New England Patriots' Projected Final 53-Man Roster, Pre-Training Camp Edition
The New England Patriots are always home to some of the NFL's most unpredictable training camp battles. Not only do they always seem to make one or two surprise cuts every season, but they also give an equal opportunity to undrafted rookies looking to make an NFL roster.
Former starters are jettisoned at the drop of a hat while former backups are suddenly asked to step up in their place. We are less than three weeks away from the series of events that will lead to these occurrences. The anticipation of football in the summer is reaching a fever pitch.
The Patriots are always at the forefront of the offseason attention, whether it's a story of how they are trying to reclaim their place as the top team in the NFL or defend it. That status is in more danger this year than in the recent past with several key departures and the potential of being without Tom Brady for up to four weeks.
Before we initiate any discussion of the Patriots defending their Super Bowl title, the team must first make it through the brutal heat of August and training camp competitions. Here's how the roster could look when it's all over.
Starter: Tom Brady
Backups: Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Flynn
Ordinarily, it would make sense to completely skip over the talk of the starting quarterback. With Tom Brady's four-game suspension pending appeal, however, there's still the possibility that second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could start meaningful games.
Make no mistake; there will not be a competition for the starting spot, even the spot for Brady's backup. The Patriots signed Matt Flynn as an insurance policy against a potential injury to Garoppolo early in the season.
In a best-case scenario, Brady would start in Week 1, but we're still waiting to hear from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on a ruling regarding his suspension.
Starter: LeGarrette Blount
Backups: Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden, Travaris Cadet
There's been a lot of shaking up in the Patriots' offensive backfield, but ultimately, the Patriots have assembled a depth chart of backs where they can call someone onto the field in any situation. What they do not have is one back who can answer the bell in every situation.
That's never been how they operate, though. LeGarrette Blount will reprise his role as the No. 1 bell cow in the Patriots backfield as the between-the-tackles hammer. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the fifth-highest percentage of runs where he picked up 10 or more yards after contact (eight of his 172 rush attempts). Blount also averaged 3.37 yards after contact per attempt, seventh-highest in the NFL.
Jonas Gray may have been in the doghouse for a period of time in 2014, but he showed the kind of hard running the Patriots love in their backs. In fact, he had the fifth-lowest percentage of carries where he had no yards after contact—that is to say, he kept his legs churning even with defenders all over him.
Brandon Bolden did not find his way onto the field much as a running back in 2014, with only 77 offensive snaps to his name, but his special teams ability is enough to earn him a roster spot on its own. Couple that with the ability he has shown in passing situations, and Bolden has shown plenty of value to the team.
Travaris Cadet is the Patriots' best bet at replacing the departed Shane Vereen. Cadet has been primarily a receiving back in his career with the New Orleans Saints (45 receptions, 11 rushes) but he does not have much experience blocking. He'll have to prove he can pick up a blitz and block a linebacker if he wants to make the roster.
Starters: Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola
Backups: Brian Tyms, Aaron Dobson, Matthew Slater
Barring an injury, Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are probably not going anywhere as the Patriots' top three wide receivers in 2015. The three earned more receptions and targets than any other receiver on the Patriots roster last year, and they are by far the most talented options the Patriots have at their disposal.
LaFell fits perfectly into the role as an X receiver; he does not have the dominating, game-breaking long speed of some of the game's top boundary receivers, but he knows how to get open and catch the ball, and he has great rapport with Tom Brady. Edelman is a perfect fit in the slot, but he also lines up on the outside from time to time and has immeasurable chemistry with Brady.
Amendola worked his way back into the lineup last year and proved to be a very solid understudy to Edelman—he even proved he could be used as a complement to Edelman and LaFell in the playoffs.
Matthew Slater is a wide receiver in name only, but he's been one of the league's best gunners for a few years now and should continue to sustain that role.
The battle over roster spots will come down to Brian Tyms, Aaron Dobson and Brandon Gibson. For now, Tyms and Dobson's experience wins them the jobs, but Dobson has not shown much value on special teams to this stage in his career. If Gibson can upstage him in that area, Dobson could be fighting for his job.
Starter: Rob Gronkowski
Backups: Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui, A.J. Derby
This could be the year where the Patriots finally decide to get back to a more tight end-focused offense. They got away from it after Aaron Hernandez was arrested, but now with Scott Chandler to play alongside Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' two-tight end offense could be more lethal than ever.
Imagine trying to determine whether the two 6'6"-plus, 260-plus-pound tight ends will be blocking in the running game or running routes in the passing game. On any given play, the Patriots could make the opponent think the left hook is coming and then throw the right jab.
It appears the backup spots are sewn up, too. Michael Hoomanawanui has been a reliable backup for years, and he knows the playbook inside and out. A.J. Derby was drafted in the sixth round out of Arkansas, and the 6'5", 255-pound tight end could also develop into a weapon.
Starters: Nate Solder, Tre' Jackson, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer
Backups: Marcus Cannon, Shaq Mason, Caylin Hauptmann
When it comes to determining the starting depth chart on the offensive line, one of the big unknown factors is the health of Sebastian Vollmer headed into the season. Vollmer could open training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston. If that's the case, Marcus Cannon would slide in as the starting right tackle, as he is the only other lineman on the depth chart with starting NFL experience at the position.
The Patriots threw their offensive line into a little flux this offseason with the decision not to re-sign veteran Dan Connolly, but rookie Tre' Jackson comes with Dante Scarnecchia's seal of approval and could start from Week 1. He is a mauling guard who could give the Patriots the physical interior line presence they've been missing.
Everything else on the starting lineup remains the same from last year, but with a few new names on the depth chart in the form of Shaq Mason and Caylin Hauptmann.
Mason was a fourth-round pick by the Patriots out of Georgia Tech, and he has experience at both center and guard, which makes him extra valuable to the Patriots and a perfect fit for what they like in a backup. Hauptmann has earned opportunities on the starting offensive line this spring, and should be considered at least a candidate for a backup spot.
Starters: Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown
Backups: Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Alan Branch
Here's where the real fun begins. If by "fun" we mean "guessing and trying to put players into positional designations in a defense where they are all moving parts," then yes, it's quite "fun." Bill Belichick likes his defense to be flexible between the 3-4 and the 4-3, so the defensive linemen often take on multiple roles.
Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown would be best described as defensive tackles in a 4-3, but both men could easily fill a number of different roles in a 3-4 front. Easley played end and nose tackle in the 3-4 at times last year, and Brown could probably do the same.
Sealver Siliga is a pure nose tackle at 6'2" and 325 pounds, probably the closest thing the Patriots have to a true replacement for Vince Wilfork. Siliga would most likely play Wilfork's role in the 3-4, with Easley and Brown playing on the ends.
Chris Jones and Alan Branch were the top backups in 2014, and both men should continue in those roles next year thanks to their versatility between the 3-4 and 4-3. With that combination of youth and experience, what more do the Patriots need in their depth on the defensive line?
Joe Vellano misses the cut at defensive tackle, and if he were still eligible for the practice squad, he would be a perfect candidate. Unfortunately, he already has two years of experience in the NFL.
Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
Starters: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich
Backups: Jabaal Sheard, Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers
The Patriots' interchangeable defensive scheme also calls upon its edge defenders to fill multiple roles. That means players like Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have to be able to play defensive end with their hand in the dirt, or outside linebacker in a two-point stance and drop into coverage.
Jones and Ninkovich will be the starting edge defenders regardless of whether the Patriots are in a 3-4 or a 4-3 alignment. The questions begin with the other players on the depth chart. Jabaal Sheard has experience in both schemes with the Cleveland Browns, but his best fit was as a 4-3 defensive end when he notched 15.5 sacks in his first two seasons. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, he produced only 7.5 sacks from 2013-14.
Rookie outside linebackers Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers have both played varying positions in multiple fronts. Xzavier Dickson could threaten to take a roster spot due to his experience under Nick Saban (whose coaching style and system are similar to Belichick's) and his special teams experience. If the Patriots carry a sixth outside linebacker, Dickson is a safe bet to land in that spot.
Jake Bequette misses the cut here; he's had three seasons to set himself apart and has failed to do so, as evidenced by the Patriots' current experiment with him at tight end.
Starters: Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins
Backups: James Morris, Jonathan Freeny, Dane Fletcher
There's no doubt about the Patriots' top three linebackers. Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are the starters if all three are healthy. That being said, there is some doubt as to whether Hightower will be available to start the season; he could open the season on the active/physically unable to perform list according to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston.
Mayo is coming back from his second season-ending injury in as many campaigns. The 29-year-old could easily be released next year to free up $7 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. The Patriots have been proving that they can make do without Mayo for the past two years. But if they have him at their disposal, why test that theory out earlier than necessary? Mayo has been a team captain and a mental and vocal leader for the team almost since the minute he arrived.
The rest of the depth chart will be filled out by young players who have upside and a veteran who could fill in if necessary. James Morris had the look of a backup with special teams potential last year, but a season-ending ankle injury cut his 2014 campaign short. The Patriots clearly see something in him, as he was one of the top players receiving snaps at inside linebacker during the spring workout program. Former Miami Dolphins backup Jonathan Freeny is in the same boat, with special teams experience that can help him make the cut.
With some questions regarding the health of Mayo and Hightower, it makes perfect sense that the Patriots brought in Dane Fletcher. His knowledge of the Patriots defense and his experience on special teams make a perfect veteran presence to round out the depth chart.
Rookie Matt Wells could be competing with Freeny for the roster spot, and he will have to show some value covering kicks and punts if he wants to make the cut.
Starters: Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler
Backups: Daxton Swanson, Darryl Roberts, Robert McClain, Bradley Fletcher
The Patriots turned over their cornerback depth chart like a key turning over an engine, and now, they are hoping that there aren't any misfires on the road to another Super Bowl.
It's been awhile since the Patriots carried six cornerbacks into a season, but with so much uncertainty at the position, they may need the extra depth just to account for any shortcomings that they may or may not be expecting.
Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler should get the starting nods due to their experience in the Patriots defense. Daxton Swanson and Darryl Roberts had strong performances this spring, and even looked better than veteran free-agent signings Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher at times. The veterans still add enough value in positional versatility that they should be considered strong candidates for the roster.
Derek Cox, Jimmy Jean, Justin Green and Brandon King should all fight for spots, but unless one of them has a sterling performance this summer, they should all be considered practice squad candidates at best.
Starters: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung
Backups: Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner
Devin McCourty has locked up one starting spot at safety. The other spot is wide-open.
Patrick Chung has been cast off by two teams—the Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles—in the past two years, but he had a redemption year in 2014. He started all but one game and finished the year as Pro Football Focus' 12th-highest-graded safety. His best work came against the run, and that's likely to be his primary role once again in 2015.
Duron Harmon spent much of the 2015 season in relief duty, coming in on passing downs where his sideline-to-sideline speed and route recognition could be put to best use. Contrary to Chung, most of Harmon's positive grade was in pass coverage.
The yearly surprise continued as Jordan Richards became the newest in a long line of shocking second-day draft picks at strong safety by the Patriots. Richards' skill set most closely resembles Chung's, as both are in-the-box type safeties with special teams ability and limited coverage ability. Nate Ebner has been a special teams ace throughout his career, making minimal impact on defense, and that should continue in 2015.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter: Ryan Allen
Long Snapper: Joe Cardona
There are no real surprises here. Stephen Gostkowski is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, after hitting 94.6 percent of his field goals last year and 93.6 percent over the past two years. The Patriots hit him with the franchise tag, so he's not going anywhere.
There doesn't appear to be any doubt about Ryan Allen, either, as the third-year punter faces no competition from anyone else on the Patriots roster. Allen earned 40.5 net yards per punt in 2014, the ninth-highest average for any punter in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Joe Cardona is awaiting approval from the Navy to play football in 2015, but according to David Steele of Sporting News, the Navy is leaning toward giving him the approval he needs to play this season. It looks like he'll be bringing his 41-mph long snaps to Gillette Stadium on Sundays.
Full 53-Man Roster Projection
QB (3): Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Flynn
RB (4): LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden, Travaris Cadet
WR (6): Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Brian Tyms, Aaron Dobson, Matthew Slater
TE (4): Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui, A.J. Derby
OL (8): Nate Solder, Tre' Jackson, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer*, Marcus Cannon, Shaq Mason, Caylin Hauptmann
DT (5): Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Alan Branch
DE/OLB (5): Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers
LB (6): Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower*, Jamie Collins, James Morris, Jonathan Freeny, Dane Fletcher
CB (6): Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Daxton Swanson, Darryl Roberts, Robert McClain, Bradley Fletcher
S (5): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner
ST (3): Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona
*There are 55 players listed here, but it's possible that Dont'a Hightower and Sebastian Vollmer could begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, which would open up another two roster spots until they return.