After a long, highly publicized offseason, the New England Patriots over the next week must make difficult decisions on players who currently reside at the fringe of the team's roster.
The Patriots have already trimmed their team to 75 players, meaning they need to make 22 more cuts before the regular season begins. Among those players on the bubble is the lightning rod that is quarterback Tim Tebow, who, along with a host of other players, faces a make-or-break performance in the preseason finale.
Continued ineptitude from the former Bronco and Jet will earn him a pink slip.
Some of the other roster battles aren't as high in profile but may in fact have a much greater impact on the fortunes of the 2013 Patriots.
There's compelling competition, for example, at both the running back and tight end positions. Expect guys like LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui to see tons of snaps against the New York Giants, as the Patriots decide which among them, if any, to send packing.
New England must also grapple with an unfortunate side effect that comes from annually hoarding draft picks: Not all of those prospects meet expectations, and sometimes the team is forced to cut bait with a player despite recently investing a high pick in him.
All of these scenarios will come into play on Thursday night as Bill Belichick and Patriot management get one last chance to evaluate the players on their roster bubble.
Here's how I see some of the more difficult decisions coming down.
I think the Patriots want to keep Tebow around. I think they really, really want to keep him around. I think they want the Tebow experiment to work out more than I want a nice, juicy 20-ounce prime rib cooked medium rare—and I haven’t eaten anything today.
NFL roster spots are too valuable to waste on a quarterback who can’t actually play quarterback. I’m a fan of Tebow’s and I desperately hope I’m wrong here, but everything—and I mean everything—I’ve seen this preseason points to the sad truth that he simply can’t play the position.
Watching him try to quarterback New England’s offense has been like watching a 15-year old with no license try to race NASCAR, while texting. In a word, catastrophic.
Tebow’s athleticism has been on display as his 10 carries for 61 yards can attest, but he’s looked awful throwing the football and appears to have zero grasp of how to run an offense. He’s completed just five passes in 19 preseason attempts, and when he’s not making bad throws, he’s making bad reads.
He’s missing open receivers in more ways than one. Not only does he struggle to complete open passes, but as often as not, he fails to even recognize players who've come open on their routes.
The fact that he didn’t even see the field during the Patriots’ third preseason game speaks volumes. Nobody else showed any interest before New England signed him, and given his dreadful preseason performance, it’s unlikely any other teams would have a change of heart at this point.
The Pats can safely cut ties knowing Tebow’s likely just a phone call away if they decide to try again.
With his ferocious running style and deceptive agility, Blount’s been a personal favorite of mine for years (during his rookie season every single one of my fantasy football teams was named “Smokin’ Blounts”). He entered camp as essentially an afterthought after coming to New England from Tampa Bay, but the further into August we get, Blount looks more and more like the ideal backup to Stevan Ridley.
The two share a bruising, downhill running style that lends itself to grinding out first downs and grinding down the clock. With Shane Vereen in tow, the Patriots already have an explosive home-run threat to complement their workhorse back, meaning they don’t necessarily need a game-breaker from their bench.
Blount won’t be asked to play alongside Ridley (like Vereen will), but he can certainly spell him as needed, and he seems ideally suited to step up should Ridley miss any action.
Through three games, Blount leads all Patriot running backs in carries, rushing yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. He also produced arguably the best highlight of any Patriot this preseason.
He should sew up his roster spot against the Giants on Thursday.
If a coin lands on heads, it can’t also land on tails.
If Blount makes the roster, chances are his main competition, Bolden, won’t. I suppose the Patriots could carry five running backs, but will they?
It seems highly unlikely and with Pro Bowl return man Leon Washington in the fold, Bolden may be the odd man out.
Bolden hasn’t looked bad this preseason, but he hasn’t really stood out either. He trails Blount in every conceivable aspect of their roster battle. Bolden has fewer carries, has averaged fewer yards per carry, hasn’t scored a touchdown and was effectively benched for fumbling the football in last week’s shellacking at the hands of the Detroit Lions.
He should get an extended look during the preseason finale, but unless he runs roughshod over the Giants, his time in New England appears to be drawing to an end.
Since being drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, Cunningham has done nothing but disappoint for the Patriots.
Entering his fourth NFL season, Cunningham’s resume features 14 games started, 59 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Not exactly Pro Bowl numbers.
He hasn’t been able to help his own cause this season, either, as he’s missed all three preseason games due to injury. He finally returned to the practice field on Monday, but the Boston Herald’s Mark Daniels reports that Cunningham, along with Alfonzo Dennard and Rob Gronkowski, was limited to conditioning drills.
That’s fine for Gronk and Dennard, who are in no jeopardy of missing the cut, but Cunningham needed an outstanding preseason to solidify a spot. And he can’t prove anything from the sidelines.
With the emergence of Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones at defensive end and Tommy Kelly holding down the inside with Vince Wilfork, Cunningham’s versatility may not be enough to save him this time.
When you factor in the potential midseason return of fellow hybrid lineman Armond Armstead (currently on the non-football illness list) and the solid preseason play of Marcus Forston, Cunningham needs an absolutely monstrous performance against the Giants just to have a shot.
Speaking of Rob Gronkowski’s appearance on the practice field, the fact that he’s out there at all leads me to believe he will avoid the regular-season PUP list, which means he will occupy a spot on the active roster.
Barring a drastic personnel decision, the Patriots won’t carry five tight ends. With rookie Zach Sudfeld distancing himself from the field and Michael Hoomanawanui showing the versatility to line up and block as a tight end or fullback, that means one of either Fells or Jake Ballard will face the chopping block.
The Patriots hung onto Ballard through the entire 2012 season, knowing full well that he wasn’t going to play until this year.
Yes, he’s still working his way back from a torn ACL. Yes, he looks like I could beat him a footrace. No, he hasn’t caught a pass yet this preseason. But he can block and has reliable hands, presenting Brady with a huge target underneath.
Fells hasn’t really stood out to this point, and Ballard is far more valuable from a financial standpoint. Fells is scheduled to make $1.75 million this year, versus only $630,000 for Ballard (per Spotrac.com). Ballard is also an exclusive-rights free agent next year, meaning he isn’t allowed to negotiate with anyone besides the Patriots, assuming they make him a minimum qualifying offer.
In essence, New England can get two years from Ballard for less dough than one year of Fells, making Fells expendable and likely left off the roster if Gronkowski does indeed take up a spot.