8 Players on New England Patriots' 2017 Roster Bubble
It's time for NFL training-camp season, folks. Teams around the league are reporting back to the practice field and the NFL preseason is right around the corner. This means that over the next several weeks, players on every roster are going to be battling for their job.
For the New England Patriots, these roster battles are going to look a bit different than they do for other teams.
This was already a championship roster before New England added pieces such as Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy, Stephon Gilmore, Lawrence Guy, Mike Gillislee and Dwayne Allen. The Patriots won't just have young unproven players and aging veterans on the roster bubble in camp—some established guys are going to be fighting for their jobs too.
We're here to take a final look before camp at players who will be playing for their jobs in camp and in the preseason.
Given the overall talent on this team, we're going to exclude rookies, as all the undrafted free agents the team added are already long shots to make the regular-season roster. We'll also be excluding players who have never seen a regular-season field, such as wideout Devin Lucien.
Let's dig in.
Cornerback Cyrus Jones was a second-round pick last season. However, he could already be on the roster bubble after a putrid rookie season. He struggled to get on the field, and when the team tried him as a return specialist in an effort to get him there, he responded with disaster.
Pro Football Focus rated him the worst return man in the entire league for 2016. He returned 11 punts and eight kickoffs, and he had three fair catches and five fumbles on the season.
"Honestly, it was hell for me," Jones said, per Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun. "That's the only way I can describe it. I didn't feel I deserved to be part of anything that was happening with the team."
It's not like Jones is going to get an open path to a starting opportunity this season, either. The team added Pro Bowler Stephon Gilmore to play opposite Malcolm Butler. He'll be battling for a roster spot with guys such as Eric Rowe, Justin Coleman, Jonathan Jones and rookie D.J. Killings.
On many teams, Jones' status as a former second-round pick could probably grant him a safe roster spot. Yet, head coach Bill Belichick has shown a willingness to dump former high picks with a quickness before. Former first-rounder Dominique Easley was gone after just two seasons.
Jones is going to have to show significant improvement in camp and in the preseason if he hopes to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
Offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle was acquired during the 2015 season to add depth to the offensive line. After adding tackles Antonio Garcia and Conor McDermott in this year's draft, however, the Patriots may no longer need that depth.
Depending on how many tackles New England decide to retain on its active roster, Waddle could be in a battle with fourth-year tackle Cameron Fleming for a place. If this is the case, Waddle appears likely to be the odd man out.
The 26-year-old is set to have a cap hit of $1.12 million this season. Barring an injury, he isn't likely to see the field. He's appeared in just three games since being acquired in 2015.
Fleming, 24, will earn just under $1.8 million this season, but that money was given when the Patriots tendered him as a restricted free agent. New England could have let him walk if they didn't have an interest in keeping him.
Fleming is also more of a home-grown product. While Waddle has 24 career starts to Fleming's 14, all 14 of Fleming's have come in New England.
Unless Fleming completely disappoints in camp or there's a significant injury, it doesn't make much sense to keep Waddle.
Running back Brandon Bolden has spent five seasons with the New England Patriots. He's started a handful of games during his career, but he was primarily a special teams contributor in 2016.
He'll have to prove his special teams ability is special enough to spend a roster spot this year, because he isn't likely to have a backfield presence, barring injury.
New England did part ways with LeGarrette Blount this offseason, but running backs Dion Lewis and James White return alongside Bolden. They offer more to the New England passing game than Bolden does, and some offseason additions are likely to take over Blount's role as runner.
Football Outsiders rated Gillislee and Burkhead first and second, respectively, in rushing efficiency on a per-play basis last season. They combined for 921 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns last season on just 175 carries. If we take the combined per-play averages of Gillislee and Burkhead and multiply them by the 299 carries Blount saw in New England last season, we'd get nearly 1,600 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The reality is that Gillislee and Burkhead will likely control New England's running game. White and Lewis will contribute as the team's receiving and utility backs. There isn't a role for Bolden aside from special teams.
The Patriots have used a roster spot on players who are almost exclusively special teams guys before—wideout Matthew Slater is a prime example—but there's no question Bolden will have to excel in camp to keep a job.
If we're going to consider Bolden a player on the roster bubble, then we have to consider second-year back D.J. Foster as another.
It's not that Foster isn't good enough to make the team, though. He appeared in three games with the Patriots in 2016, and he soaked up what he could from the other backs.
"[I] just focus on what I can do. I learn as much as I can from those guys," Foster said, per Phil Perry of CSNNE.com.
The issue for Foster is that it's a numbers game at the running back position. Barring injury, Lewis, Gillislee, Burkhead and White are likely to make the roster. Bolden could also sneak on to the roster as a special teams player.
If the Patriots want to keep Foster around, they can do so as a practice-squad member. If another team doesn't claim him, he can wait there as a potential injury replacement. It doesn't make any sense to waste a regular-season roster spot on Foster if that's going to be the entirety of his role in 2017.
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins asked for and was granted his release by the Cleveland Browns this offseason so that he could try to land with a contender. He got his opportunity with New England, but he could have a difficult time making the final roster.
Unfortunately for Hawkins, it's also a numbers game at the wide receiver position—and the Patriots aren't short on numbers there. The team added Cooks this offseason to a group that already included Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Slater.
Hawkins doesn't offer the same special teams value as Slater, so he may need New England to keep seven wide receivers in order to make the roster.
Given the makeup of New England's offense, seven wideouts feels unlikely.
The Patriots have tight ends and running backs they also utilize in their passing attack. White, for example, caught 60 passes last season, 27 more than Hawkins did in Cleveland. Unless there is an injury, the Patriots just don't need that much depth at the receiver position.
Hawkins' skill set also works against him here. He's one of the shiftiest slot receivers you're going to find in the NFL, but the Patriots aren't wanting for slot receivers. Amendola is a capable slot guy and Edelman often moves into the slot when the offense goes three or four wide.
Save for Cooks, the receivers likely to make the roster all now have experience working in New England's system. Hawkins is facing a steep learning curve, and he's going to have an uphill battle to make the team.
*Update: Hawkins announced his retirement on Tuesday, via Uninterrupted.
Linebacker Jonathan Freeny came to New England two years ago after spending three seasons with the rival Miami Dolphins.
He was a significant role player in 2015—with 50 tackles, a pass defended and a forced fumble. However, he appeared in just five games last season and only produced 10 tackles before a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve.
The problem for Freeny is that the Patriots have added a lot to their linebacker corps since his strong 2015 campaign. The most recent addition is former New York Jets standout David Harris. He joins 2015 starters Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin, while Elandon Roberts and Rob Ninkovich are also in on the linebacker rotation.
The Patriots also added rookie edge-rusher Derek Rivers in the draft. He could see time rushing from the outside linebacker position. The Patriots also seem to really like practice-squad linebacker Trevor Bates—they nearly tripled his practice-squad salary last December, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.
Even if we don't count Rivers as a seventh linebacker, Bates could be the guy to earn that role. Seeing as how New England plays a 4-3 base defense, it seems unlikely more than six or seven linebackers will make the 53-man roster.
Also working against Freeny is the fact he's set to have a cap hit of more than $2.2 million. That's a lot of money for a depth player.
Fullback Glenn Gronkowski has only been a member of the Patriots as a practice-squad member. However, he did appear in one game for the Buffalo Bills last season, so he's eligible for our list. He's also a player who is firmly on the roster bubble right now.
Sure, he has the advantage of having big brother and superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski on the New England roster. If this were another team, he might be given a leg up in an effort to keep Gronk happy. However, this is the Patriots, and Belichick isn't likely to be doing anyone any favors.
Standing in little Gronk's way at fullback is veteran James Develin.
The Patriots are likely to only keep one fullback on the roster, and Develin has been that one fullback for the past three seasons. Plus, the Patriots inked him to a new two-year, $2.45 million contract in free agency.
New England may give Gronkowski some extended looks in the preseason in order to see what the team actually has in him. However, it's more likely he earns a trip back to the practice squad than a place on the 53-man roster.
Like Cyrus Jones, strong safety Jordan Richards is another former second-round pick who has disappointed during his time in New England. He's appeared in 25 games over two seasons, but he's made just two starts and has a mere 23 tackles.
The issue for Richards is that he hasn't even been able to move into the backup role behind Patrick Chung. That has gone to versatile safety Duron Harmon.
Harmon is capable of playing both safety positions, often spelling Chung at the strong safety spot. He was rated 28th overall among safeties by Pro Football Focus in 2016. This offseason, he received a new four-year, $17 million deal.
Harmon is clearly in New England's long-term plans, and he could already have been picked to succeed the soon-to-be 30-year-old Chung, who has two years remaining on his contract but just $800,000 in dead cap remaining for the 2018 season.
The Patriots would probably love for Richards to force himself into the team's long-term picture. He has yet to do so, however, and is set to have a cap hit of more than $1 million this season.
If he can't stand out in camp and the preseason, the Patriots could decide to just cut their losses—and Richards.
*All contract information via Spotrac.com.