett: The former Arkansas Razorback can sling it, but can he play the position at this level? He shows flashes of promise, but after a second preseason, it's still hard to tell.
Mallett completed less than half of his passes (49.2 percent) over the preseason with three touchdowns and an interception. He needs a lot of seasoning before he can handle the keys to the franchise. Grade: C
Running Backs: B
Stevan Ridley: Those promising runs from last year were just a sign of what was to come. Ridley ran hard all August, finishing with 152 yards on a 4.5 yard per carry average and one touchdown. He's clearly the top man around here. Grade: B+
Shane Vereen: Not a good preseason for the former second-round pick. Vereen ran for an average of 3.5 yards per carry, though he did look promising in the screen game. The biggest thing for Vereen this August was to show he can stay healthy, and he limped off the field during the third game against Tampa Bay. Injury problems remain. Grade: C
Danny Woodhead: With Jeff Demps' shocking (and mysterious) trip to injured reserve, Woodhead retains his role as top backfield receiver. His preseason was so-so, but we know what he can do. Grade: B-
Brandon Bolden: Bolden turned heads during the preseason for his work in practice, and he didn't do anything out of the backfield to sour the coaches' opinion of him. He was a wreck on returns, so the undrafted back will need work if he's to be trusted back there. Grade: C+
Wide Receivers: B
Wes Welker: Forget the contract woes, at least for now. Welker's here, he's ready to play and he's still as good a slot receiver as you'll find. Grade: A
Brandon Lloyd: So much for the big Lloyd-Josh McDaniels reunion; the marquee free-agent addition caught one pass for 12 yards in the preseason and looked a step offbeat with quarterback Tom Brady. However, there are still plenty of factors in this equation to have confidence in. This connection was meant to hum in the regular season, anyway. Grade: B+
Julian Edelman: Edelman is a fine punt returner and is good with the ball in his hands, but he's had a tough time developing into a receiver who can be counted on to run good routes and make tough catches. If the Patriots find themselves in a position where they have to rely on him on offense, as they did in the playoffs in January 2010, they're in trouble. Grade: C+
Matthew Slater: Like Edelman, Slater is on this team for special teams work—specifically, his Pro Bowl-caliber abilities on kick and punt coverage. As a special teamer, he's an easy A. As a receiver, however, his deep speed is his greatest attribute. Grade: C-
Greg Salas: The former St. Louis Ram was acquired Sept. 1, and has plenty of experience with McDaniels. It remains to be seen how he does in this offense, though. Grade: N/A
(Note: The receiving corps will likely feature Aaron Hernandez often).
Tight Ends: A
Rob Gronkowski: The ankle was the only concern, but Gronkowski (four catches, 44 yards) is back to running over people. He remains the heart of this passing attack. Grade: A+
Aaron Hernandez: The "tight end vs. wide receiver" dilemma continues with the versatile Hernandez and for good reason. He gets open wherever he lines up, and he's a yards-after-catch menace. Grade: A
Daniel Fells: The 28-year-old was on the PUP list until Aug. 20, and didn't record a catch in the preseason. At 6'4", 272 pounds, he projects as a powerful blocker, performing the Alge Crumpler role from 2010. Grade: B-
Visanthe Shiancoe: No games and no preseason for the former Viking but he managed to survive cut day. We'll see how much he contributes this year. Grade: C+
Nate Solder: It was a rough preseason for the team's left tackle of the future, but his rookie season was encouraging, and the Colorado product clearly has a good foundation to work from. Grade: B
Sebastian Vollmer: It's all about health for the big German. If he's healthy, Vollmer's a stud, a Pro Bowl talent. But the back has been a problem for him since last season, and if it keeps flaring up, 2012 could go south in a hurry. Grade: B+ (when healthy)
Marcus Cannon: The 2011 fifth-round pick looked terrible this preseason. But lucky for Cannon, the team is tackle-strapped. Grade: D
Guards/Centers: B (excluding Waters)
Logan Mankins: The Patriots have one of football's best guards back and healthy after he played in the Super Bowl with a torn ACL. Grade: A
Dan Connolly: Whether it was filling in for Mankins at guard in 2010 or Dan Koppen at center last year, Connolly has been a blessing for Bill Belichick and line coach Dante Scarnecchia. He can play anywhere inside and play it well. Grade: B+
Ryan Wendell: Unless Brian Waters comes back, which would slide Connolly over to center, Wendell is expected to start at center for the Patriots in Week 1. Grade: C+
Donald Thomas: Like Connolly, Thomas can handle each of the interior positions. Grade: C
Nick McDonald: McDonald can play all five positions on the line, and that versatility saved him a roster spot even with an injury late in the preseason. Grade: C
Matt Tennant: The former Boston College Eagle was signed by the team on Sept. 1. Grade: N/A
Defensive Ends: B
Chandler Jones: The first-round pick showed what he could do this preseason, reeling off a series of impressive practices and in-game efforts. He'll be an important player to watch this season. Grade: B
Rob Ninkovich: One of New England's best pass-rushers last year is in the midst of a transition to end, where he'll be able to better utilize his pursuit skills. With linebacker a thin position this year, however, Ninkovich will likely remain a fallback option on the outside. Grade: B
Trevor Scott: The free-agent pickup and former Raider had himself a solid preseason, making 10 tackles, notching two sacks and forcing a fumble. He did a good job of standing out whenever he was on the field; the team just played better as a whole with him out there. Grade: B
Jermaine Cunningham: Entering this season, Cunningham would have been a candidate for one of the lower grades on the roster. But boy, what a preseason for the former second-round pick, who recorded two sacks, and like Scott, just made things happen when he was on the field.
It'll take more than a good preseason, however, to complete a turnaround for a player who, so far, has been a bust. Grade: B-
Brandon Deaderick: It's impressive that Deaderick has emerged as a good 3-4 end in his time in New England, considering he was a seventh-round pick in 2010. The Patriots appear to be transitioning to a lighter front, however, which Deaderick, like Ty Warren last year, is not a fit for. Grade: C+
Jake Bequette: Bequette, a third-round pick out of Arkansas, finished the preseason with seven tackles and a sack and projects as a player who can help the Patriots put pressure on the quarterback from both the end and linebacker positions. Grade: C
Justin Francis: With eight tackles and a sack during the preseason, Francis, an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, became one of the more surprising cut-day survivors. Grade: C-
Defensive Tackles: B+
Vince Wilfork: Wilfork's reputation as a space-filler and gap-plugger has been established and reinforced for years, but last year's run to the Super Bowl was made possible by the Pro Bowler's emergence as a pass-rusher and playmaker. Grade: A
Kyle Love: Apologies to the many Love fans who noticed I forgot him. Love's become a high-energy player in the middle who's excelled as Wilfork's partner in crime and gotten playing time even with the Patriots' traditional propensity for 3-4 sets. He's seen his responsibilities rise each year, impressive considering the Mississippi State product's undrafted background. Grade: B+
Ron Brace: It appears that Brace has gotten serious about moving past his disappointing start to his career. He projects as a strong interior rusher after an impressive camp. Grade: B-
Marcus Forston: Like Francis at defensive end, Forston went from afterthought to surprise active roster member. Credit to Forston for overcoming his undrafted free-agent status, but he doesn't project to being much of a contributor for the Patriots this season, and he may just be a space-filler until Myron Pryor gets healthy. Grade: C-
Jerod Mayo: Mayo's role will be a topic to watch. He's been a tackle machine for the Patriots during his career, excellent at following the ball and ball-carriers around the field, but with the emergence of Spikes and addition of Hightower, this may be the season Mayo, an excellent athlete, gets used more as a pass-rusher and playmaker. Grade: A-
Brandon Spikes: Spikes' start to his career was an enigma, as he balanced promising flashes with injuries, suspension and inconsistency. Since then, however, Spikes has emerged as an excellent run-stopper and tackler, and he brings an edge that the team noticeably lacks when he's missing. Grade: B+
Dont'a Hightower: The selection of Hightower with the 25th overall pick this year brought back memories of taking Mayo in 2008 for several reasons. Both were highly regarded SEC linebackers and good tacklers with high motors, who were at home on the inside, but had the athleticism to play outside.
Hightower projects as a starter or major contributor this year and will hopefully respond with a year similar to Mayo's rookie campaign. Grade: B
Tracy White: Like Slater and Edelman in the wide receiving corps, White is a so-so player at his position who gets his spot thanks to special teams contributions. Grade: C-
Mike Rivera: Rivera was considered a long shot to make the roster, but leading the team with 18 preseason tackles probably helped. Grade: C-
In short, it's a thin group, but the starters will give the Patriots a solid tandem.
Devin McCourty: A turnaround for this secondary, which was gashed repeatedly a season ago, will hinge on the third-year performance of Devin McCourty. If he's the Pro Bowler of his rookie season, the Patriots will be in business. If he's as lost as he was last year, however, New England will be a step behind in stopping receivers year in and year out. Grade: B
Kyle Arrington: It's hard to believe that Arrington was a little-known, practice-squad player as recently as 2010 when he's coming off leading the league in interceptions. He should have more help in the defensive backfield this season than last. Grade: B
Ras-I Dowling: He's still healthy, so that's a good sign. Dowling can clearly play the position (he's both a physical tackler and long-armed cover corner), but injuries have derailed his past two seasons. The key for the former Virginia Cavalier will be staying on the field, first and foremost. Grade: C+
Sterling Moore: It's been a tough preseason for the second-year corner, which is disappointing since Moore improved throughout last season and was at his best in the playoffs. Grade: C+
Marquice Cole: Cole's special teams ability helped secure him a spot on the 53-man roster. Grade: C
Alfonzo Dennard: This grade would have been lower weeks ago, but Dennard got healthy in time to make a few preseason games and secure himself a spot on the active roster. If he can cover and play as well as it was said he could after the draft, the Patriots will have gotten a steal with their seventh-round pick. Grade: C-
Patrick Chung: Chung is a true difference-maker at the safety position for the Patriots, but injuries are a question for the Oregon product. He missed games last year and was dinged up in the loss to the Eagles two weeks ago. If Chung can stay on the field, he can continue to progress into a playmaking safety. Grade: B+
Steve Gregory: The former San Diego Charger has looked great this preseason and has a handle on the starting free-safety spot. Grade: B-
Tavon Wilson: The Patriots were criticized for using a second-round pick on a player nobody had pegged for the middle rounds, but that choice is looking good now. Wilson has impressed, so far, showing a nose for the ball in games and drawing praise from coaches on the practice field.
New England obviously wanted to improve its weakest position this offseason, and it appears they've succeeded. Grade: B-
Nate Ebner: The former Ohio State Buckeye and sixth-round pick has had a terrific preseason, racking up 11 tackles and recording an interception. Ebner was originally thought to be just a special teamer, but it's clear Belichick wants him playing some defense as well. Grade: C+
Stephen Gostkowski: Gostkowski's annually one of the more accurate kickers in the league, but he hasn't had to come through in too many crucial spots. It's not his fault that he plays on a high-scoring offense, but that missing "big kick" is a hole on his resume.
With two 50-yard-and-further field goals against Philadelphia, though, Gostkowski's shown his leg's in midseason shape. Grade: A-
Zoltan Mesko: In his third year, Mesko has become one of the best punters in football. He's a weapon when games settled in field-position battles. Grade: A+
Danny Aiken: The second-year player has been smooth ever since he took over as the team's long snapper. Grade: A-