Making Call on the New England Patriots' Hardest Remaining CutsAugust 18, 2015
Making Call on the New England Patriots' Hardest Remaining Cuts
The teams and names change, but one thing remains the same from year to year: There are more than a handful of teams that are keeping a close eye on the New England Patriots to see which players they cut.
As long as the Patriots are among the best teams in football, there will be other teams in the league that are hoping to catch a little bit of that residual magic. One way to accomplish that is by adding players who were regarded as good enough to earn a shot at making the Patriots roster.
Building the 53-man roster isn't just about finding the best 53 players. There have to be some provisions made to make sure that there is enough depth at certain positions that call for a wider selection. For example, there may be five good quarterbacks on a roster, but a team can't keep all five without limiting the number of backup offensive linemen or running backs.
So, which players will be pushed off the roster by an abundance of depth at their position?
The Patriots drafted Josh Boyce in the fourth round in 2013, hoping that the TCU wide receiver would take his immense athletic skills and translate them to the NFL. Two seasons and three summers later, the Patriots are still wondering whether he will make that transition.
Boyce has practiced well in the two-plus weeks of training camp thus far, but he failed to capitalize on a great opportunity in the Patriots' first preseason game. Boyce played 44 out of 63 snaps against the Green Bay Packers, per Pro Football Focus, but only hauled in two passes despite being targeted 11 times. Two of his passes were dropped, and one more was intercepted when Boyce ran a lazy route.
The Patriots need someone who can return kickoffs and punts, and Boyce has earned opportunities to carry out those roles in practice. The fourth and fifth wide receivers will not play much on offense, but they are just one injury away from major contributions on that side of the ball.
So far, Boyce has not made enough progress for the team to take a risk on him in meaningful situations.
The Patriots were without Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell in the preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers. One wide receiver who made the most of his opportunities was Brandon Gibson. He caught all four passes thrown his way, and although he netted only 29 yards in the process, he showed that he can at least be a reliable target.
That performance was a reflection of what Gibson has done in practice up to this point. He's been consistent and reliable for whoever has been at quarterback on any given play. He's shown the route-running savvy you would expect from a veteran of his six-year NFL tenure.
In those respects, he's going to make it difficult for the coaching staff to cut him. That being said, there just isn't enough room on the Patriots depth chart for wide receivers who don't contribute anything on special teams. Nearly all of them—even starters like LaFell, Edelman and Danny Amendola—have exhibited some value on kickoffs and punts.
Gibson has hardly even sniffed the special teams portion of practice.
The Patriots have a deep competition going at cornerback, but just because there are open job opportunities doesn't mean everyone will have a job by the end of summer.
The top of the depth chart is still being sorted out, but Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Tarell Brown and Robert McClain are projected to be the top four cornerbacks earning playing time for the Patriots in 2015. The bottom of the depth chart is also being battled out between Daxton Swanson, Bradley Fletcher and rookies Darryl Roberts and Jimmy Jean.
Swanson has two offseasons of experience in the Patriots defense, but he has not played a meaningful down for the team. He was a practice squad player last year and appears headed for the same fate this year. There's an outside chance he could beat out someone like Fletcher, but even Roberts has earned playing time over Swanson on defense.
For two years, Swanson has made noise in organized team activities. Both times, he hasn't quite carried that performance into training camp. It appears he will head down the same road in 2015.
Sometimes, a player improves from year to year. Other times, he plateaus. That seems to be what's happened to guard Josh Kline, who was lauded for his improvement in the Patriots system last year and seems to have been surpassed on the depth chart this year.
Kline started his first game at left guard as a rookie in Week 16 of the 2013 season. He stepped in for Logan Mankins as the former Patriots guard shifted to tackle in place of the injured Nate Solder. Kline earned a lot of praise from the front office and coaching staff that offseason, but he was never given a real chance to start, even during a period of intense struggles for the Patriots offensive line.
His first start in 2014 was only after several injuries on the offensive front to both center Bryan Stork and guard Dan Connolly. Entering 2015, there wasn't much talk of Kline being on the hot seat, but after two weeks of camp and a preseason game, it's clear that he's fighting for a roster spot. His closest competitor is rookie center David Andrews, who earned the start over Kline in the Patriots' first preseason game.
In fact, Andrews earned 56 snaps in the game to Kline's 25, per Pro Football Focus.
When the Patriots selected safety Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, they had hoped that he would develop into a long-term starter at the position. Three summers later, Wilson is scratching and clawing for a roster spot, competing with Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and rookie Jordan Richards.
Wilson has hardly cracked the defensive rotation in recent years, though ESPN.com's Mike Reiss points out his contributions are notably higher than most other second-round selections that year:
Of the 31 second-round selections in the 2012 draft, four are no longer on the team that drafted them, two have already signed long-term extensions (Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner and Tampa linebacker Lavonte David), and the remaining picks are scheduled to become free agents after the season. … [Wilson] has played in every game but three from 2012-2014 and [his] primary role has been on special teams and in the dime defense.
That being said, his roles are easily filled out by others on the roster. Specifically, Richards' presence is a direct threat to Wilson, as the two share many of the same characteristics (stars in run defense, limited in pass coverage, effective on special teams).
Even with so much experience in the defense, and even as a core special teams player who runs the length of the field on four different units (kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage, punt return), it's just hard to find room for Wilson in the final roster.
Unless otherwise noted, all advanced stats obtained via Pro Football Focus. All quotes and notes obtained first-hand.