Breaking Down New England Patriots' Deepest, Thinnest Roster Spots
As we inch closer toward training camp. the New England Patriots appear to have one of the deepest overall rosters in the NFL. However, this definitely does not mean there isn't room for improvement on the roster or that position groups are going to look the same heading into the regular season.
Offseason competition, in theory, helps to mold and improve rosters in preparation for the regular season. This is why a position that appears thin now may not look the same way in a couple of months. It's also why a potentially deep group—like, say, wide receiver—might actually be thinned out over the next couple of months.
For now, though, we can only judge the Patriots roster in its current form. Where might the team seek improvement in training camp? Where might the team need to trim excess talent? These are the questions we're seeking answers to as we break down New England's deepest and thinnest roster spots.
To be clear, we'll be looking at the current roster and judging position groups based primarily on overall talent and depth. In other words, we're not going to consider fullback a thin position just because there aren't many fullbacks on the roster.
It's hard not to see the top-end talent when Tom Brady is the king of your quarterback room. The guy is a five-time Super Bowl champion and was rated first overall among all quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus last season.
However, the presence of Brady isn't the only reason we have to consider quarterback a deep position for the Patriots. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo showed enough potential last season, that many analysts believed teams would have been better off acquiring him as a starter than drafting a future quarterback.
"Garoppolo today is better than any quarterback in this draft," former NFL GM and NFL Media's analyst Charley Casserly said back in February. "Now, he's had three years of experience. You look at him coming out (of college), the guy had a quick release, he's smart, he knows where to go with the ball. The guy is accurate, and he can make some plays on the move."
Will the offense take a step back if Brady goes down? Sure it will, but it might not be as big a backslide as some teams might make in the same situation. In addition, third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett proved last year that he has enough talent to win in a spot start.
The future of this group might not be entirely certain, but you have to love the depth the Patriots have at quarterback this year.
Running Back: Thin
Let's be clear here. The Patriots now have four running backs—Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis and James White—who can do a lot of different things on the football field. The only reason we're considering this position on the thin side is because there isn't a proven starter among the bunch.
Of these top four running backs, only Gillislee logged more than 100 carries in 2016 (he logged 101). At 219 pounds, he is probably best-suited to be the leading rusher, but if he goes down, where does the team turn?
One option is to rely more on the passing game, and the other three backs can certainly make this a viable option. Heck, White hauled in 60 receptions for 551 yards last season. The problem is that this would make the Patriots offense a bit one-dimensional, which is never a positive.
Our view of this group can easily change during camp and in the preseason if guys like Burkhead and White prove they can run over opposing defenders with ease. Unfortunately, we just can't consider the backfield truly deep until we know it's more than just a collection of complementary role players.
Wide Receiver: Deep
That group consisted of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and rookie Malcolm Mitchell. Each filled a specific role in the Patriots offense and excelled at it.
When you consider just how much the Patriots like to throw to their running backs and tight ends, it wouldn't seem like there was a need to add to the receiver position this offseason. They did, though, trading for downfield speedster Brandin Cooks.
Now, New England may be able to challenge Atlanta as the team with the top receiving corps in the league. In fact, guys like Hogan and Amendola might even be in danger of losing their jobs before the regular season rolls around. There is almost too much talent here to fit on the roster.
The Patriots' pair of starting guards certainly works well enough within the vacuum of the offensive line. As a team, New England was rated third overall in run blocking by Pro Football Focus last season.
The problem is that second-year guard Joe Thuney remains a bit of a question mark. He showed some promise last year, but he was a liability in pass protection. Pro Football Focus actually graded him 138th among guards and credited him with 32 surrendered quarterback hurries.
The problem here is that the Patriots don't really have anyone who appears capable of challenging Thuney for the starting gig. The depth behind him consists of guys like Chase Farris, Jamil Douglas and undrafted rookie Jason King.
If Thuney doesn't improve in Year 2, the Patriots could be in trouble. If the team suffers an injury at guard, it could be in even bigger trouble.
After the addition of Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, New England might now possess the best cornerback duo in the entire league. Gilmore will pair with Malcolm Butler, who was rated fifth overall by Pro Football Focus last season.
Gilmore and Butler aren't the only talented cornerbacks on the Patriots' roster, though. Third cornerback Eric Rowe was rated 49th overall among corners by Pro Football Focus last season. He's a pretty good pass defender in his own right.
While there is a notable drop-off in talent after the top three guys, the Patriots do have talent sitting on the depth chart. Guys like Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones have shown the ability to contribute. Meanwhile, second-year man Cyrus Jones is a player with a lot of upside—even if he didn't always show it as a rookie.
This is a strong and relatively deep group overall—especially when you consider the fact the Patriots often used third safety Duron Harmon as the extra defensive back in nickel packages last season. New England simply isn't going to rely on three- and four-cornerback packages as much as some other teams do.
This means an injury at the top of the depth chart isn't necessarily going to expose a weakness at the very bottom of it often.
Outside Linebacker: Thin
This is another "thin" position that has to come with a caveat. The Patriots don't rely all that heavily on true outside linebackers, so the lack of top-end talent and depth isn't a major concern. As long as middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower is playing to his potential, the linebacker corps should be OK.
However, it wouldn't hurt to put some legitimate playmakers next to Hightower, and the Patriots don't have any. Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy are capable outside linebackers, but they aren't stars. The depth behind them is even more questionable.
Sure, Rob Ninkovich can step in and play linebacker if needed, but the top backup here is second-year man Elandon Roberts. He has shown potential but is very much unproved. Rookie third-round pick Derek Rivers is also unproved, and he could be a primary backup/rotational player in 2017.
This isn't necessarily a weak group for what the Patriots like to do on defense, but a couple of injuries at the top of the depth chart could cause real problems. One of the young linebackers needs to emerge in camp.
Defensive Line: Deep
The defensive line of New England underwent some changes this offseason, but it remains both talented and deep. Gone are Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long. In are former Carolina Panthers end Kony Ealy and former Baltimore Ravens end Lawrence Guy.
Trey Flowers, who led New England with 7.0 sacks last season, is still part of the end rotation. The Patriots also added rookie Deatrich Wise to the group.
Things are the same at the interior, where Malcom Brown and Alan Branch provide the foundation for the entire defensive front. Branch and Brown were rated 17th and 22nd overall among all defensive tackles, respectively, by Pro Football Focus last season.
This is an extremely solid core group of defensive linemen, and there is some quality depth behind it. Guys like Vincent Valentine and Rob Ninkovich can be relied upon in a pinch or on a rotational basis. This line is clearly the strength of the front seven.
Offensive Tackle: Thin
When it comes to top-end talent, New England has plenty of it at offensive tackle. Left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Marcus Cannon were rated fifth and 11th among all offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus last season.
The issue here is that there just isn't much in the way of proven depth sitting behind Solder and Cannon. Longtime Patriot Sebastian Vollmer departed this offseason, and the team could actually have to rely on rookie third-round pick Antonio Garcia should there be an injury.
Other tackles on the roster include uninspiring names like Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle. Rookie sixth-rounder Conor McDermott is another potential option, but if the Patriots end up relying on him, there's a real problem.
The big issue here is that the depth at tackle consists of nothing but rookie question marks and underwhelming journeymen. Considering the job of the tackles is to protect Brady, this puts New England one injury away from a very scary situation.