Projecting the New England Patriots' Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
This time of the year is referred to as the "NFL offseason." But who are we kidding, the competition never sleeps.
When teams aren't looking to out-do their opponents, they're looking to out-do themselves. And with a flurry of new faces in the fold via free agency and the draft, the New England Patriots are a prime example of this.
Like the other 31 organizations, New England will begin training camp with a 90-man roster. Head coach Bill Belichick will assess matters like every job—aside from Tom Brady's—is up for grabs. No stone will go unturned; no player will be overlooked. It's a whittling process, yet it's also invaluable to a team's success.
Things may be open-ended now, but once September arrives, only 53 men will be on the active roster. So who will rise to the occasion?
Let's break down the Patriots' most contested positional battles about to get underway.
Although it may dishearten some, Brandon Lloyd is not walking through that door, and neither is Randy Moss for that matter.
New England's personnel department is well aware of this. Consequently, the "X" receiver position has undergone serious renovations this offseason. But who has the best chance of securing the top job across from shifty slot receiver Danny Amendola?
The battle for the starting spot at split end should be a closely contested one. Here are the men in the running.
Ex-Buffalo Bills wideout Donald Jones was brought into the fold to add depth. The 6'0", 208-pound 25-year-old is coming off a career-best season where he totaled 41 receptions for 443 yards and four scores. Nevertheless, you may remember him best as the man on the other end of a Vince Wilfork throttling. Jones is a well-built athlete, but likely more of a No. 3 or No. 4 option at wide receiver.
Former Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons target Michael Jenkins was another March signee. A former first-round pick, the 6'4", 214-pounder managed 40 catches for 449 yards and two scores last season. The 30-year-old has a hard time getting separation but has good size to find openings in the intermediate passing game. Jenkins should be battling for one of the final spots at receiver, except he doesn't offer the flexibility that a special teamer would.
The Patriots waited until Round 4 of this year's draft to nab TCU's Josh Boyce. Boyce, a 6'0", 205-pound pass-catcher, plays with excellent speed and a high football IQ. The Horned Frog is physical and explosive, but he can also be a factor in the screen and play-action game. While Boyce has been a very smooth split end at the college level, his skill set may make him more of a flanker in the NFL.
In Round 2 of this year's draft, the Pats found what many believe will be a future No. 1 receiver in Marshall's Aaron Dobson. Dobson has the length and build at 6'3", 205 pounds. He also has the speed with a 4.42 40-time, per NFL.com's Gil Brandt. Thirdly, he has the hands, registering no drops on 92 targets in 2012 according to John Pollard of STATS.com. If he can pick up the X's and O's of the offense, he'll make an immediate impact.
Winner: Aaron Dobson
No. 3 Tight End
We don't have to concern ourselves with anyone taking the starting jobs of Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez. While both have hit speed bumps in the health department, both are still two of the youngest and brightest "Y" and "U" tight ends in the NFL.
The No. 3 tight end position behind Gronkowski and Hernandez is much less certain, however.
There are a slew of options on the depth chart, and at one point the Patriots had more tight ends on the roster than wide receivers. Needless to say blocking pass-catchers play a more important role than ever before, especially considering the scarcity of fullbacks in the league.
So who could seize the versatile but necessary third tight end spot in New England's offense? Let's go down the list of possibilities.
Despite being an undrafted rookie out of Clemson, you can't sleep on Brandon Ford. Ford has a unique set of skills as a converted wide receiver. The 6'4", 245-pound Tiger broke out as a senior, catching 40 passes for 480 yards and eight scores. He lined up anywhere from H-Back to the slot. Yet at this point, he's likely more of a practice squad option.
Another undrafted greenhorn, Zach Sudfeld is gaining steam after an injury-plagued career at Nevada. A 6'7", 253-pounder, Sudfeld has unbelievable size for the position and can create mismatches wherever he is implemented. He could certainly compete for a roster spot, but he is facing some wily veterans.
The 29-year-old Daniel Fells recorded a mere four receptions for 85 yards in 13 games last season. He was used more so as a blocker and helped filter in when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed time. With that said, it remains to be seen what Fells's future entails. The 6'4", 265-pound vet has a salary cap hit of over $3.8 million through 2014, per Spotrac.com.
The 24-year-old Michael Hoomanawanui doesn't do anything great, but he's a serviceable tight end who can help out as a run-blocker and occasional receiver. An Illinois product, "Hooman" caught five passes for 109 yards in 14 contests last season. Registering starts in five games, the Patriots have gotten the most out of the ex-St. Louis Ram. He is due just over $1.3 million next season, cites Spotrac.com.
Bill Belichick had plans in mind when he claimed injured ex-New York Giant Jake Ballard off the waiver wire last summer. And although he was put on ice for all of 2012 as he recovered from knee surgeries, the 6'6", 275-pound 25-year-old should be in the conversation for the start of 2013. Because Ballard didn't play last season, his contract was tolled, according to Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald. Ballard caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four TDs in 2011.
Winner: Jake Ballard
Left Defensive End
The left defensive end spot opposite young first-rounder Chandler Jones isn't written in ink.
There are several names who are in contention to for the top job this upcoming season. And it's a wide array between seasoned vets and unproven upstarts.
Who could be grinding it out in camp? Here are the leading competitors.
Last year's third-round pick, Jake Bequette doesn't have much tread off his tires. The former Arkansas pass-rusher played in just three games as a rookie, accumulating no tackles. The 6'5", 265-pounder will have to work hard just to keep pace with all the new bodies eyeing his spot. He has yet to break out in the sack column like he did in college.
2010 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham has had an up and down NFL career to this point. He appeared on the roster fringe a year ago, but played himself back into contention. The 6'3", 255-pound hybrid outside linebacker doesn't exactly have the ideal size to be a starting defensive end in the league, but he can be a viable situational pass-rusher. He totaled 2.5 sacks in 12 games last season.
The Rutgers connection paid dividends when it came to underrated D-lineman Justin Francis. Undrafted last April, Francis fought his way onto the 53-man roster. By season's end, the 6'4", 270-pound Scarlet Knight had appeared in 10 contests, totaling 10 tackles and three sacks. Francis is a blue-collar player, but he may not have the makings of a future No. 1 defensive end.
Illinois bookend Michael Buchanan is built in the Patriots prototype as a 6'5", 255-pound end with great lateral quickness. Buchanan shouldn't have fallen to Round 7, as he appeared a surefire third- or fourth-round choice in this year's draft. But he did, and the Patriots have a high-value prospect in camp because of it. Buchanan could end up a future starter partnered with Jones. Yet for now, he's a rotational weapon.
Rob Ninkovich is the classic overachiever. He couldn't make it as a long snapper during his early years with the New Orleans Saints, but he can certainly hack it as a starting defensive end with the Patriots. Despite being an outside linebacker "tweener," Ninkovich has made the most of his opportunity at end. He amassed eight sacks and five forced fumbles last year.
Winner: Rob Ninkovich
Pass Rush Defensive Tackle
Vince Wilfork is the glue that keeps the Patriots defensive front together. The five-time Pro Bowler absorbs multiple blocks, shuts down running lanes and even disrupts passes.
Although it's no easy task to match Wilfork's intensity, his counterparts at defensive tackle will have to do just that. New England hasn't gotten much interior pressure from the pass-rushing defensive tackle spot.
So expect an all-hands-on-deck approach in camp. After all, No. 75 needs a running mate.
For all intents and purposes, 2010 seventh-round pick Brandon Deaderick has been a keeper. The 6'4", 305-pound Alabama product has played 14 games for the Pats, totaling 45 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles. He has played 3-4 end and 4-3 tackle, and has proven his worth at both places. Still, Deaderick's upper body strength has been exploited at times and he's not the best athlete. He may not be a full-time NFL starter.
As far as undrafted prospects go, Mississippi State's Kyle Love has done just fine for himself. No. 74 has started 25 games in three years with New England, also adding 65 tackles and 5.5 sacks. But the 6'1", 315-pound Love is a run-stopper more than a pass-rusher. That puts him in the Wilfork mold. When both of them are on the field at the same time, there's not much lighting to go with the thunder.
The Patriots essentially grabbed a first-round pick in Toronto Argonaut Armond Armstead. A former USC standout, Armstead would have been taken in the midst of the 2012 draft if it weren't for a heart attack brought on by medical staff injections of the painkiller Toradol, per Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe. But now, the 6'5", 298-pounder is healthy and ready to make an impact. He's only 22 years old, so Armstead won't be a situational guy for long.
He's no spring chicken, but ex-Oakland Raiders Pro Bowler Tommy Kelly can still get the job done. The 6'6", 325-pound Kelly notched 14.5 sacks in 2010 and 2011 combined. Yet in 2012, his performance dropped off to just 1.5 sacks. A change of scenery may be all Kelly needs. He's a pass-rushing interior presence who still can play a lot of snaps. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the 10-year pro played 756 defensive snaps last season. He's the favorite right now.
Winner: Tommy Kelly
The cornerback position is a lot more settled than previously thought. Just like 2012, Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are set to start while Kyle Arrington is set to play in the slot. That's some vital continuity for the young secondary.
But after the top three, things get a little foggy. There are a few guys duking it out for a role of growing importance: dimeback.
Due to Arrington's proficiency in the nickel, one injury to either Talib or Dennard and the dimeback is suddenly in line to be a starter.
A journeyman who found a home in Foxboro last season, Marquice Cole is an excellent special teams player who would be hard to let go. The 5'10", 195-pounder is nuanced in the dirty work. The 29-year-old isn't a sure bet in the defensive backfield, but he did manage an interception and three pass deflections in 2012. Ideally, Cole is a fifth corner.
2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling has seen his first two NFL campaigns end on injured reserve. Dowling must be able to stay on the field, both health-wise and play-wise. Despite being a long 6'1" and 210-pound defensive back, Dowling hasn't assumed big role in the defense. Starting just two of the nine career games he has played in, Dowling has tallied 10 tackles and one pass deflection. His job is anything but guaranteed.
New England chose Rutgers cornerback Logan Ryan with the team's first third-round pick in this year's draft. The 5'11", 195-pound Scarlet Knight is regarded more so as a zone corner than a press-man corner. That tendency may not make him a replacement for Talib, but he can't be brushed off that easily. Ryan plays physical and knows how to make necessary tackles. In 2012, he reeled in 94 tackles, four interceptions and 21 pass deflections. He's a good corner, he just needs to to improve his technique and stay in front of the ball.
Winner: Logan Ryan
There are far worse problems to have than a handful starting strong safety candidates.
It's a logjam. But the best player will win out.
Nobody saw the Patriots taking Rutgers safety Duron Harmon on Day 2 of this year's draft. A lot of evaluators who didn't even know the 6'0", 192-pound safety existed before April 26. But by now most know that Harmon is a high-character student of the game with a 3.8 GPA (per The Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young). He's more of a coverage safety than an in-the-box type. He is a lock to make this team, just not a starter yet.
The 30-year-old Steve Gregory had a shaky first season in Foxboro. He got burned deep a few times and got locked up as an open-field tackler a couple more. On paper, the ex-San Diego Charger totaled 37 tackles, three interceptions, five pass deflections and two forced fumbles in 2012. But on the field, the 5'11", 200-pounder just didn't look like a long-term answer. His best fit is in sub packages.
After 12 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, four-time All-Pro Adrian Wilson took a plane ticket east to sign with New England. At 33 years old, Wilson isn't the stalwart he was seven years ago, but he's still an enforcing safety who can cover tight ends in the seam and running backs in the flats. Standing in at 6'3", 230 pounds, he's massive as far as Patriots defensive backs are concerned. He also should serve as an excellent mentor who can start if need be.
I'm of the belief that you don't draft a guy with the 48th pick just to play special teams and dimeback. Tavon Wilson has proven to be less of a "reach" than anyone first opined. And there's reason to believe he'll be in position to take the reins this season. The 6'0", 210-pound Illinois product racked up 41 tackles, four picks, two fumble recoveries and six pass deflections as a rookie. He'll look to build on that success in 2013.
Winner: Tavon Wilson
This may seem a little facetious, but a punting battle might be brewing in Foxboro.
The Patriots have two very gifted legs on the roster. But once the final preseason game is played, there will only be one remaining.
No undrafted rookie can be shrugged off, even if he's a punter. Louisiana Tech's Ryan is proof of that. Allen, a two-time Ray Guy Award winner, has the resume to give any starting NFL "booter" a run for their money. The 6'2", 215-pound specialist averaged 48 yards per punt and launched 21 punts over 50 yards as a senior in 2012. Allen was also precise, downing 20 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Even if Allen doesn't make the final cut, he'd be worth stashing on the practice squad.
A 2010 fifth-round draft selection, Zoltan Mesko has been within the confines of Foxboro for over three years now. Distance-wise, his best season came in 2011, when he averaged 46.5 yards per punt. But from a coffin-corner perspective, Mesko's best year was 2012, as he let 28 balls fall inside the 20. The 6'5", 230-pound Romanian is only 27 years old and has at least another decade of good punting left in him. If anything, the competition should light a fire under the Michigan graduate.
Winner: Zoltan Mesko