Early Projections for New England Patriots' Final 53-Man Roster
As the 2014 NFL draft concluded, Bill Belichick and the rest of the New England Patriots coaching staff immediately turned their focus to deciding how their new crop of draft picks and undrafted free agents might fit on this upcoming season's 53-man roster.
As rookie contracts—and their negligible impact on the salary cap—become more and more valuable in the NFL, higher-priced veterans should worry about their spots. The burden of proof is on the veteran to demonstrate that the money they are being paid is cap room well spent.
Looking over the Patriots' current roster, I see three instances where undrafted rookies might be able to stick over their older counterparts.
Here is my initial projection for who will exit the tunnel against the Miami Dolphins in the season opener. Rookies are listed in italics.
Quarterback: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Garoppolo
The New England Patriots last ended a season with three quarterbacks on the roster in 2011. Brian Hoyer was Brady's primary backup, with Mallett a rookie chosen on Day 2 of the draft. In 2014, a very similar situation could play out, with Mallett moving up a notch and Garoppolo taking on the role of the third-stringer.
While New England could still trade Mallett if the price were right, it seems that the Patriots are loathe to unload a backup with three years of experience in the system.
Running Back: Stevan Ridley, James White
Third-Down Running Back: Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden
In addition to the four listed here, James Develin and Stephen Houston each have a chance of making the final roster. I have Develin's hybrid tight end/fullback role being usurped by a tight end, while Houston will have to battle it out with fourth-round draft choice White and the veteran Bolden for the rights to backup Ridley and Vereen.
If New England keeps only six receivers—I have the team keeping seven—it is likely that it could keep Houston as well, readying itself for the potential loss of Ridley and Vereen after the 2014 season.
"X" Receiver: Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell
"Z" Receiver: Julian Edelman, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater
Slot Receiver: Danny Amendola, Jeremy Gallon
Even with Slater—primarily a special teams player—listed, seven receivers is a lot of roster space dedicated to one positional group. Even that might not be enough to hold on to all the potential talent the New England Patriots have.
Mark Harrison and Kenbrell Thompkins are the odd men out in this scenario, victims to the emergence of Dobson and signing of the versatile LaFell.
If LaFell can take up the "Move" tight end role, it could open up a spot for Thompkins to make the team.
"Y" Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui
"Move" Tight End: Asa Watson
If there is one position that is likely to see some action in postdraft free agency, it is tight end. Former New York Jet and Miami Dolphin TE Dustin Keller is a likely target if concerns over injury and money are allayed.
Barring any signings, undrafted free agents like Watson and the 6'8" Justin Jones have the inside track to making the roster. Watson's ability to play H-back and "Move" give him the edge over Jones, Tyler Ott and James Develin (though, as noted earlier, he'll likely get snaps as a fullback).
Jones, however, has all the physical tools. He hasn't been able to put it together on the field, but he has the highest upside of the bunch.
Left Tackle: Nate Solder
Left Guard: Logan Mankins, Josh Kline
Center: Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork
Right Guard: Marcus Cannon, Jon Halapio
Right Tackle: Sebastian Vollmer, Cameron Fleming
The New England Patriots added a lot of depth at the offensive line position in the 2014 NFL draft, but the instant returns might not be all that great.
Stork, Fleming and Halapio should all make the roster—this is especially true with veteran guard Dan Connolly saddling the team with a $4 million cap number—but only Stork has a legitimate shot of starting come Week 1. Halapio and Fleming could be seen as replacements for Mankins and Vollmer down the road.
If Connolly somehow sticks, it could be the versatile Kline who gets the boot.
Defensive Tackle: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Dominique Easley, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones
Defensive End: Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Michael Buchanan, Will Smith, Zach Moore
Armond Armstead's health is the biggest question mark with this positional group. If he is good to go in 2014, he has the skills to be a starter. If not, his welcome may have been worn out before ever donning a New England Patriots uniform.
Even if Armstead is unable to go, the defensive line seems to be in capable hands. Wilfork and Kelly are back from injuries, Easley is ready to wreak havoc while Siliga and Chris Jones provide excellent depth. Joe Vellano is firmly on the roster bubble.
At end, Ninkovich and Jones are ready to reprise their starring roles from 2013, while Buchanan, Smith and Moore will duke it out for reps rushing the passer. Jake Bequette will have to show a lot in training camp to make the roster.
"Will" linebacker: Jerod Mayo, Steve Beauharnais, Cameron Gordon
"Mike" linebacker: Dont'a Hightower, James Morris
"Sam" linebacker: Jamie Collins
The departure of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher leaves the linebacker position with a distinct lack of depth. Beauharnais, Chris White and Ja'Gared Davis combined for one defensive snap last year.
After Mayo, Hightower and Collins, there will be a bloodbath of competition for the last two or three spots. The youth and special teams ability of Morris and Gordon gives them a slight edge, but newcomers such as Darius Fleming and Josh Hull will have their say.
Cornerback: Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan
Nickel Cornerback: Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington
Strong Safety: Duron Harmon, Pat Chung
Free Safety: Devin McCourty, Jemea Thomas
The signing of Revis and Brandon Browner allowed the New England Patriots to concentrate on other priorities in the 2014 NFL draft, but Thomas was too good of a value in the sixth round. He can be a big hitter on special teams and a backup at every position in the defensive backfield.
Chung, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner are likely in a race for one position to back up Harmon and play on special teams.
While Browner won't be on the initial 53-man roster due to his four-game suspension, he'll get there eventually, perhaps at the expense of a receiver or defensive lineman far down the depth chart.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter/Holder: Ryan Allen
Long Snapper: Danny Aiken
This trio performed admirably in 2013 and—barring injury or unforeseen circumstance—should be back together in 2014.
Aiken did have a couple of hiccups in 2013, so he could see some competition in training camp from Ott. Allen and Gostkowski's familiarity with Aiken will make it tough for Ott to unseat the incumbent.