Monday, August 29, 2016

Patriots' Roster Projection, Part Deux - Of Linebackers, Wasted Pot Roast And Waiver Wires...

"If you really want that player and you just can't bear to live without them, then you shouldn't be exposing them to the wire." - Bill Belichick

This year, more than any in recent history, the Patriots' head ball coach faces the very real prospect that he is going to lose a good percentage of his cuts to other teams - that's what happens when your roster is loaded from top to bottom with the kind of talent that the Dark Master has collected this offseason.

Especially on the defensive side of the ball, where he has to make some crazy choices on players who may not have been highly regarded before Belichick got his hands on them, but certainly are now that scouts for other teams have seen them in action for three preseason games - his words above in response above to a reasonable question about if the fear of other teams claiming his young talent off the waiver wire is a consideration for molding his roster...

...and he's right.  If you really don't want to lose a player, then keep him on the roster.  It's really that simple, but this is also another occasion where Belichick minimizes a process that has to be tugging at his heart-strings and tearing out what's left of his thinning lettuce.

There are some kids that you know he would love to see slide through the waiver wire unclaimed - but it's a 24 hour countdown that has the powers that be at NFL headquarters with cell phones taped to each ear and a brace of mathematicians at the ready, armed with scientific calculators in an attempt to determine which team has precedence over another in the claiming process.

The one golden lining with the process is that over a thousand players will be floating in a macabre purgatory, uncertain of their futures in football, so there is always the chance that some of the players are either overlooked or just not a priority to teams who are other-motivated, either by injury or attrition.

Of course, many are told not to leave town unless informed that they have been claimed, as upon being informed of their release, Belichick will have told them that he will sign them to the practice squad the second that the 24 hour claiming period has expired - and if another team does claim them, well, it's a chance that all teams have to take.

"If you're prepared to waive them, then you've got to be prepared to lose them.  That's just the way it is."

It sucks, for sure, but it also can't be helped, as it is the nature of life in the National Football League.

Quarterbacks - 2

Jimmy Garoppolo
Jacoby Brissett
Tom Brady (Suspended)

A quarterback controversy seems to be brewing in the minds of some media members.

No, not between Garoppolo and Brady after the incumbent returns from a month-long vacation courtesy of Roger Goodell and his megalo-maniacal temper tantrum, but between Grop and rookie Brissett, who at times has outshone both of the players ahead of him on the depth chart - but Belichick quashed that notion by claiming, "We want to get Jimmy ready for the Arizona game."

That's not going to stop the speculation, particularly if Prince Ali struggles in his first couple of starts, but the fact of the matter is that Garoppolo is working with a cast of players who will mostly be looking for work after final cutdowns against the opposition's number one defense, and things should look much different once all of the offense's normal top weapons are back in the huddle.

Brissett's time will come.

Running Backs - 5

LeGarrette Blount
James White
Tyler Gaffney
Brandon Bolden
James Develin
Dion Lewis (PUP)

If the Carolina game showed us anything on the offensive side of the ball, it is that the Patriots have a running game, and that Blount and Gaffney are in a dead heat - not for a roster spot, but as to splitting snaps as the power back when the games count.  The Panthers' defensive front seven are as stout a group of run defenders as you will find in the league, and both backs found room to run.

White is entrenched as the passing back, as are Bolden as a core special teamer and Develin as the crazed fullback. D.J. Foster ends up on practice squad if he goes unclaimed, as the kid has a future as a passing back in a league where the position becomes more highly valued as time wears on - and may be a late-season call up if Lewis is unable to return.

Tight Ends - 3

Rob Gronkowski
Martellus Bennett
A. J. Derby

The only question with this group is whether Clay Harbor is doing enough to dislodge Derby's grip on the final roster spot.  For certain, his work as a blocker was on full display against Carolina, but Harbor's calling card is as a receiver, and he's just not gaining separation in the pattern.  We can expect to see plenty of both players against the Giants in the final preseason game, with the third tight end spot on the line.

Receivers - 6

Julian Edelman
Chris Hogan
Aaron Dobson
Malcolm Mitchell
Keshawn Martin
Matt Slater
Danny Amendola (PUP)

The connection between Edelman and Garoppolo seems tenuous, and that has to improve before the season opener - so Belichick has a vested interest in playing both in the preseason finale, even if he has to hold Brady out of the game completely.

Speaking of Brady, he really seems to like Dobson and targeted him right off the bat when he entered the game on Friday night, and for a big gainer, and he showed a nice rapport with Hogan as well.  There really isn't much drama with the roster spots other than with the everybody-hates-Dobson crowd, and the uncertainty surrounding Amendola's health status and whether he will be on the PUP to start the season.

DeAndre Carter and Devin Lucien should wind up on the practice squad, should they clear waivers.

Offensive Linemen - 9

Nate Solder (LT)
Marcus Cannon (RT)
Joe Thuney (LG)
David Andrews (C)
Jonathan Cooper (G)
Ted Karras (G)
Shaq Mason (G)
Cameron Fleming (T)
LaAdrian Waddle (T)
Sebastian Vollmer (T - PUP)

Jonathan Cooper doesn't cost the Patriots $2.4 million against the cap to sit on the bench, so returning to practice on Monday has to be seen as the gateway to him starting at right guard.  When healthy, he is a nose tackle's worst nightmare - when he's not, he's a colossal bust.  It's tough to gauge a player who hasn't played, but his cap hit alone suggests that if he is on the roster, he will start.

That puts Shaq Mason on the bench, but one injury away from realizing the right guard spot - and, really, that is the position with any drama left to it at all.

Solder is having a tough time with speed rushers, but Cannon seems to be reenergized at the right tackle position, perhaps due to the realization that this could be all for Vollmer, and this is his chance to reward Belichick's faith in him.  Thuney is a Logan Mankins-like revelation at left guard and Andrews is the classic feel-good story - and Karras could be another.

Fleming and Waddle are capable swing tackles - with Waddle in the same circumstance as Mason, as one more injury to Solder or if he continues to struggle against speed rushers could have him manning the blind side.  Fleming is, essentially, a tight end, as he reports as eligible when he enters the game more times than not.

Offensive total: 25

Defensive Line - 9

Chris Long (DE)
Rob Ninkovich (DE)
Malcom Brown (NT)
Alan Branch (DT)
Anthony Johnson (DT)
Vincent Valentine (DT/NT)
Jabaal Sheard (DE)
Trey Flowers (DE)
Geneo Grissom (DE)

It was tough leaving Markus Kuhn off the list, but who else do you cut?  Branch is a proven commodity while Johnson and Valentine have played their way onto the roster with brutish intensity - and there isn't a defensive end on the current roster that is going anywhere.  The only way that Kuhn sticks is if the team decides to use it's IR designation on Ninkovich, but the feeling here is that the team is saving that just in case of a major injury somewhere else.

Just like everywhere else on this loaded roster, there are players that simply lose out on the numbers game.

Terrance Knighton didn't even make it to the roster trimdown to 75 players scheduled for Tuesday, as New England threw their wasted hunk of pot roast in the dumpster, and taking a $250k dead money hit to be rid of him, though the $1.7 million in cap space more than makes up for that - a move that most people saw coming after he didn't play in that "all important" third preseason game, losing his snaps to Valentine.

As far as defensive ends are concerned, there is no better collection in the league than what Belichick has assembled, though injury concerns could potentially leave them thin on the edges - probably why Belichick went out and stole Barkevious Mingo from Cleveland...

Linebackers - 5

Dont'a Hightower
Jamie Collins
Barkevious Mingo
Shea McClellin
Jonathan Freeny

An area of concern not even a month before camp started is now fully loaded and one of the fastest and most athletically violent linebacking tandems in the league.

Barkevious Mingo was added to the roster on Thursday and Jonathan Freeny was signed to a two year extention on Saturday, assuring New England that their weakside had an athletic freak opposite the "perfect" strong side linebacker in Jamie Collins, and also that the team had settled on the veteran saavy of Freeny to back up Dont'a Hightower on the interior.

Oh, and, there's still Shea McClellin, who has the versatility to back up all three linebacker spots.

Unfortunately for rookies Elandon Roberts and Kamu Grugier-Hill, that may mean their days in Foxborough have been cut short.  But if both clear waivers, there is little doubt that they will be back on the practice squad.

Cornerbacks - 5

Malcolm Butler
Logan Ryan
Cyrus Jones
Justin Coleman
Darryl Roberts

After the punking that the Patriots corners put on the Carolina Panthers' receivers on Friday night - a set of receivers who had every size advantage imaginable on the diminutive New England corners - these guys have every right to strut like a gang of mad peacocks. Diminutive in stature only, as Brown, Jones and Coleman each had something for their larger foes, and Logan Ryan showed impressive technique and a willingness to stick his nose in the running lanes.

Those four are as locked down as you can get, which leaves just one open spot and a handful of young fire-pissers vying for it - and we've seen enough of all of them to make a solid case for each, but at this point, in my eyes, we hope to see Cre'von LeBlanc and Jonathan Jones wind up on Practice Squad to develop their game.

Safeties - 6

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Jordan Richards
Nate Ebner
Brandon King

The only unit on the defense in which there was no major changes, because there was no need of an upgrade.

For the defense that the Patriots run, the safety corps has to be considered the best at what they do in the league.  While Ebner and King rarely impact things on the defensive side of the ball - they make their bones by being special teams core four studs - their status as reliable depth is overlooked, especially King, who has all the tools to be a first-rate strong safety or weakside linebacker, which goes to show just how good he is on special teams that his efforts are concentrated there, solely.

Both Harmon and McCourty picked off passes on Friday night, and both times while the players were playing the deep third and took advantage of the play of their teammates in the front seven.

Defensive total: 25

Specialists - 3

Stephen Gostkowski (K)
Ryan Allen (P)
Joe Cardona (LS)

Yawn.  Consistently excellent otherwise, Gostkowski missed a couple of field goals on Friday night, though one was because of a bad Cardona snap and the other was just a regular old 53 yard miss.

Let's call it a bad night.

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