With presumed starters Tom Brady, Stevan Ridley, Danny Amendola and the like locked into many of the New England Patriots’ 53 roster spots, players like the polarizing Tim Tebow, grammatically challenging Michael Hoomanawanui and pulverizing LeGarrette Blount find themselves squarely on the bubble. Other notables, like the lightning-quick Julian Edelman and complete-opposite-of-lightning-quick Jake Ballard, must also prove their worth in the coming weeks.
Several relative unknowns have also played their way into that bubble as well.
Speaking of which, how exactly does one enter a bubble without popping it? My best guess would be to sublime into a gaseous state and drift inside through diffusion, but I encourage alternative suggestions in the comments below.
Previously unbeknownst players like undrafted rookies Zach Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins may, in fact, have performed well enough to bypass the bubble altogether. Meanwhile, fellow no-names Kamar Aiken and Mark Harrison renew their battle daily as roster competition reaches a fever pitch.
Sadly, many of their bubbles will burst like overstretched Bazooka Joe, and players will find themselves hoping to stick on with another team like gum peppering an overgrown mustache.
Those who make the cut, however, will stay and compete for a game-day role. Only 46 of the 53 players are allowed to dress for action on Sundays, relegating the other seven strictly to practice squad duty.
On the offensive side of the ball, my best guess at New England’s initial roster breakdown looks like this:
- Three quarterbacks
- Four running backs
- Seven wide receivers
- Four tight ends
- Four tackles
- Two centers
- Four guards
With that in mind, here’s how I see things shaking out for each offensive position on the Patriots roster. Each player will earn a designation of either “Start,” “Keep” or “Cut.” Those players in the “Keep” category will also be labeled as either active or practice squad players.
Tom Brady: Start
What can I say that hasn’t already been said? With three Super Bowl wins, two more AFC championships, the most all-time playoff wins, the most division titles, the most single-season touchdown passes (50), the fewest interceptions in a 16-game season (four) and two NFL MVP awards— including the only unanimous award in league history—Brady enters the home stretch of his career as the most accomplished quarterback ever.
Ryan Mallett: Keep (active)
He’s no Brady, but then again, who is?
(Pipe down, Peyton Manning fans, nobody asked you.)
Entering his third season with the Patriots, Mallett will stand vigil on the sidelines, guarding his clipboard unless otherwise called upon due to injury or extreme score differential.
Tim Tebow: Keep (active)
In Tebow's case, I use the word "active" very loosely. Brady hardly, if ever, comes off the field, and Tebow looked awful in the exhibition opener against the Eagles. Yes, he can run. No, he can't throw, at least not consistently.
Ideally, he'd be eligible for the practice squad, but at least it's nice to have a guy with playoff experience in case anything happens to the Patriots' two best quarterbacks.
Stevan Ridley: Start
Coming off a 1,263-yard, 12-touchdown campaign, Ridley enters 2013 as the unquestioned starter in the backfield. He’ll once again handle most of the rushing duties and be counted on to pound the rock roughly 20 times per game.
Shane Vereen: Keep (active)
In Ridley and Vereen, the Patriots have something of a “thunder and lightning” tandem in their backfield. Vereen offers more as a receiver and big-play threat, and should see significant action as a change-of-pace option.
He will likely steal a few starts from Ridley, depending on matchups, just like Danny Woodhead a year ago. Given his prowess as a receiver—Vereen flashed his skills yet again by catching a touchdown during the preseason opener—he may even earn the occasional start split out wide as a receiver. He’ll be active with a capital “A.”
LeGarrette Blount: Keep (active)
As fearsome a runner as Ridley is, he’ll need rest on occasion. Vereen will help out, but he’s more of an alternative than a fill-in. When the Patriots need to spell Ridley, look for Blount to get the call.
A powerful runner with surprising agility, Blount went all “Nuke” LaLoosh in the preseason opener, announcing his presence with authority to the tune of 101 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries, including an impressive improvised scamper. The former 1,000-yard rusher is a non-factor in the passing game, but he allows the Patriots to keep bringing the hammer down, even when Ridley needs a breather.
Brandon Bolden: Cut
Tough break for Bolden, who had a few bright spots with the Patriots last season, most notably a 16-carry, 137-yard performance against the Bills in which he added touchdowns both rushing and receiving. He probably deserves a spot on the practice squad at least, but with limited roster spots available and no track record to speak of, I think he’ll find himself on the outside looking in.
Leon Washington: Keep (active)
The Patriots signed the two-time Pro Bowl return man primarily to provide some punch on special teams, but he could see some action catching screen passes and running draw plays, too.
James Develin: Cut
The former Brown Bear could earn a practice squad spot thanks to his potential impact on special teams, but with so much uncertainty at the wide receiver and tight end positions, I can’t see the Patriots keeping more than four running backs on their roster.
George Winn: Cut
The undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati logged one carry for a loss of two yards in the preseason opener. He was a second-team All-Big East selection in 2012, so he certainly has talent, but already on his second team since this year’s draft, the Patriots can likely cut him and then claim him off someone else’s practice squad if they really need him.
Ben Bartholomew: Cut
OK, so I kind of cheated here. Bartholomew is technically a fullback, but the Patriots don’t typically carry one, especially since players like Michael Hoomanawanui and Zach Sudfeld can fill that role as needed.
As a pure fullback with no indication he’s capable of filling other roles, Bartholomew’s only shot at the final roster would be to dominate special teams a la Matthew Slater.
Danny Amendola: Start
Replacing Wes Welker is no easy task, but Amendola worked hard to develop chemistry with Brady this offseason, and according to ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss, it’s already paying off. Reiss reported that during last week’s joint practice with the Eagles, the two exchanged pre-snap hand signals before hooking up for a nice reception.
He’s locked in as the top wide receiver.
Kenbrell Thompkins: Start
Thompkins has come on like gangbusters this summer after landing with the Patriots as an undrafted rookie from Cincinnati. He started the preseason opener against the Eagles and looked great during his action, showing crisp route running and soft hands and aggressively fighting for the football.
If the season began today, the former Bearcat would likely start opposite Amendola.
Aaron Dobson: Start/Keep
Dobson is the most explosive—and perhaps the most talented—receiver on the Patriots roster. The second-round draft pick out of Marshall saw significant reps during the preseason opener and acquitted himself well. He did have one drop but also flashed big-play ability with the longest catch of the night—23 yards—while working with both the first- and second-team offenses.
He was also open for another potential big play, but Tebow rifled an absolute laser beam into the dirt and about five yards off target.
Dobson should see situational action initially, but may very well overtake Thompkins as the primary “X” receiver during the course of the season.
Julian Edelman: Keep (active)
Edelman has flashed Welker-ish ability in the past and could carve out a sizeable role for himself with so much roster turnover this season. He’s caught more passes from Brady than any other wideout on the roster, which isn’t saying much, but still bodes well for his roster chances.
Perhaps more importantly, he’s an explosive option in the return game should Leon Washington suffer an injury or prove ineffective. As mentioned earlier, he could also serve as the emergency quarterback in a pinch, assuming Tebow isn’t dressed for game action.
Michael Jenkins: Keep (active)
As recently as last month, I had Jenkins penciled into the starting lineup. He hasn’t really established himself since then, and the young guns have taken off.
Renowned for his speed—or lack thereof—“Molasses Mike” will likely take his sure hands and slow feet to free agency, unless the Patriots get creative and keep seven wide receivers. I see them doing just that, only because Jenkins’ veteran experience will be invaluable to rookies Dobson, Thompkins and Josh Boyce.
Matthew Slater: Keep (active)
Another reason Jenkins might escape the chopping block is because another player at his position doesn’t actually catch passes. Slater has one reception in his career, but the back-to-back Pro Bowler is entrenched as the Patriots’ special teams ace.
Josh Boyce: Keep (active)
He didn’t record a catch in last week’s preseason opener against the Eagles, but the Patriots didn’t spend a fourth-round pick on the former TCU Horned Frog to put him on the practice squad and watch another team poach him. He’ll suit up on Sundays and in a best-case scenario will give the Patriots another weapon in the mould of Deion Branch.
Kamar Aiken: Cut
Initially, I had Aiken penciled in for the practice squad, but the Patriots won’t carry eight receivers.
Johnathan Haggerty: Cut
Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Haggerty before. OK, now put it down if you cover the team or if you went to school with him at Southwestern Oklahoma. If you still have your hand up, put it down, you filthy liar!
Mark Harrison: Cut
In the interest of full disclosure, he is a rookie from Rutgers, so Bill Belichick might keep him around to fill out the Scarlet Knight lunch table at Gillette Stadium. Even with Rutgers on his resume, though, it looks like Harrison is too low on the pecking order to crack the final roster.
Quentin Sims: Cut
Sims has great size at 6’3” and 202 pounds, but the undrafted rookie from Tennessee-Martin would barely make the cut even if the only receivers on the roster were the five rookies.
Rob Gronkowski: Start (when healthy)
No surprise here. When he’s on the field, Gronk is the best tight end in football and one of the most dominant players at any position. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports (via NESN) budding optimism surrounding his rehab progress, so it looks like he’ll avoid the PUP list to start the regular season and take up a spot on the active roster.
Michael Hoomanawanui: Keep (active)
I’d love to see his last name featured in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, if only for the comedy of watching the prompter struggle to feed contestants the proper pronunciation.
“Hooman…Hoomawanoo…Hoomanaweye…Homanawanee…Forget it! Here’s the card, kid, just read it.”
On the football field, the Hoo Man’s ability to line up at tight end and fullback will save the Patriots a roster spot and help ensure he keeps his.
Zach Sudfeld: Start
I’ve been hyping the undrafted rookie since he signed in May, and I see no reason to stop now. He showed Gronk-ish skills on a nifty catch and rumble up the sideline against the Eagles, leaving several would-be tacklers and bruised egos in his wake.
He’s the most talented healthy tight end on the roster, and considering the variety of ways in which he was used in Nevada’s pistol offense, he could even line up at fullback in a pinch. He should start as long as Gronk’s out.
Daniel Fells: Keep (active)
I think Fells’ status is directly tied to Gronkowski’s health. As long as the All-Pro remains sidelined, Fells will warrant playing time as an accomplished blocker and occasional receiving threat. Once Gronk returns, he’ll likely find himself behind him, Sudfeld and Hoomanawanui on the depth chart.
Given Gronk’s injury woes, I don’t expect them to cut Fells, but as the season rolls on it won’t be out of the question.
Jake Ballard: Cut
The Patriots poached Ballard from the Giants when they tried to put him through waivers following a torn ACL, so they’ve invested a lot of time in the recovering tight end. Unfortunately, he’s reportedly looked very slow in camp, and given Sudfeld’s emergence, there simply may not be room for him.
If he were eligible, they might stash him on the practice squad while Gronkowski recovers and take a wait-and-see approach with Ballard’s knee, but he's ineligible, and at this point they can probably make better use of that roster spot.
Nate Solder: Start
The 2011 first-round pick is in no danger of losing his starting role after starting all 16 games last season. With another year of experience under his belt, Solder should approach Pro Bowl status in 2013.
Sebastian Vollmer: Start
Like Solder, Vollmer faces no real threat for playing time after signing a four-year, $16.75 million contract.
Will Svitek: Keep (active)
With Marcus Cannon moving from tackle to guard, Svitek takes over as the team’s top swing tackle. He’ll be on hand to spell Solder and Vollmer as needed and fill in should injury befall either of them.
R.J. Mattes: Keep (practice squad)
Newsflash: Bill Belichick loves versatile linemen. Listed simply as an offensive lineman, Mattes was a four-year starter at both tackle and guard at NC State, earning second-team All-ACC honors in 2012.
Markus Zusevics: Cut
Zusevics spent time on the Patriots’ practice squad in 2012, but with Svitek and Mattes in the fold and Cannon still capable of sliding over, his odds are much longer this season.
Brice Schwab: Cut
Schwab is massive at 6’7” and 302 pounds, but I have a hard time seeing the rookie free agent cracking the 53-man roster with so many other talented, versatile linemen on the team.
Kevin Haslam: Cut
Simply put, the Patriots don’t need him. If the tackle position gets any further down the depth chart than Svitek, they can slide Cannon back over and play Dan Connolly at guard.
Marcus Cannon: Start
I discussed Cannon’s battle to take over the starting right guard spot in an earlier article, and according the Boston Globe, he’s been taking most of the first-team reps. He’s a younger, cheaper and likely better alternative to incumbent Dan Connolly.
Logan Mankins: Start
The five-time Pro Bowl guard leads an excellent unit. Look for more of the same in 2013.
Dan Connolly: Keep (active)
Even if he doesn’t beat out Cannon for the starting job, Connolly’s versatility makes him extremely valuable for the Patriots. He can play both guard spots and center, allowing them to move him and Cannon around the line as needed.
Chris McDonald: Keep (practice squad)
The undrafted rookie out of Michigan State started the final 30 games of his college career at right guard, earning honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors in 2012.
Luke Patterson: Cut
The former collegiate defensive lineman provides valuable training camp depth, but he won’t last any longer beyond that.
Tyronne Green: Cut
The Patriots already cut him once this offseason. He’s back in camp, but there’s no reason to believe his second stint in New England will end any differently.
Josh Kline: Cut
Kline joins the Patriots as an undrafted rookie from Kent State. Nothing to see here.
Ryan Wendell: Start
An unknown at this time last season, Wendell put together a terrific season for the Patriots in 2012, starting all 16 games and helping to pave the way for Ridley’s breakout season.
Matt Stankiewitch: Keep (practice squad)
The rookie from Penn State was a 2012 Rimington Trophy finalist, awarded annually to the nation’s top collegiate center. He started every game in his last two years at Penn State and was named to ESPN.com’s 2012 All-Big Ten team.
I suppose this is a logical place to mention long snappers as well. I expect incumbent Danny Aiken to fend off rookie Mike Zupancic, who I'm assuming will be cut.