Nineteen years into his career, Tom Brady knows the drill when it comes to reps in the preseason.
“Whether it’s a walkthrough, practice or game, it all matters,” Brady said after Tuesday’s practice – the final one of the summer open to fans. “If it was a waste of time, we wouldn’t do it. There’s a lot of urgency.”
That urgency exists for both players and the front office, as the initial 90-man unit is pared all the way down to 53 on Sept. 1, just eight days shy of New England’s season opener vs. the Houston Texans.
Some names who’ll still be standing come cutdown day are obvious, others not so much. Here’s a look at how the roster for the Patriots is taking shape today, broken down into players who are “locks” to make it, players who should be on the roster barring something drastic, players who are firmly “on the bubble” and lastly, the “long shots.”
*Name in bold denotes player currently projected to make the 53-man roster
**Julian Edelman is suspended for the first four games of the 2018 season and will not count against the initial 53-man roster
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Lock: Tom Brady
Should be in: Brian Hoyer
Bubble: Danny Etling
Long shot: None
Since Tom Brady’s return from an ACL injury for the 2009 season, the Patriots have kept three quarterbacks on the roster only twice: 2011, after spending a third-round pick on Ryan Mallett in the draft, and in 2016, knowing Brady was suspended for the first four games of the regular season.
Seventh-round picks such as Etling are never locks to make a roster, even if Brady is 41 and Hoyer is 32. He didn’t see the field until midway through the fourth quarter in last week’s preseason opener, and with Brady figuring to get at least some snaps over the next two weeks, Etling may not get a ton more opportunities to flash in game action. The practice squad feels like the best bet for Etling, though there are never guarantees a player passes through waivers.
Locks: James White, Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel
Should be in: Brandon Bolden
Bubble: Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee
Long shot: Ralph Webb
Drawing conclusions off of one week of football – particularly preseason football – can be extremely dangerous. It’s hard not to give the nod to Hill over Gillislee at the moment, however, and that’s before factoring in the financial savings for the team; Gillislee is due to count roughly $2.2 million against the salary cap, but wouldn’t cost anything in dead money if he’s cut. Hill’s cap hit is roughly $1.3 million.
Hill has never done a ton of work catching the ball out of the backfield, with a career-best 27 receptions his rookie season in Cincinnati in 2014; however slight, it’s another advantage he has over Gillislee, who caught just one pass from Tom Brady in 2017.
Sony Michel’s injury status could prompt the Patriots to keep both Hill and Gillislee, though there’s been no indication yet that he’ll need to open the season on injured reserve.
Brandon Bolden is one of many core special teamers the Patriots covet and is used seldom as a running back these days. He didn’t make the team’s initial 53-man roster in 2017, though he was re-signed just days later and wound up appearing in all 16 regular season games. He even had a 20-yard touchdown run in the divisional round of the playoffs vs. Tennessee.
Lock: James Develin
Should be in: None
Long shot: Henry Poggi
Develin signed a two-year, $3.8 million contract extension in June through the end of the 2020 season. That’s not a player who’s in any sort of roster trouble, however minimal the cap penalties may be.
Locks: Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman**, Cordarrelle Patterson, Matthew Slater
Should be in: Philip Dorsett
Bubble: Eric Decker, Kenny Britt, Riley McCarron, Braxton Berrios, Devin Lucien
Long shot: Paul Turner
Making sense of this group remains a mystery even following the releases of Jordan Matthews and Malcolm Mitchell. Patterson and Slater are locks for their special teams contributions and Edelman is suspended for the first four games of the regular season.
Almost by default, Dorsett feels like a safe bet to make the team at this point, given he’s the only one of the rest of the group who spent the entirety of the 2017 season on the active roster.
Beyond that? Good luck. If Britt can get healthy, he’ll certainly be given every chance to make the roster, given the Patriots signed him to a two-year deal last December. Decker is one of the more underrated receivers in the game this decade, but does he have anything left at 31? You’d have to figure New England will try to develop another young receiver at some point, especially after Mitchell’s career in Foxboro stalled. Among players to fit those criteria, Lucien flashed the brightest in the preseason opener.
Lock: Rob Gronkowski
Should be in: Dwayne Allen
Bubble: Jacob Hollister
Long shots: Will Tye, Ryan Izzo
If the Patriots were going to move on from Allen, doesn’t it feel like they would have already done it by now? There’s no guaranteed money left on his deal, meaning New England can move on without taking on any dead money. Why wait?
He’s clearly not a pass-catching complement to Gronkowski, but he’s nails as a blocker. It’s a skillset none of the other tight ends after Gronk on the depth chart have had a chance to showcase yet, if they possess it at all. That alone should keep Allen on the 53.
Hollister surprised many in 2017 when he made the team over both Matthew Lengel, who had a full year in the Patriots’ system under his belt, and James O’Shaugnessy, an off-season acquisition with a special teams pedigree. Though he caught only four passes as a rookie, Hollister’s frame (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) makes him a perfect fit to flex out along the line of scrimmage in certain situations – something the Patriots may need him to do given the uncertainty at wide receiver.
Locks: Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Isaiah Wynn
Should be in: LaAdrian Waddle
Bubble: Ted Karras, Cole Croston, Matt Tobin
Long shots: Ulrick John, Jason King, James Ferentz, Luke Bowanko, Brian Schwenke
Trent Brown has slid into the left tackle spot vacated by Nate Solder seamlessly in training camp. The biggest question remaining, in terms of the starting lineup, pertains to Marcus Cannon’s health and the right tackle spot. First-round pick Isaiah Wynn and veteran LaAdrian Waddle have each taken reps there in practice; Waddle got the nod in last week’s preseason opener.
Backup jobs along the interior of the line are also up for grabs, but it would be a surprise to see either Karras or Croston not make the team at this juncture. Karras can play either guard spot or center, while Croston is versatile enough to play tackle as well.
Locks: Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Derek Rivers, Adrian Clayborn, Danny Shelton
Should be in: None
Bubble: Adam Butler, Vincent Valentine, Eric Lee, Geneo Grissom
Long shots: None
Perhaps lacking a superstar, the defensive line of the Patriots is nevertheless among the deepest position groups on the roster. A good player isn’t going to survive the numbers crunch, but how much trade value would a player like Adam Butler, Vincent Valentine or Eric Lee possess?
It warrants mentioning that New England declined its fifth-year option on Malcom Brown’s rookie contract, meaning he’s a free agent at the end of the season. Could the team gauge trade value in the 2015 first-round pick to try and solve the dilemma that way?
Locks: Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy
Should be in: Marquis Flowers, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Brandon King
Bubble: Christian Sam, Elandon Roberts, Harvey Langi, Nicholas Grigsby
Long shots: None
If the defensive line is the deepest group on the roster, the linebacking corps is far and away the thinnest. Dont’a Hightower is among the best in the league at his position, but he hasn’t played more than 12 games in a season since 2013.
Ja’Whaun Bentley, a fifth-round pick of the Patriots in April, finished tied for the team lead in tackles in the preseason opener with six. He’s been seeing time with the starters in practice ever since and feels like a safe bet to make an impact this year.
At the same time, it was telling when Elandon Roberts remained on the field vs. Washington last Thursday with projected second and third-team players, perhaps an ominous sign for the 2016 sixth-round pick. Are there really any better internal options available, though? It’s part of the reason it was so stunning to see New England bypass taking a linebacker until Bentley at No. 143 overall in the draft.
Locks: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner
Should be in: None
Bubble: Eddie Pleasant, Jordan Richards
Long shots: Damarius Travis
McCourty, Chung and Harmon have spent a combined 23 years in New England’s system. That’s…a lot. Needless to say, no other safety group in the NFL comes even close to having that much experience playing together, and 2018 doesn’t look like the year a newcomer cracks the rotation.
The only intrigue here is if Jordan Richards, a second-round pick for the Patriots in 2015, has enough value on special teams to keep his spot on the roster over newcomer Eddie Pleasant. After picking up right where he left off in the Super Bowl vs. Washington last week, missing tackles, Richards is squarely on the bubble.
Locks: Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Duke Dawson
Should be in: Jonathan Jones
Bubble: Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis
Long shots: Jomal Wiltz, Keion Crossen, A.J. Moore
Jason McCourty could be starting opposite Stephon Gilmore in Week 1 vs. Houston…or he could find himself in search of employment elsewhere. He didn’t see the field against Washington last week, but has since spent some time in practice playing alongside the projected first-team defense.
Jason, of course, is Devin McCourty’s identical twin, and it would be a shame to see them not take the field together at some point – particularly after Jason has spent the first nine years of his career on the outside looking in of the playoffs.
And what’s up with Cyrus Jones? Is he officially a lost cause as a cover corner at this point, merely clinging to the bubble thanks to his return abilities? Thanks to DeflateGate, the Patriots didn’t have a first-round pick in 2016, meaning Jones was their top selection at No. 60 overall. After missing all of 2017 with a torn ACL, will New England attempt to take one last shot at salvaging the selection?
Locks: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, long snapper Joe Cardona
Should be in: Punter Ryan Allen
Bubble: Punter Corey Bojorquez
For the first time since 2013, there’s a legitimate competition for one of the kicking jobs in New England. It’s at punter, where Corey Bojorquez is attempting to claim Ryan Allen’s job in the same manner Allen once claimed his: by signing with the team as an undrafted free agent and beating out the veteran incumbent.
If Thursday’s game vs. Washington is any indication, Allen doesn’t have anything to worry about; he attempted all six of New England’s punts. That differs from Week 1 of the 2013 preseason when Allen punted twice and the man he’d beat out, Zoltan Mesko, punted three times.