New England Patriots: 8 Players Firmly on the Roster Bubble
With training camp opening for the New England Patriots in just a little over a month, it's time to begin weighing position battles and getting a sense of the most interesting storylines that will emerge in August.
Of course, with this comes the players who are on the bubble—players directly affected by a great practice or preseason game or an injury to someone else at their position. Players who will have to excel and make an impression, by any means necessary.
The Patriots have a number of young talented players, in many cases, ones who were drafted in the first few rounds but are still trying to prove themselves and carve out a role.
Here's eight Patriots who are right on the bubble of the final 53-man roster.
Zach Sudfeld was one of the standouts of OTAs, according to Pats Propaganda, and with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski's availability in question this season, there could be a need for another tight end on the roster.
Of course, Sudfeld will have some veteran competition with Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui, all who've had a year of experience in the Patriots system.
Excelling in the teaching sessions of OTAs is one thing; showing the same dominance when the pads come on is something entirely different.
Can Sudfeld maintain the momentum he started in May and June and carry it into August and September? The opportunity should be there, and if he falls short, the practice squad is always a possibility.
The Patriots have a young and talented offensive backfield, with three homegrown players leading the way.
While Stevan Ridley is the likely lead back, and Shane Vereen is penciled in to replace Danny Woodhead as the top passing-down back, the battle for the third spot features two hard runners.
LeGarrette Blount is often mistaken for a short-yardage back due to his size, but he is not the one-cut pounder the Patriots like in that role. In fact, Brandon Bolden is a far better fit with the decisive running style he flashed early in his rookie year.
There's no question Blount showed he could do it in 2010, but he'll have to fully regain that form to have that chance of winning a roster spot, and even then, it's hard to know what role it would be in.
Perhaps, with all the turnover in the passing game, the Pats could choose to keep all four. They might actually have to rely on the running game more in 2013 than any year since 2006.
Donald Jones was one of the first free-agent signings the Patriots made this offseason, yet he was hardly mentioned during OTAs, an especially bad sign when the team is going through a complete turnover at the position.
Jones finds himself in a tight competition with a collection of rookies like Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Mark Harrison and veterans like Michael Jenkins, Julian Edelman and Kamar Aiken.
Jones has been quiet, thus far, but he'll have to start showing up in training camp if he has any hope at all of earning Brady's trust.
Jake Bequette is another standout from OTAs, which was a welcomed change from his invisible rookie season. Bequette was known as a Wide 9 pass-rusher coming out of Arkansas, but rushing the passer in college is one thing, and in the pros, it's something else entirely.
NFL pass-rushers need to be refined, with an arsenal of moves and savvy to set up offensive tackles for unexpected moves later in the game and on important downs. A year of seasoning should've certainly helped Bequette, and the early signs of life this offseason are a big positive.
There's plenty of competition at the defensive end spot, but the door is certainly open for a significant role, whether it's rushing the passer or even as a base defensive end.
Bequette has the size and speed, but he'll have to put it all together, and keep it all together, throughout the summer if he wants a second chance on the 53-man roster.
Dane Fletcher was lost for the 2012 season in the first preseason game after tearing his ACL. It's unfortunate because Fletcher's speed and sure tackling made him arguably the best coverage linebacker on the roster.
His work against Ray Rice in 2011 was impressive, and his skill set was something the Patriots badly needed last season.
Still, there's no assurance of a roster spot for Fletcher, especially with Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Mike Rivera and Steve Beauharnais now in the mix.
Fletcher has taken the starting snaps while Brandon Spikes skipped OTAs, a positive sign, and it's not entirely impossible that Fletcher is used in the base defense, but he'll be in for a stiff competition in training camp.
He'll need to show he still has the speed and coverage ability and his mental game has progressed as well.
Fletcher is one of the most intriguing Pats entering training camp, one who could fit a big need, but if he regresses and has not fully recovered, he could find himself on the outside looking in at the end of August.
Jermaine Cunningham enters the last year of his rookie deal, never having quite lived up to the status of a second-round pick. He's flashed potential in spots, but has been derailed by injuries and a PED suspension and never quite found a home on the defense.
In 2010, he saw time as a passing down defensive end and an outside linebacker, in 2011 he was a strong-side linebacker and mostly defensive end before getting hurt. In 2012, he was starting to carve out an interior sub-rusher role before his suspension and subsequent disappearance.
There may be no player with more to prove than Cunningham this summer, but his best fit remains unknown.
Cunningham will have tougher competition for the interior sub-rusher role again, with Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead now in the mix. Cunningham was thrown into that out of necessity in 2012.
His best fit is probably at left defensive end, utilizing his strength at the point of attack, but Cunningham is running out of chances, and 2013 is likely his last one with the Patriots.
No veteran faces a tougher position battle on defense than Steve Gregory, and his high salary will be working against him on top of it.
The Patriots have four safeties who started games in 2012, including Gregory, Devin McCourty, Tavon Wilson and Adrian Wilson.
McCourty seems the only lock, and Tavon Wilson's second-round draft status should certainly earn him another season to show what he's got. Adrian Wilson was one of the prize offseason signings for the Pats, and given his talent, he's sure to contribute in some capacity.
Where does all this leave Gregory? Likely in a fight to win a starting job or end up on the street. Injuries could help his cause, but he'll need to show better consistency than he did in 2012. While everyone remembers his horrid performance in the AFC Championship, Gregory was better down the stretch in the games leading up to it.
Gregory will need to take his game to another level in training camp and show an instinctiveness and awareness on the back-end that the Pats can't live without.
Yes, it might be hard to believe for some, but Tim Tebow is clearly on the bubble this summer. The Pats carried just two quarterbacks in 2010 and 2012 and would have no problem doing so again in 2013.
Many seem to think Tebow can be penciled in as a utility player, but if he can't understand and execute the offense, he's not just going to make the team because he's competitive and tough to tackle.
Tebow will get a fair shot to make the team, but he'll get no benefit of the doubt from Bill Belichick.
Everything starts with his reps at quarterback, and if he's able to show improvement there, only then will it open the door to any kinds of other roles the Pats might want to use him for.
Though he's not on the bubble, Ryan Mallet should benefit from the competition with Tebow. Mallet's the one who really has to show something this preseason.
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