Monday, August 25, 2014

New England Patriots' 53 Man Roster - The "Punking The Panthers" Edition

New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick wasted little time in paring down his roster in anticipation of Tuesday afternoon's deadline for the league mandated 75 man roster limit, handing out pink slips to a trio of veterans on Sunday afternoon.

Belichick has long had a soft spot for tenured veterans, and also a long history of showing his respect and admiration in his actions toward veteran players whom he knows are ultimately not going to make his final roster, releasing them at or before first cuts to afford them a chance to catch on with another team ahead of the glut of players on the waiver wire saturate the market.
The play of Beauharnais, Fleming and Davis made veteran cuts easier

So, it doesn't really come as a surprise at all that Belichick sent 13-year defensive tackle Tommy Kelly to the bread lines, along with 11th season linebacker Will Smith and 9th year cover 'backer James Anderson - though, as always, there is a message in every move that the Dark Master makes.

Smith was the proverbial square peg trying to fit into a round hole as he was neither big enough to line up as a three-technique in the 3-4, nor did he have the wheels to fit as an outside linebacker - and as his best position as a defensive end in a 4-3 alignment, his release could be a sign that the team will indeed function primarily out of three man lines...

...and if his release wasn't enough to convince folks, certainly the surprising cut of Anderson should be.

Anderson is a cover 'backer if there ever was one.  Fast, fluid to the ball and comfortable in either man or zone, Anderson was kind of a luxury in a sense - a specialist that was only going to play on obvious passing downs and in certain nickle packages and had no special teams value was nevertheless depth on the weakside as insurance against an injury to Jerod Mayo.

Just as with Smith, Anderson's best destiny was on the outside of a 4-3 where he could flow to the play unencumbered by offensive guards and to pick up running backs wheeling out of the backfield.  Kelly was going to lose the numbers game - not as in salary as he came on the cheap with a minimum tenured deal - but in the sheer number of three-tech defensive tackles on the roster that aren't 33 years old and coming off knee surgery.

Dominique Easley, recent acquisition Jerel Worthy, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano are all younger options to align with an inside shade on the tackles where Kelly plied his trade, and hybrid defensive end/outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich give Belichick the flexibility to move between odd and even fronts.

Mix that in with strong showings by depth linebackers Steve Beauharnais, Darius Fleming and Ja'Gared Davis, and both Anderson and Smith were deemed expendable.

There will be other veterans released in the mad scramble to purge the roster of 31 more players by Saturday, with eight of those required to be within the next 24 hours as the team has also released tight end Justin Jones for the second time.

And that leads us into this week's 53 man roster projection:

Quarterbacks (2)

12 - Tom Brady
10 - Jimmy Garoppolo (R)

No changes from original projection

When Bill Belichick sent Ryan Mallett out for the Patriots' third drive of their game against the Panthers, the common perception - after recovering from the queasy moment of panic from Brady remaining on the sideline - is that Belichick was testing his second-string quarterback to see how he reacted to being suddenly inserted into a game...
Garoppolo has earned the start against the Giants on Thursday

...which is true on one hand, but on the other, Belichick did the same thing to Garoppolo the week earlier against the Eagles - so anyone who thinks that any decision in regard to whether the Patriots keep three quarterbacks or just two may be mistaken.

Mallett had an unremarkable seven plays that resulted in a field goal, taking over at midfield and moving 20 yards to set up Stephen Gostkowski.  Belichick has to be pleased in that "unremarkable" in this instance means that Mallett held down the fort ably, and even managed some points out of it...

...but he has to be even more pleased with the maturity and poise of Garoppolo, who took over for Brady in the second half - and that's the only reason why there is a legitimate "quarterback controversy" brewing in the marshes.  Mallett was a solid number two entering camp, and looked to be the only option as Garoppolo struggled in practices leading up to the first preseason game.

One ordinary performance out of Mallett followed by a spectacular debut by the rookie against Washington immediately started the trend heading the other direction - and subsequent solid outings by both look to have the job of carrying the clipboard in a dead heat.

But word has leaked that Garoppolo will start this Thursday's preseason finale and is expected to play the entire game, lending speculation to the idea that Ryan Mallett's days as a Patriots are indeed numbered.

Running Backs (5)

22 - Stevan Ridley
34 - Shane Vereen
28 - James White (R)
35 - Jonas Gray
46 - James Develin
Added Gray from original projection

Friday night's contest against the Panthers did very little in deciding anything in the backfield as Patriots running backs found very little running room against Carolina's stout front seven - but that shouldn't be an indictment against them.
Gray's tough running adds an exciting element to the running game

That said, the number of snaps and subsequent number of touches for Vereen (6 rushes and five receptions in 26 snaps) compared to Ridley (8 rushes in 11 snaps) and White (4 rushes and 1 reception in 15 snaps) speaks volumes as to how Belichick plans to use his running backs.

Ridley is a power back that adds virtually nothing to the passing game, and therefore makes the Patriots predictable in one back sets and allows for the defense to play the run without much fear of reprisal, where Vereen and White offer a more versatile skill set - and when in the game together in what is termed the "Pony" set, some positive results have begun to manifest.

For example, on Vereen's 40 yard scamper after securing the ball on a wheel route, the Carolina linebackers seemed overwhelmed and confused with two speedy backs curling out of the backfield.  The split-second delay in the linebacker's reaction allowed Vereen to sprint down the sideline untouched.  As defenses gear more toward trying to limit Vereen's touches, the beneficiary will be White as the lesser of two evils until he proves to be as dangerous with the ball in his hands.

White seems to be struggling a bit with making the transition from college - where Wisconsin's notoriously nasty drive blocking scheme dictated where the hole in the defensive line would be - to the pros and New England's synchronous stretch zone scheme forces the back to make a quick-twitch decision on where to cut back against the grain...

...but once he figures it out, Patriots' fans are in for a treat because the kid has electric moves and deceptive speed once at the second level.

Gray has earned a spot on the roster - at least temporarily - as his downhill, punishing style is perfect for the four-minute offense and offers a reliable target as a check-down option in the passing game, and as he has shown in multiple snaps this preseason, he can generate yardage without much of a hole, and has the agility to change direction.

Develin is a load as a lead blocker, has the pop to serve as an inline tight end with the agility to pull and lead a back through the hole and, perhaps best of all, has gained Brady's trust as a pass protector and also as a legitimate option in the pattern.

Tight Ends (2)

87 - Rob Gronkowski 
86 - Steve Maneri

Maneri added and Hoomanawanui subtracted from original projection

Patriots' television broadcasters hit the nail on the head when they quipped several times that what we all witnessed on Friday night was what the offense was going to look like without a tight end involved in the passing game, and not just because neither Maneri nor newly resigned Justin Jones were targeted in the pattern.

You see, when Rob Gronkowski returns to the lineup, he's just going to be one of the guys - mostly in an attempt to both preserve his health and to facilitate a change in philosophy, refocusing the personnel package from a fleet-of-foot matchup gimmick to a heavy, physical presence in support of the running game as the primary duty on their job description, with Gronkowski being one of the most feared receiving threats in the National Football League to boot.

The value of Gronkowski to New England's offense is immeasurable, despite the false notion that the position has been devalued by the team in any way - because nothing could be farther from the truth.

An ongoing trend in preseason games has been Belichick's penchant for employing his offensive linemen as tackle-eligible types as inline tight ends, with left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebatian Vollmer seeing snaps as such in earlier contests, but seems to have gravitated toward the numerous talents of guard/tackle Josh Kline in the role as late.

So with those three, H-back James Develin and the additional blocking prowess of Maneri, the tight end position is stocked to the ceiling with big nasty run blockers who, as a group, also add a different dimension in the passing game.

One thing that could upset the apple cart is if the team were to target a more natural receiving tight end among post-cut options, though any talented one will likely be scooped up by a team with priority over New England on the waiver wire, so if the Patriots were actually thinking in this direction they would have made a deal with a team like the Cardinals for Rob Housler, who is likely to fall off of their roster as he tumbles down the depth chart for offering no blocking skill.

Receivers (8)

80 - Danny Amendola 
11 - Julian Edelman 
17 - Aaron Dobson 
19 - Brandon Lafell  
85 - Kenbrell Thompkins  
18 - Matthew Slater 
82 - Josh Boyce
84- Brian Tyms (suspended 4 games)

Added Tyms since original projection

As mentioned before, the Patriots have perhaps the most diverse set of weapons in the league.

While Dobson hasn't played a down in the preseason, he is locked in on potential alone and joins Edelman, Amendola and Thompkins as one through four on the depth chart, though Amendola seemed genuinely distraught on the sidelines when left out of the 21-personnel groupings.
Edelman is Brady's top option

That could mean a variety of things or nothing at all, as Brady has shown confidence in his ability and the team is probably just trying to preserve the uber-fragile Amendola for the regular season, but also shows the confidence that the team has in Thompkins, so one can chalk up his exasperated reaction as that of being a competitor wanting to be out on the field.

Edelman has evolved into an elite receiver through hard work and dedication to his craft, and runs such precise routes that even the great Darrelle Revis has a hard time covering him one-on-one - he sets the gold standard for the Patriots in practice and on the field.

Brady gushes about Lafell and Thompkins, but hasn't had the opportunity to target Tyms in a game as yet - and that won't be happening as Brady won't play against the Giants and because Tyms is suspended for the first four games of the season.

Boyce has been very inconsistent, but has flashed in spots, so he should make the roster but can't afford the inconsistency going forward, because Tyms may well have passed him for sixth receiver, which would mean Boyce would be replaced upon Tyms' reinstatement.

The status of Dobson's foot and the thought that his conditioning will be an issue upon his return may upset this apple cart, otherwise, this is a solid group with a good mix of individual skill sets.

New addition Lafell is a veteran who understands coverages and where the sticks are, and could be in the mix at the "move" type tight end position.

Offensive Linemen (9)

77 - Nate Solder 
70 - Logan Mankins
76 - Sebatian Vollmer
63 - Dan Connolly
61 - Marcus Cannon
67 - Josh Kline
71 - Cameron Fleming (R)   
62 - Ryan Wendell 
65 - Jordan Devey 

Added Connolly and Wendell since original projection

If there is such a thing as a default setting for an offensive line, it appears that the Patriots are willing to mash it down - with emphasis.

The starting five from the past three seasons - Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Connolly and Vollmer - have been considered one of the better offensive lines in the game, in fact garnering a Madden Protector's Award a few seasons back.

But the common perception this camp has been that the Patriots have gone as far as they can with "servicable" interior veterans Wendell and Connolly as center and right guard, respectively - and Belichick even drafted a center with fourth round capital this past May plus has a virtual plethora of candidates to take over at guard...

...but with the injury to Stork and the inconsistent play of sixth-round pick Jon Halapio, it appears that Belichick may be ready to hit that reset button and send the line back to its default setting.

Besides, with the change in philosophy to the power running game setting up the play action initiated late last season being a huge success, having the ability to come back with the same five and gaining instant chemistry amongst the big uglies isn't the worst thing in the world, and there isn't another team in the NFL that would be able to do that with any degree of confidence.

There is definitely something to be said for the depth that Belichick has accumulated, but also some disappointment in the fact that only one of his three draft picks along the offensive line, tackle Cameron Fleming, is likely to make the 53 man roster, as Halapio will likely be stashed away on the practice squad should he clear waivers and Stork is likely headed to the IR for a redshirt year.

As mentioned earlier, starting tackles Solder and Vollmer and guard/tackle Kline have shown an aptitude as tackle-eligible tight ends to provide more bulk in the running game, supplementing the thin depth at tight end - and with swing tackle Cannon and multi-purpose Devey having some tangible experience at the pivot as well, the Patriots could have the deepest offensive line in football.

Defensive linemen (10)

50 - Rob Ninkovich 
75 - Vince Wilfork 
97 - Jerel Worthy
95 - Chandler Jones 
99 - Michael Buchanan
74 - Dominique Easley (R) 
94 - Chris Jones 
96 - Sealver Siliga
71- Zach Moore (R)

Added Moore and dropped Kelly since original projection

Nink and Jones had a field day against Carolina
Word has leaked out that the injuries to Siliga and Chris Jones and soft-tissue in nature and not due to anything broken - which is excellent news and probably why Belichick felt comfortable trimming Tommy Kelly and Will Smith off the roster on Sunday.

That said, the quality of the remaining depth on the defensive line is such that the cuts on this unit are probably going to be the toughest decisions for Belichick moving forward, and the decisions on which depth players make the roster and which ones Belichick exposes to the waiver wire in hopes of reeling them back in for the practice squad are a roll of the dice.

Belichick probably knows that rookie Zach Moore would be scooped up quickly, as would former Green Bay second-round pick Worthy, while former Cowboy Ben Bass and second year lunch pail-type Joe Vellano could fly under the radar and revert back to the team as excellent depth on the practice squad - but no one can be sure, so the team had better be absolutely positive about who they keep.

As it stands, the Patriots have the built-in flexibility to switch between many different four and three man fronts, and their propensity to shift between a 3-4 alignment and any number of nickle sub-packages dictates that the players that they do keep have scheme versatility.

Vellano could certainly stick on the roster given his work ethic and success in the scheme despite being a 'tweener between an undersized nose and penetrating three-tech, dropping Worthy or even dipping into the linebacking corps to make room for him - but regardless of what happens, the Patriots are assured of having one of the better defensive lines in Belichick's tenure.

Linebackers (6)

54 - Dont'a Hightower 
91 - Jamie Collins 
51 - Jerod Mayo 
58 - Steve Beauharnais
44 - Darius Fleming
53 - Ja'Gared Davis

No changes from original projection

Regardless of whether the Patriots line up in a 3-4 or 4-3, the starting linebackers are of the highest quality - and apparently Belichick is comfortable with the personnel he has covering running backs in the pass pattern, having released James Anderson on Sunday.

And why shouldn't he be?  Mayo is no slouch on the weak side and Collins is a monstrous entity no matter the application while Hightower is a mix-and-match force in the middle of the defense or as a pass rusher anywhere along the defensive line...

...conversely, defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are capable 3-4 linebackers as well, though their roles would be taking turns rushing the quarterback from a two point stance while the other sets the strong side edge - and if the game against the Panthers is any indication of how that would work, then game on!

The key of course, is what transpires with the defensive backs, as there are a couple of options for the big nickle hybrid.  Cornerback Brandon Browner could also double as a nickle linebacker/safety hybrid - more commonly known as the Big Nickle - giving Belichick both an enforcer over the middle and the latitude to engage in some exotic blitz and rush packages with Hightower and / or Collins on passing downs...

...while Kyle Arrington bring linebacker-type physicality to both the slot and as a potential starting strong safety. 

Beauharnais has shown that he is more than capable in a downhill role and is astute and instinctual in covering the middle zones in pass defense, plus looked like he ran the huddle with authority on Friday night, so he sticks with Fleming as an edge-setter and Ja'Gared Davis as a utility inside linebacker with core-four special teams ability.

Corners (6)

24 - Darrelle Revis 
39 - Brandon Browner (suspended 4 games) 
26 - Logan Ryan 
37 - Alfonzo Dennard 
25 - Kyle Arrington 
29 - Malcolm Butler

No changes from original projection

Coverage sacks are beautiful.  Unfortunately, there haven't been many of them in the past decade of Patriots' football, so seeing Cam Newton getting happy feet in the pocket on Friday night as even his thrid and fourth reads in the pattern were tightly covered was enough to make even young children jabber with joy.

Butler again started opposite Revis, while the Patriots got solid contributions from all of their corners in different packages - even from incumbent starter Alfonzo Dennard, who saw his first action of the preseason after recovering fully from offseason shoulder surgery - which means that the Patriots are absolutely loaded at cornerback...
Harmon has proven to be a tough and versatile safety

...and not only at the corners, but also at safety where Ryan and Arrington have seen time in the past few weeks as part of Belichick's evil scheme to put his best 11 defenders on the field at the same time, congruent to the package, but as physical as Ryan is, that doesn't look to translate to safety and is more suited for corner at this point, as he enjoys equal success both in the slot and on the wing.

Many are starting to see Brandon Browner for what he is, which is a unique hybrid between a cornerback and a cover 'backer who is a Big Nickle defensive back if there ever was one.  He has always been able to mask his lack of speed by using his long frame to shield receivers from the ball, but last season in Seattle was getting toasted by double moves down the sideline...

...but if allowed to stalk underneath as the second corner or nickle linebacker, it also gives Belichick the confidence to use Hightower and Collins in some exotic blitz packages.  Of course, he is on suspension for the first quarter of the season, but will be ready to assume that responsibility starting in week 5.

Safeties (4)

30 - Duron Harmon  
32 - Devin McCourty  
43 - Nate Ebner    
27 - Tavon Wilson 

Removed Jemea Thomas since original projection

Duron Harmon has put himself in position to be a backup on the blue line - but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The second year man is such a versatile talent that he could assume many different roles on the back end, including starting roles at either strong or free safety or even reducing down into the box as the big nickle - a point made with violent clarity in the game against the Panthers as he showed instinctive centerfield work and filled ably in run support.

Arrington is still a real threat to make a career-enhancing move to strong safety, and though Belichick tried to discount his work at safety as due dilligence, it makes too much sense to not be real.  4.4 speed and quick-twitch change of direction skills mixed with heavy striking in run support equals strong safety.

So with the overall versatility of the defensive backfield seemingly able to account for both the corner and safety groups, the questions remaining involve special teams value - and while Nate Ebner's contribution to that end is well documented, many are unaware that Wilson possesses the same core-four capability...

...and since his work with Darrelle Revis during the offseason seems to have caused him to make significant strides in his coverage ability and anticipation of angles, Belichick has to be positively giddy that his second round reach three years ago may finally pan out.

Specialists (3)

6 - Ryan Allen 
3 - Stephen Gostkowski 
48 - Danny Aiken

Aiken wins out over Tyler Ott in the competition for long snapper, though Aiken will probably be on a short leash after his late season air mail struggles.  Allen and Gostkowski are as dependable as they come - though both had some shaky moments in the game against Philadelphia, but both atoned themselves nicely against the Panthers.

It was also interesting to note that Rob Ninkovich got some work as long snapper, a position that he was drafted for by New Orleans back in 2006.

Offense: 26
Defense: 26
Specialists: 3 
Total: 55

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