Previewing 6 Critical Players on the New England Patriots' Roster Bubble
It's been a long, tumultuous offseason for the New England Patriots.
Training camp will undoubtedly provide a relief from the tension and the headlines. It will also deliver a much-needed platform from which Patriots players can generate some good news for a change.
Out on the field, with the hot summer sun blistering down on them, they'll discover what they're made of in order to plant the seeds for another potential NFL championship season.
Not everyone can make the cut. Several players will head into camp on the roster bubble, although some of those bubble players may become extremely important ingredients in the team's long-term success in the 2013 season. But first, they need to make the team.
Here's a preview of six critical players on New England's roster bubble.
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Ras-I Dowling's body is a horror show.
In his two seasons in the NFL, he has only played nine games, having been on injured reserve twice with hip and thigh injuries.
Some of that mayhem was foreseeable; in college, Dowling struggled with injuries to his ankle, knee, back and hamstring. In high school, he had issues with his banged-up knee and hand. He was a perennially damaged player back then and he's still a perennially damaged player now.
When rolling the dice on Dowling for another spin around the block, there's also the issue of timing. This is a dark time for the Patriots. With so much uncertainty surrounding this team, it may be a sketchy gamble to devote a roster spot to a guy whose body might as well be shaped like a question mark.
Now more than ever, what the Patriots really need is certainty and stability.
There is, of course, one major bright spot in Dowling's favor—he performed exceptionally well during spring workouts. ESPNBoston named Dowling as one of its top six momentum-builders:
[Dowling] appeared to be moving very well in practices and was consistently around the ball...it's now hard to imagine Dowling not making the roster if he performs like he did over the last four weeks.
That's great momentum for Dowling. It's crucial that he maintains the same buzz through camp because, when you take into account his incredible length, size and skill, he has the raw potential to be one of the team's best cornerbacks.
That's what makes his bubble status is so unbelievably important to monitor as camp unfolds.
A healthy Dowling would ensure a healthy Patriots' team.
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If the roster bubble were a house, Jermaine Cunningham would be a resident. He'd have a table, a bed, some lights, food in the fridge, an alarm clock, pictures on the wall, the usual stuff. The question is: How many times can a player living in this house snag a roster spot?
Last season, Cunningham played in 12 games with three starts, notching 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
He made some nice splashes here and there, including a tremendous fumble recovery to ice a win over the Broncos. He also teamed-up with Rob Ninkovich for a critical strip sack to seal the Patriots' win over the Jets last October.
However, he also had some dark patches, including a four-game suspension in December for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Mash those light and dark elements together and it's enough to keep him right on the fringe of remaining on the roster.
Having trailed off completely at the end of last season, Cunningham 's entering this training camp without any momentum. There's also serious roster pressure from defensive end Justin Francis, along with new recruits like defensive tackle Armond Armstead and defensive end Michael Buchanan, who will further erode Cunningham's chances of making the team.
Ultimately, the lingering problem with Cunningham is that he makes it tough for people to see his value.
He really hurts himself by following stretches of dynamism mixed with periods of passivity. He gives fans and analysts and coaches a list of reasons to keep him on the fringe.
Still though, on those "blue moon" occasions when he displays his raw strength, tenacity and his love for inflicting destruction, it's a reminder that Cunningham is capable of so much more.
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For an exciting three-week stretch last season, running back Brandon Bolden unexpectedly seized the attention of Patriot Nation with incredible zeal.
The stretch began against the Ravens in late September, when Bolden piqued everyone's interest by punching in a nice short-yardage touchdown. then snowballed the following week against the Bills when he exploded with 16 carries for 137 yards rushing. That included a terrific 27-yard run, a rushing score and a reception for 11 yards.
Next against the Broncos, Bolden kept his meter running with 14 carries for 54 yards and a spiffy 24-yard run, as he thoroughly had Patriots fans gripped with excitement.
Problem was, the beauty of that three-week stretch didn't last.
The rest of Bolden's season fizzled, with his next-best performance coming against the Seahawks, where he had a mere six carries for 28 yards rushing.
He was also suspended in early November for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. That paralyzed his progress and seemed to discourage him from ever regaining that initial spark which had captivated Patriots fans.
Heading into training camp next moth, Bolden has a ton of obstacles in front of him.
The Patriots' running back unit is stocked, as Stevan Ridley is a legitimate franchise back at the top of his game and Shane Vereen is a tremendous second-option who will likely take on a bigger role this season. In addition, LeGarrette Blount and George Winn are extremely interesting specimens with the potential to be big contributors in 2013, especially if the team's passing attack remains in disarray and greater emphasis slides to the run game.
Really, Bolden has no momentum here. Worst of all, nobody really knows who the real Bolden is.
It seems there are two Boldens; the one from that glorious three-week stretch and the one from the rest of the season.
If the Patriots could have the former Bolden this season, they will be golden.
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When two heavyweight teams square off against each other, the most potent superstars on either side have a tendency to cancel each other out, leaving the most critical plays in the hands of supporting characters who rise up at the right time.
Julian Edelman has the potential to be one of those vital supporting characters for the Patriots.
He's versatile, athletic, coachable, devoted, quick, integral and indicative of what the Patriots are all about. Edelman seems to have a championship moment of glory in him. One can envision him returning a touchdown on special teams in a Super Bowl the same way as Baltimore's Jacoby Jones did in the Ravens' title win in February.
The problem is that such a moment has never been able to surface with Edelman because his body isn't on his side.
His injuries have kept his brilliance bottled. Like Ras-I Dowling, Edelman remains a hypothetical talent and a somewhat existential component of this team. He's there, in some capacity, but his presence would be radically more profound if his body were to just obey his brain's command.
Edelman, who is under a one-year contract, has been recovering from a foot injury since spring. He heads into training camp without momentum and without long-term security. Even if he makes the team, he'll still be on the bubble all year.
This is when heart and guts matter most. It's up to him to rise up and be the player many think he can be for New England.
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Daniel Fells only found limited success last season with the Patriots.
He registered a second-quarter drop against the Broncos and coughed up a pair of penalties agains the Rams. For the duration of the season, he was mostly passed over in favor of Michael Hoomanawanui and ended 2012 with a mere four catches for 85 yards and zip on the scoring front.
It's understandable why Fells is up in the air right now. Thing is, all of the Patriots' other tight ends are up in the air, as well. Realistically, how much untapped potential can Hoomanawanui possibly have and how effective can Jake Ballard really be after missing all of last year? Will Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld respond to the intensity of training camp?
All of those players are in "no man's land," providing far more questions than answers. Even roster-lock Rob Gronkowski is a total mess right now, having been spliced open five times since November.
In that sense, Fells' uncertainty fits right into all of the other uncertainty around him. The tight end unit's instability has effectively given him a second crack at making a dynamite first impression. But now, he has to overcome his shortcomings from last season and prove that he really belongs.
Fells is a good blocker with soft hands. He's versatile, smart and has had a year to absorb the Patriots' system with a veteran's experience.
If he can build a rhythm with Tom Brady during training camp, Fells can make this roster and become an extremely productive player.
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In a strange way, the story of Tim Tebow's journey to the Patriots has unfolded in a storybook manner.
Tebow then went to the Jets, a critical divisional adversary.
The Jets tanked, as usual. After the season ended, the Jets were done with Tebow and he seemed blackballed forever.
While that was going on, the Patriots were in the middle of a horrendous offseason. One after the other, some of New England's brightest players dropped off the roster like playing cards that had been stuck to the wall with inferior glue, casually peeling off and gliding away.
In comes Tebow.
Granted, Tebow's arrival doesn't exactly help to answer the burning question, "Who's Tom Brady going to throw to?" But still, his arrival fills a void of a different nature, which is the emotional kind. Silly as it may sound, the Patriots could use a shot of positivity to keep their chins up. That could be the defining factor which keeps them from becoming the 2012 Saints, who went 7-9 after their bounty scandal.
If Tebow can provide that emotional stability to help avoid a fallout season, then that alone is worth a roster spot.
Plus, it's just hard to imagine that we've seen Tebow's best football already. He's only 25 years old. He's healthy, too. He has playoff experience and is a smart kid who has won big games. It's hard to believe he's used up, beaten down and done. And anyway, if people choose to believe he's done, then he can use that as motivation.
As long as he helps the Patriots win, that's all that matters.
But first, he has to make the team.