Is it the end of the line for disappointing second-rounder Ras-I Dowling?
Every year, it seems New England Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick is good for a surprise cut or two at the end of training camp. From Lawyer Milloy to Brandon Meriweather, Belichick is not afraid to release players who no longer fit, regardless of their reputation or past contributions.
Perhaps because of depth issues at certain positions, it seems this year has produced more surprise performers than usual.
Undrafted rookies Zach Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins have generated the most attention from Pats followers, but lesser-heralded finds like Marcus Benard and Joe Vellano have worked themselves into serious roster consideration as well.
The flip side of those surprises is that some more established veterans will not make the team. That harsh truth is simply the cycle of NFL life, and not something unique to the Patriots.
Elite NFL organizations place an emphasis on player development, allowing them to survive the league's rapid rate of personnel turnover.
There is still about three weeks left before the Patriots need to finalize their 53-man roster, so there is time for these players to turn things around. But for now, here are five who should be nervous about their roster status.
According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), the Patriots' offensive line was a top-five unit in both pass-blocking and run-blocking in 2012. With all five starters returning, it seems the status quo would be the best idea.
However, even since spring practices, it appears right guard Dan Connolly has been playing for his starting job. Last year, Connolly allowed three sacks, the most of his career per STATS LLC.
Connolly has has had some durability issues, never starting 16 games in a season. Approaching his 31st birthday, it seems more likely his problems will get worse rather than better.
Because of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's remarkable proficiency, the Patriots are able to take lesser-heralded linemen and turn them into competent starters. Undrafted gems like Ryan Wendell, Stephen Neal and even Connolly turned into valuable multi-year contributors in New England.
This season, former fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon looks like the most likely breakout candidate. Though Cannon started just one game last year, he played extremely well, grading out at plus-3.6 in the Thanksgiving win over the Jets, according to Pro Football Focus. If Cannon can steal the starting guard job, the Pats might not see a reason to keep Connolly and his $3.3 million cap number around.
Unfortunately, Cannon has missed several practices, including the joint ones with the Eagles. Those are valuable reps gone, which may prevent him from receiving serious playing time at the start of the season.
In that case, Connolly's experience may prolong his stay, if only for a little while longer.
Entering his third season with New England, Ras-I Dowling is facing a make-or-break camp.
Much like previous second-round disappointments Terrence Wheatley and Darius Butler, Dowling does not figure to see a third season in New England unless he demonstrates some consistency to supplement his intriguing physical tools.
Dowling did come into camp with momentum, but his perpetual injury bug bit again, causing him to miss the last week of practice with an undisclosed malady, though he apparently came up limping in his last practice. Nevertheless, given his history, any prolonged absence would effectively extinguish his roster chances.
It would be one thing if Dowling had performed well in limited reps, but in four games last season, Dowling was the Pats' worst corner by any measure, even on a per-play basis, according to Advancednflstats.com.
His size and ball skills coming out of college were exactly what the Pats sought, as evidenced by their trade with the Buccaneers for Aqib Talib, a player with similar skills, but Dowling has yet to translate his skills to the field.
One factor working in Dowling's favor is Alfonzo Dennard's potential suspension. The Pats are reportedly expecting Dennard to miss time, according to David Steele of The Sporting News, so there will be a need for outside corner depth.
Still, it's not as if the Pats do not have options. Kyle Arrington produced seven interceptions playing outside in 2011, and while it's clear he fits better in the slot, his experience could make him a stopgap solution.
Dowling's roster status probably comes down to whether or not the Patriots see him as a meaningful upgrade over Logan Ryan. If the third-rounder's physical coverage style does not draw too many pass interference calls, his ancillary value on special teams might push Dowling off the roster.
Thus far, the Patriots' tight end catastrophe hasn't been nearly as problematic as many expected.
Despite Rob Gronkowski's ambiguous status for the start of the season, undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld's receiving ability has stood out and the rookie appears to be in a battle with Daniel Fells for the top role in Gronk's absence.
In addition, Michael Hoomanawanui will be on the roster due to his blocking ability and versatility to play halfback.
That leaves ex-Giant Jake Ballard as the clear-cut fourth tight end thus far. Though the Pats did keep four at the position last year, that was with the emphasis on the "12 package", as the team sought depth behind Gronk and Aaron Hernandez.
This season, it would be a surprise if the Patriots decided to feature two tight ends frequently. Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston noted that the Pats only ran two tight end sets 50 percent of the time when one of the dynamic duo was missing. Now that there is no one nearly as explosive behind Gronkowski, it makes little sense to carry so many tight ends.
Nor is it simply a numbers game with Ballard. Ballard himself has expressed doubt about whether he will ever regain the speed he lost following knee surgery and it's not as if the hulking tight end was a burner in the first place. He has already needed a few maintenance days in camp, an ominous sign for his ability to hold up for the entire season.
At this point, the Patriots' best package is probably a "21" or "11" set, with either two running backs or three receivers. That would minimize the need for more tight ends, putting Ballard's Foxboro future in jeopardy.
Sensing a theme here?
Missing significant time during camp is never a good thing, as those countless reps during the summer allow 11 separate pieces to function as one well-oiled machine come the fall.
Like Ras-I Dowling and Dan Connolly, Jermaine Cunningham has been nursing an injury that has kept him out of practice.
As well as the Patriots did in the 2010 draft, Cunningham has been arguably the class' biggest disappointment. In three seasons, the ex-Florida Gator has accumulated just 3.5 sacks and 43 tackles, which is a little less than what Dont'a Hightower put up his rookie season.
Cunningham has certainly not lived up to his expected role as a "Jack" position pass-rusher.
Strangely enough, though, some advanced stats suggest Cunningham was actually a borderline star last season. Advanced stats in football aren't nearly as well developed as in baseball where outcomes in are generally black-and-white with a hit or an out. Assigning blame or credit in football can be much more tricky.
Nevertheless, Advancednflstats.com actually rated Cunningham the 17th-best defensive end in terms of cumulative Win Probability Added (+WPA) despite his four-game suspension.
Moreover, Pro Football Focus also noted that Cunningham drew the 13th-most penalties among defensive linemen and linebackers. Seeing Cunningham's name in the neighborhood of Jason Pierre-Paul and John Abraham is jarring, to say the least.
Perhaps the small sample size has to do with that, as Cunningham only played 487 snaps last year (about half of what the leaders played), and virtually none after his suspension. The Patriots have brought in significant competition for Cunningham's pass-rushing role, from draft picks Jamie Collins and Michael Buchanan to holdovers Jake Bequette and Justin Francis.
Despite what his peripheral stats say, if Cunningham does not demonstrate some reliability, the Patriots will not hesitate to cut him loose.
As the Patriots' trio of rookie receivers has stepped up, the veteran insurance policies have slowly dwindled away.
Donald Jones never even made it to camp and the team cut Lavelle Hawkins before he really made an impression.
The last of that group is Michael Jenkins, entering his 10th season in the league.
At 31 years old, the veteran is no longer able to create any separation, a fact indicated by virtually every one of his stats. By traditional metrics, Jenkins' receptions, yards, and yards per reception have all declined rather steadily. By advanced metrics, Football Outsiders ranked him 74th out of 86 receivers with a minus-12.4 percent DVOA, and Advancednflstats.com placed him in the bottom third of receivers regarding both a cumulative and per-play basis.
After all the turnover at wide receiver, Tom Brady has been throwing to more players than usual, with all three rookies, plus Danny Amendola, receiving first-team reps, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston.
Notice anyone conspicuously absent from that list?
Indeed, the way the Patriots' wide receiver battle is shaping up, it appears the team has five locks in Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Julian Edelman and special teams ace Matthew Slater. In all likelihood, that leaves one more spot open between Kenbrell Thompkins and Jenkins.
At this stage, that match-up is no contest. Thompkins has impressed with his consistent effort and awareness throughout spring and summer, as he seems motivated to transcend his questionable past. For the moment, the last receiver spot is his to lose.
There are situations where Jenkins' experience and leadership does have value. The Patriots were right to sign him as a Deion Branch-like mentor to the young receiving corps. But in the cruel business of the NFL, the team will simply no longer need him once roster spots become more limited.