Sunday, August 17, 2014

New England Patriots Projected 53 Man Roster - Fly Like An Eagle Edition

Did big back candidate Jonas Gray (35) give Belichick something to think about last Friday night?
What the heck happened?

In perhaps the New England Patriots last realistic chance to see fringe players in game action before the cutdown from 90 players to 75, very little was decided in Friday night's 42-35 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Normally, there is a clean and obvious divide between the have's and the have not's, but in the 2014 version of the Patriots' annual right of passage, most of the starting spots were guaranteed from the start, with the coaching staff merely needing to ascertain which players were good enough to line the team's depth chart, and which were not.

Turns out, defacto General Manager Bill Belichick stocked his camp roster with so many quality players that slicing 15 players just a few days after next Friday's third preseason game against the Carolina Panthers is going to be far more difficult than in seasons past - not to mention cutting 22 more a week later in advance of the first regular season game at Miami.

But all things considered, that is an excellent problem to have.

The reality is that Belichick is going to have to release some pretty good players back into the wild with hopes that a select few happen pass through waivers unscathed and unclaimed to stock his practice squad - and those players, plus guys that will end up on the shelf on either the IR or PUP lists must be carried on that 75 man roster, making Belichick's margin for error even smaller.

In all, the Patriots have to trim but 14 players as the currently are carrying 89 on their preseason roster by 4:00pm on August 26th, then an additional 22 by 4:00pm on August 30th, and here is what we think that final 53 man roster - actually 55 man roster with the exclusions for Brandon Browner's and Brian Tyms' suspensions - is going to look like:

Quarterbacks (2)

12 - Tom Brady
10 - Jimmy Garoppolo (R)

No changes from original projection

Garoppolo had another solid outing, but this time Patriots' fans were looking to see if last week's performance against the Washington Redskins was an anomaly, or if the kid was for real - and even the fans who chastised Belichick for "wasting" second round draft capital on a "project" from Eastern Illinois have been converted.

Mallett also turned in a nice effort.  Not coincidentally, the offensive line gave him a bit of a cleaner pocket than they did for him against the Redskins and he was able to step into his throws more consistently, and even showed some pocket presence in giving himself some room to operate with some subtle movement around the pocket.

That said, the race for the backup gig to Brady - who looked sensational against Philadelphia, by the way - will probably come down to the final preseason game at New York, though both should see action next Friday when the Patriots host the Carolina Panthers...
The old gunslinger Brady

...and given that the third preseason game is considered the "Dress Rehearsal" for the starters on both teams, whoever relieves Brady against the Panthers will most likely get to face a more stout defense than they did in the first two contests.

If it's Garoppolo and he does well, circumstances would dictate that Mallett - in his fourth year - would be classified as dead weight and perhaps dealt, but if it's Mallett and he does well, that changes things a bit as several variables come into play - which is hardly fair, but that's the reality in the NFL...

Running Backs (5)

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

Sometimes it's tough to pump the brakes on a player when working with such a small sample of work, but Jonas Gray was the best running back on the field on Friday night - for either team - and causing people to do a double take to make sure LeGarrette Blount didn't sneak in to Gillette Stadium and suit up for old time's sake will surely get you noticed.

Can Gray make this team?  Well, why not?

None of the other backs have really done anything of note and, as a matter of fact, haven't really looked that good.  Ridley had some nice moments on Friday night, but just happened to fumble on the play before he was scheduled to leave the game - at least that's what he says, but many think it a curious coincidence that he didn't see the field again.

Vereen has been inconsistent in the pattern out of the backfield and White seems to be struggling with his transition from the drive blocking scheme that made him so effective in college at Wisconsin to the stretch zone blocking scheme that his vision and toolbox full of moves were supposed to be perfect for.

Blocking has been inconsistent for sure, but seemed to come easier later in the games when Gray and jitterbug Roy Finch are handling the ball - perhaps because the personnel stayed consistent along the line against the third layer of the opposition's depth chart.

With contracts coming due on Ridley, Vereen and Brandon Bolden, it goes to figure that the Patriots are not going to be able to negotiate contracts for all three, so dumping Bolden now and training replacements for the other two is just smart business - though it is possible that Ridley and Vereen could be around beyond this year if their price is right.

Develin is looking more and more like a classic H-Back with his versatility, and will figure as a tight end as well as a fullback in this offense.

Tight Ends (2)

87 - Rob Gronkowski 
86 - Steve Maneri

Maneri added and Hoomanawanui subtracted from original projection

To say that the reason the Patriots are going to run with just two tight ends is because the position is being devalued in the offense is a bit of a misnomer.

The philosophy has changed, 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.

Michael Hoomanawanui has been missing in action for weeks, and D. J. Williams was rolled up on last week and hasn't been seen since - and both are candidates for the IR, which means that Maneri sticks on the roster in his second attempt with the Patriots.  Maneri may have run an improper route in the Eagles game which resulted in Brady's pick-six, but he vindicated himself nicely with crisp blocking.

Develin and others make it possible to carry just two tight ends
Of course, there is also H-back James Develin who factors in here as well. Develin has been a bit of a revelation to Belichick's penchant for getting the most our of his players, and has been the Patriots' best all-around tight end in the preseason, albeit pretty much by default, but has soft hands and actually looks for people to run over as he turns upfield.

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

Perhaps the most diverse set of weapons in the league.

With Dobson back in the fold and expected to be ready for week one, he seeks to join Amendola and Edelman as the top three weapons for Brady to throw to - but Brady has shown a chemistry with every pass catcher in camp and says that he trusts them.
Brady has a good rapport with all receivers

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 if that is going to happen, it will have to be this coming Friday because 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)   
69 - Jon Halapio (R) 
65 - Jordan Devey 

Added Connolly since original projection

With the change in philosophy on offense that finds the tight end position no longer the primary focus, diversity along the offensive line is paramount.

In other words, if you can't slide in and back up at least one other area on the line other than your primary assignment, you are likely not going to find a roster spot on this team - which is why you won't find Ryan Wendell on this list.
Connolly (63) and Mankins (70) form a solid interior with Kline

Even with rookie Bryan Stork's status very much up in the air, even possibly to the IR with a designation to return, if Wendell can't win the starting center gig, he will be looking for work elsewhere because he is a center - and that's it.  Sure, he could try out right guard, but how many right guards does the team really need?

Connolly can still man his old position to the right of center should Wendell make a move, but there is still Kline, Devey, Cannon and Halapio to fill in, while Devey and Cannon have proven to be capable in spot duty at tackle as well...

...which is important, because from all appearances, starting tackles Solder and Vollmer and even 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 Devey having some tangible experience at the pivot as well, he could become sort of a Swiss army knife of the offensive line.

Defensive linemen (10)

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

Added Moore since original projection

If Sealver Siliga's hand or wrist injury involves a fracture, the recovery time frame involved will place him three to five weeks into the regular season, so the team must make a decision as to whether it keeps Siliga - who has proven his worth in filling in for Vince Wilfork last season - on the active roster and make him a game day inactive until he's ready to return, or place him on the IR.
Wilfork is clearly recovered, but there is no depth with Siliga out

If placed on the IR, the Patriots could give him their lone designation-to-return tag provided there isn't an injury to a starter that would severely limit the team, in which case Siliga would be lost for the season and his salary still counting against the cap.  One of these two options would open the door for Joe Vellano to stick with the team, particularly with Chris Jones also being hobbled but expected to be ready for the opener.

The Patriots have the built-in flexibility to switch between many different four and three man fronts, but in every case, they have no suitable backup for Wilfork, himself coming off a season-ending Achilles injury - so the best option for all involved would be to keep Siliga on the active roster.

And that is really the only question left to answer along the line, where the pecking order is pretty much set, though an injury may open the door for Vellano or veteran 4-3 defensive end Will Smith,  though his coaches in New Orleans thought of him as more of an outside linebacker and he hasn't really shown up as hoped in camp.

The trades for Brandon Bass and Jerel Worthy in separate transactions last week could have an impact on the depth, but for now their ambiguous injury status looks to have them stashed on the IR until 2015.

Linebackers (6)

54 - Dont'a Hightower 
91 - Jamie Collins 
51 - Jerod Mayo 
45 - Steve Beauharnais
44 - Darius Fleming
55 - James Anderson

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 - but the depth behind them is very much subject to the scheme.

The team has always featured some 3-4 and nickle elements to their base 4-3 over the past few seasons, and they have players with enough versatility to pull off a switch to a primary three man front, and also on the second level, but it's an odd mix of tweeners as far as inside or outside designations.
Ninkovich and Hightower for an excellent strong side

Belichick has been running with Hightower and Collins on the interior of the 3-4 with Mayo and defensive end Rob Ninkovich on the wings - and it appears that Beauharnais and Fleming will be primary backups on the inside with Fleming also able to slide out to the strong side if needed.

James Anderson is the only other true weakside linebacker on the roster, but he is destined to be the nickle cover 'backer and actually is an all-around veteran talent that adds a lot of versatility to the scheme, and even manned the middle against the Redskins.

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. 

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

Undrafted rookie free agent Malcolm Butler has pretty much assured himself a spot on the roster, though this is not going to be a typical depth chart.

Revis is a no-brainer at one outside spot, but the other is open to debate and conjecture.  Butler has taken over the spot opposite Revis in recent practices and started the game against Philadelphia - which actually gives Belichick even more latitude to hatch his evil plots each week, and more.
Harmon (30) is excellent at both safety spots

His emergence has aided Belichick in being able to turn his competition at safety into a full-blown reality show, with talented young cornerback Logan Ryan and grizzled slot corner Kyle Arrington both taking reps at strong, but Ryan 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, so any daydreaming about such things are premature and based on the overall health of the defense.

A somewhat forgotten figure in this mix is incumbent starter Alfonzo Dennard, who is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and the depth that exists at corner - even sans Browner - is enough to allow Dennard to fully recover at a pace that the team is comfortable with.

Safeties (4)

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

Removed Jemea Thomas since original projection

Kyle Arrington is a real threat to make a career-enhancing move to strong safety.

The solid slot corner started the Philadelphia game, and though Belichick tried to discount the start to being just something that the circumstances dictated, 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.

Of course, that can't happen until Browner joins the team in week five - or can it?

Penciled in strong safety Duron Harmon is actually an outstanding candidate for to back up both safety spots as he is an instinctive and quick centerfielder, as he showed with authority in relief of Devin McCourty against the Eagles, which means that the last two safety spots can be reserved for a couple of core-four special teamers.

Nate Ebner should be one of the specialists as he always seemed to be involved in the heavy hitting and Tavon Wilson should take the other, unless his injury status impedes his progress, in which case Patrick Chung would be the choice.

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.

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

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