Predicting the Last 5 In, Last 5 Out for Patriots' Final 53-Man Roster
Life on the NFL roster bubble comes down to two things: showing you are better than others at your position and proving that you can contribute on special teams.
Ultimately, you have to do one or the other (maybe even both) if you want to end up on the right side of the bubble. Otherwise, you could end up on the outside looking in.
The New England Patriots are always home to some of the most interesting training-camp cuts because of how they value special teams, as well as because they tend to hold a more truly open competition at multiple spots than other teams. They're not afraid to part ways with a recent free-agent signing or draft pick, and they're also not afraid to attach their hopes to an undrafted free agent whom they feel was overlooked.
Here are some of the players who could end up on either side of the roster bubble this summer.
In: Aaron Dobson
Entering his second year, there were reasonably high expectations for Aaron Dobson. Those expectations were not met, as Dobson suffered through an injury-plagued season and limped his way to three receptions for 38 yards and finished the season on injured reserve.
A new year brings a new opportunity for Dobson to show what he can do.
Although Dobson doesn't offer much value on special teams, the Patriots drafted him in the second round for a reason. They saw potential in him at one point, and he showed that potential early in his NFL career. The former Marshall receiver hauled in 35 passes for 492 yards and four touchdowns in his first nine games after being drafted by the Patriots.
He may be in danger of losing his spot on the depth chart to Brian Tyms, who offers more value on special teams and has a similar skill set as a receiver, but if the Patriots keep five true receivers (excluding special teams ace Matthew Slater), Dobson should be one of them.
In: James Morris
It's never easy trying to make a roster fresh off a season-ending injury. Not only do you have to prove that you're making progress in your rehab but you also have to prove you're better than other viable candidates for the job at the same time.
James Morris seems to be making the most of his opportunity. Injuries to Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo and the absence of Jamie Collins at practice have left some vacancies in the Patriots defense, giving younger guys a chance to show what they can do in the starting lineup in practice.
Morris has never taken a snap in the regular season, but he's earning the opportunities he needs to prove himself. Right now, Darius Fleming is the only healthy Patriots linebacker present at practice with playing experience. The Patriots need to give the rest of their linebackers a chance to play in the preseason, and Morris could be a top candidate for those snaps due to his versatility and special teams value.
In: Zach Moore
When the Patriots drafted Zach Moore in the sixth round, the understanding was that he would need some time to settle in and develop into an NFL-caliber player. He was considered a raw prospect coming out of Division III Concordia, and at 6'6" and 275 pounds, he had a great deal of positional uncertainty. Not only did the Patriots have to develop his skills but they also had to find his natural fit in their defense.
A year later, the Patriots went to the ends of the earth searching for pass-rushing talent. They signed Jabaal Sheard as a free agent from the Cleveland Browns and drafted three pass-rushers: Geneo Grissom (Oklahoma), Trey Flowers (Arkansas) and Xzavier Dickson (Alabama).
Those moves would seem to be a vote of no confidence for Moore, but the Patriots were desperate enough for depth at the defensive end and outside linebacker spots that they could make a case for adding all those players and still keeping Moore.
Besides, Moore has a leg up on all of those players due to his extra year of experience in the NFL and in the Patriots defense.
In: Tyler Gaffney
Tyler Gaffney isn't the first injured player the Patriots have taken a flier on by adding him off waivers from another team. They did the exact same thing with former New York Giants tight end Jake Ballard. Ballard didn't make the Patriots roster when he was finally healthy. There's definitely a chance that Gaffney could suffer the same fate.
That being said, the Patriots seem intent on giving Gaffney a fair shot at making the final cut. He earned some reps with Tom Brady and the starting offensive unit when the Patriots held their spring practices, and he was among the first running backs to take those handoffs.
The Patriots do not lack his downhill, hard-nosed running style with LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden on the roster, but Gaffney could make a solid complement to those two, and he offers more value in passing situations for his ability to block and pick up the blitz.
Gaffney's safety may come down to how many running backs the Patriots keep on their final roster, but if that number is at least four, he has a good chance of making the cut.
In: Darryl Roberts
The battle for starting spots at cornerback isn't the only battle that will be heating up this summer. The Patriots will also be searching for the best fits further down the depth chart, and if early reps at spring practice are any indication, rookie Darryl Roberts will get a fair shake at earning his spot.
The former Marshall cornerback had some impressive numbers at his pro day, clocking a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, a 39" vertical jump and an 11'1" broad jump. We'll have to wait to see if that freakish athleticism will translate to the NFL game, but training camp will be his first real opportunity to show what he can do.
Of course, with any rookie making the transition to the professional level, he has some areas he needs to improve. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein mapped out his problems in a predraft scouting report, and those plot points mostly involve bulking up and playing with more discipline and awareness.
The 6'0", 182-pound corner has enough frame to add some bulk, just as long as he doesn't lose those athletic traits that made him a standout.
Roberts has earned opportunities playing on both defense and special teams in spring practice, which should give him an even better chance to make the roster than some of his compatriots.
Out: Bradley Fletcher
There's always at least one surprise cut after training camp. This year's surprise could be Bradley Fletcher, who was recently signed as a free agent.
The only thing is, it actually wouldn't be all that surprising. Fletcher was only given $550,000 guaranteed on his salary, and the Patriots could recoup $1.58 by cutting him. That's a good chunk of change for a player who could be no better than third or fourth on the depth chart.
Fletcher has made some impressive plays in spring practices, but there are five other cornerbacks who are pushing for roster spots. Between Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Robert McClain, Darryl Roberts and Daxton Swanson, the Patriots have five other players who offer value in both the same areas as Fletcher.
If the Patriots elect to keep six cornerbacks, Fletcher could be the beneficiary. Barring that, Fletcher could be one-and-done with the Patriots.
Out: Jonas Gray
From the practice squad to the cover of Sports Illustrated, Jonas Gray had a whirlwind 2014 season. That whirlwind carried him back to the sideline, where he spent most of the remainder of the season.
Gray came out with a roar against the Indianapolis Colts (37 carries, 201 yards, four touchdowns), but that was followed by a long stretch where Gray made barely a whisper down the stretch (24 carries, 84 yards, one touchdown in the final seven regular-season games and three playoff games).
A new season brings about new opportunities for Gray to reclaim his place on the depth chart as a top backup. His best chance of accomplishing that goal would be if he were to show some value on special teams, but to this point in his NFL career, he's yet to do so.
He could be competing with Dion Lewis for a potential fifth roster spot at running back, but Lewis may have the upper hand in that battle right now, thanks to his value as a returner.
Out: Josh Boyce
The Patriots had high hopes for Josh Boyce when they drafted him out of TCU in the fourth round in 2013. So far, he's not yet lived up to those hopes, but he also hasn't been given much of a chance to do so.
He may not get that opportunity in 2015, either.
As a rookie, Boyce hauled in nine passes for 121 yards and returned nine kicks for 214 yards. As it stands right now, his role on special teams gives him a much-better chance at making the roster than his role as a receiver. There are already five receivers proving their worth on offense: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson and Brian Tyms.
The problem is, Boyce may not get a chance to make a dent as a returner. For the time being, it appears the Patriots are giving other players the opportunity to show their mettle on returns. He was one of the final cuts before the 2014 season, but was stashed on the practice squad.
In his third year, he's no longer practice-squad eligible. Unless he makes an impact on offense and/or on return units, Boyce could be looking for new work after training camp.
Out: Matt Wells
As mentioned previously, the injuries to Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo have opened up opportunities for other, younger linebackers to prove what they can do. The important thing, however, is that those linebackers also make an imprint.
Wells has been playing second fiddle to James Morris and Jonathan Freeny in practices, taking reps with the second-team defense. Wells would be better off if he had some experience on special teams, and although he's earning opportunities to develop that area of his game, he has some catching up to do.
The Patriots need for depth at linebacker applies specifically to athletic linebackers who can run and cover. Jamie Collins is great in that role, but he needs a good backup. According to Matt Claassen of Pro Football Focus, Wells allowed completions on only 21 of 43 passes into his coverage and did not yield a single touchdown, with six passes defensed in addition to his other impressive numbers.
Wells could be a solid backup to Collins, but unless he proves his value on special teams, the Patriots may end up looking another direction.
Out: Tavon Wilson
Tavon Wilson is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Whether he gets a chance to play through that final year of his contract will depend on not only how he performs this summer but also on how others perform.
In 2012, Wilson was a surprising second-round pick, but in 2015, he could find himself on the bubble due to the arrival of another surprising second-round pick, Stanford's Jordan Richards. Richards is a bit behind the curve after missing the spring practice program while finishing school, which could hurt him when training camp rolls around in a month.
Wilson earned a chance to start in the Patriots defense as a rookie in 2012, but after giving up a couple of long passes into his coverage, he was sent to the sideline in favor of veteran Steve Gregory. Wilson played 188 snaps on defense in the 2014 regular season, according to PFF, and has been earning a majority of his playing time on special teams over the past couple of seasons.
His value on special teams is still important, but if the Patriots can find someone else to take some of that responsibility, his role on defense is easily replaceable by the likes of Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Richards.
Unless otherwise noted, all practice notes obtained firsthand.