Friday, August 29, 2014

New England Patriots' 53 Man Roster Projection - The "Losing Logan", Saying "Hi" to Timmy, Final Edition

Once again, Bill kills my roster projection.

Just three days ago, I was all set with the absolute BOSS of a 53 man roster projection, then Bill Belichick decides to trade Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers for Tim Wright and a draft pick - and while many may say "Well, it's just swapping one guy for another", it's really not that simple.
Garoppolo played well, showing poise in the shrinking pocket

The entire dynamic of the offense is altered when you lose a five-time All Pro guard, and just as much when you acquire a young hybrid pass catcher- because now the Patriots must not only decide who is going to replace Mankins at left guard, but also whether to keep an extra lineman for reliable depth or just run with eight, as always...

...and also if Wright's presence precludes a roster spot for a bubble receiver or whether one of the pure blocking tight ends gets the axe.

Is Wright a really tall wide receiver or a very narrow tight end?  On Thursday night, he looked like a possession-type receiver who is mature beyond his football years, giving starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a big set of numbers to target as both a primary target as well as a check down.

He's not a blocker per se, though he does possess some skill in that area, nor does he have sprinter's speed to stretch the field in a conventional sense, so if counted as a tight end the projection would have to include a third, and the cut to make room for Wright could conceivably come from anywhere on the roster, not just from the pass catcher ranks.

So, as it turns out, I made a big deal out of nothing as Belichick's move not only hasn't impacted my thoughts as to the 53 man roster, but actually gives the team latitude to leave a roster spot open so that only one cut has to be made when suspended players Brandon Browner and Brian Tyms return in early October.

Quarterbacks (2)

12 - Tom Brady
10 - Jimmy Garoppolo (R)

No changes from original projection

Garoppolo didn't exactly kill it in his full game start against the Giants, but he didn't hurt his public perception at all either.

In this game, he looked like a rookie - As he became comfortable in the flow of the game, his mechanics disintegrated into improvisation and he seemed to try to be counting on his Favre-esque sixth sense and keen feel of the pocket, and too often put himself in a position where he had no choice but to throw flat-footed.

He threw into tight coverage, missed a few receivers and made a couple of more throws that probably had Belichick grimacing - but he never looked uncomfortable, never seemed to panic and stood tall in the pocket like the gunslinger he is destined to be, but that won't be for a while.

That said, the kid is a gamer, and with the grizzled and crusty old veteran Brady showing him the ropes over the next few years, he will be special - but on Thursday night, he was just rookie with a ton of potential.

The question is, did he do enough to overtake Ryan Mallett as Brady's apprentice?

He displayed poise and a command of the huddle, and while his numbers don't jump out you - 22 of 42 for 284 yards with a score and a pick - it's difficult to believe that Mallett would have done any better with what Garoppolo had to work with against a Giants' defense that played its starters through the first four series - because in four preseasons with the Patriots, he never has.

Running Backs (5)

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

Gray and White started the game in the backfield, but neither could get untracked - an underlying theme that may have gone unnoticed with all of the drama surrounding the race to be Brady's backup, the rise of a couple of pre-camp longshots to probable roster spots and the epic trade of Loagn Mankins to the Buccaneers.

To be honest, the running game has been the black sheep for the Patriots' offense - and while it's true that the backs have been running behind a makeshift offensive line while the coaches attempt to find some chemistry in the trenches, it is also true that not one of the backs have risen to separate themselves from the others.

It's probably much adieu about nothing, given the fact that the running backs are operating behind an offensive line that has been - well - offensive in the preseason while trying to gel.

The lone positive from the last preseason game for the backs was the smooth wheel route and fly paper hands displayed by White.  He may be struggling to adapt to the Patriots blocking scheme - he ran behind a drive blocking scheme in college while the Patriots fly with a stretch zone - but the threat of he and Vereen curling out of the backfield is sure to help open up some running lanes.

Gray hasn't done much since his breakout game against Philadelphia two weeks ago, but no Patriots' backs have - and the person he's looking to unseat, Bolden, has done nothing at all.

Tight Ends (2)

87 - Rob Gronkowski 
86 - Steve Maneri

Maneri added and Hoomanawanui subtracted from original projection

Recent addition Steve Maneri caught one ball, a perfect gut strike from Garoppolo that went for 19 yards, and it was a bullet that took some concentration to look in as he was blanketed and knew he was going to take a shot from either the linebacker or the safety - or both - on one of the balls that Garoppolo threw in the game that he probably shouldn't have.

But the point is that in the two weeks since he had been signed off the street as a supposed camp body to fill in as the only tight end healthy enough to participate in any manner, he has passed Michael Hoomanawanui on the depth chart and has done enough to earn the roster spot behind Gronkowski.

Sure, Hoomanawanui has been on the shelf since early in camp so Maneri's ascension is pretty much by default, but it's not as if the job was just handed to him.  He's a crunching blocker who can spell Gronkowski as the Patriots try to limit Gronk's reps in an attempt to keep him healthy for the season...

...and it's not as if that's unprecedented, as folks tend to forget that he played two full seasons and half of another one before snapping his forearm midway through his third season.  Of course, it was a downward spiral from there but the team would be smart to ease him in.

Receivers (8)

80 - Danny Amendola 
11 - Julian Edelman 
17 - Aaron Dobson 
19 - Brandon Lafell  
85 - Kenbrell Thompkins
81 - Tim Wright  (H-back) 
18 - Matthew Slater 
84- Brian Tyms (suspended 4 games)

Added Tyms and Wright since original projection

Wright's debut with the Patriots after only 48 hours in town and a brief indoctrination to the offense, was a breath of fresh air - his performance unpresumptuous, just going out and playing football.

"Football is football" the newest Patriot confided to beat reporters after the game. "So it's easy to get prepared."

Of course, preseason football, and particularly the final preseason game, has no strategy to it in the sense that the score makes any difference or that any exotic game planning is going on - rather - it is all fundamental, basic football, which explains the quick turnaround for Wright - which is not to discount his obvious intelligence, it's just the way that it is.

So with the 6' 4" Wright in the fold along with what looks to be a bigger, much improved 6' 3" Aaron Dobson and the like-sized Brandon Lafell, the Patriots are suddenly rich with big, athletic targets at wide receiver - and when combined with 6' 1" Kenbrell Thompkins and mighty-mites Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, this may be the most talented pass catching corps ever put together by Belichick.

Something that should also be mentioned is that 6' 6" Rob Gronkowski and the super quick duo of running backs Shane Vereen and James White will be integral pieces to the passing game as well, so the pass catching corps is so versatile and multi-faceted that the nine players mentioned comprise what may very well be the most explosive passing attack in the NFL.

What a change from last season...

Offensive Linemen (8)

77 - Nate Solder
76 - Sebatian Vollmer
63 - Dan Connolly
61 - Marcus Cannon
67 - Josh Kline
71 - Cameron Fleming (R)   
66 - Bryan Stork
65 - Jordan Devey 

Added Connolly since original projection

Oh boy, where to start?

While it is important to remember that most starters saw little or no action against the Giants, it is equally important to remember that the offensive line is in a state of flux on the interior - and in a stretch zone blocking scheme such as the Patriots employ in the running game, one guy zigging when he should be zagging can throw the entire scheme into chaos.

This is the main concern for the Patriots going into the season opener - not so much in pass protection as in the aforementioned stretch zone in the running game, where the cut back lanes for the running backs are just not there half of the time, which hangs the back out to dry - which is evidenced by the 2.3 yards per carry in the Patriots' running game for the preseason.

Where is the disconnect?  Hopefully it's just a unfortunate but inevitable result of the team breaking in a new offensive line coach combined with a draft heavy in linemen and trying to meld the two together - and it really has not a thing to do with Mankins being shown the door, as the issue existed with him in the lineup as well.

As expected, second year man Josh Kline got the start on Thursday night, getting first crack at Mankin's old haunt and, in fact, played the entire game.

Bryan Stork returned to action in the final tune up game, which is probably bad news for incumbent center Ryan Wendell as Stork has fourth round draft capital invested in him, something that Belichick has shown time and again to be unwilling to part with, regardless of initial performance or injury history - while the right guard position was taken up by fellow rookie Jon Halapio, who is probably destined for the practice squad.

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)
72 - Joe Vellano

Added Moore and dropped Kelly since original projection

The trade for Jerel Worthy looks like another patented Bill Belichick steal.

What else would you call a 6' 2", 310 pound three technique defensive end that was miscast as a two-gap tackle in Green Bay, when in reality he can be a dominating one-gap penetrator, and was a second round draft pick to boot?

Worthy joins known quantities Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and rookie first round draft pick Dominique Easley to form a solid group of 3-4 ends, while Wilfork and Siliga take on the task of clogging the middle and taking on the double teams in the run defense - of course, when the team goes with a four man look in the nickle, all can reduce down and line up as tackles next to the nose.

Veterans Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, defensive ends in last season's 4-3 base, are outside linebackers in this preseason's 3-4 look and seem to be very comfortable making the transition, with second year man Michael Buchanan and raw-yet-explosive rookie Zach Moore backing them up.

The Patriots were gashed for over 170 yards on Thursday night, which had more to do with the New England coaching staff mixing and matching than anything the Giants were doing, so too much stock should not be put into that performance.  This is a solid group with enough versatility to make life difficult for centers and quarterbacks when calling out protection.

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

Beauharnais was turned loose on Thursday night, playing the entire game with the green dot and running the defensive huddle, and even taking his turn at being a human missile - ala Brandon Spikes - and while guessing wrong in plugging gaps a couple of times gets you noticed in a negative respect, those instances were few and far between as the tough-as-nails Mike put in a solid performance... did Fleming, who has proven to be one of the better edge-setters on the depth chart.  Davis has been very good under the radar all preseason and is a vital contributor on special teams, which gives him the edge over veteran Chris White, who was manhandled in the running game and abused by backs and tight ends in the passing game.

Naturally, these players will probably not see much of the field during the regular season, What with Hightower, Collins and Mayo forming an elite set of linebackers, but this camp and preseason was all about depth in the linebacker corps and whether that depth is of the type of quality that could hold up in spot duty if an injury were to occur...

...and while the answer to that can't really be answered until an injury does occur, the staff has to feel confident that with the ability of the front seven to morph into anything that they need to be on a play-by-play basis, these depth players should be able to fill in quite well.

Corners (6)

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

No changes from original projection

No real surprises here, but only Revis and Arrington got Thursday night off.

That's not an indictment on the other corners - someone had to play, and those that did were impressive, even Dennard who was seeing his first action of the preseason and had blanket coverage and a nice pass defended.

Browner showed up as a force against the run and also had a pass defended when the slot receiver took him outside and had him beaten, but his length showed up as he was able to close quickly and batted the pass away just as it hit the receiver's hands - he should take over the slot duties upon his return from suspension, though he looks like an even better candidate as the Big Nickle hybrid enforcer.

Butler played sparingly, with Browner and Ryan taking the majority of the reps, and Dennard splitting time between corner and safety - a common theme for the Patriots this preseason.

Safeties (4)

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

Removed Jemea Thomas since original projection

The way that Belichick has been using his corners as hybrid safties during the preseason could very well impact this depth chart.

Using the corners as safeties not only speaks to Belichick's mantra that all of his players have some diversity, but also in how much he values players like Ebner and Wilson in their roles as core-four special teamers, allowing them to be such by tapping the corners as depth on the back end as Dennard joined Arrington and Ryan in the ranks of hybrids.

Harmon and McCourty are locks, and both Wilson and Ebner have shown great improvement in their back end skills over the course of camp and in preseason games. Both showed up with big plays on Thursday night, the most notable being Wilson escorting big tight end Kellen Davis to the sidelines from the hash marks, showing linebacker-ish strength and leverage in not allowing Davis to gain another inch after contact.

Specialists (3)

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

No surprises at all, except that Tom Brady showed skill at a holder on an extra point, which you will see in the regular season never.  Gostkowski is a decent punter and backs up Allen, while defensive end Rob Ninkovich backs up Aiken as the long snapper.

Offense: 25
Defense: 26
Specialists: 3 
Total: 54

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