Last Thursday Bill Belichick stated that the roster for the New England Patriots was about 80% set. Even though the final preseason game is considered to be the most meaningless of the four exhibition matches in August, it is anything but that for that other 20% – that works out to about 33 players competing for 11 roster spots. That 3-to-1 ratio should make for some intense competition, and certainly make tonight’s game worth watching.
Safety – Devin McCourty is in, but everyone else in this unit has varying degrees of questions. Adrian Wilson – who will turn 34 in October – has not alleviated any concerns about his decrease in playing time last year due to having lost a step. Tavon Wilson does okay covering tight ends and running backs, but struggles deeper down the field. Steve Gregory is the team’s second best coverage safety, but as a free safety he’s better suited to backup McCourty – but backups are expected to contribute to special teams, which he does not. Duron Harmon’s roster spot is secured, but his playing time is not. Kanorris Davis has performed well on special teams, but he needs to do something extra special tonight if he is to stick since it is not likely that the team will keep six safeties – unless one of Wilson, Wilson or Gregory takes another step backwards.
Cornerback – Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and rookie Logan Ryan are all safe, while Ras-I Dowling was booted off the island. Marquice Cole is the front runner for a 5th roster spot based on his special team’s play and the fact that Dowling is gone. Stephon Morris and Justin Green are on the outside looking in, with one last chance to state their case for a roster spot.
Linebacker - The Pats will probably carry six LB, with five of those spots going to Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher. 7th round draft pick will most likely get the last spot as a special teams ace, replacing Niko Koutouvides who was cut earlier this week when the Pats had to get down to 75 players. That’s not set in stone however; Mike Rivera or even Jeff Tarpinian could fill that role instead, and Ja’Gared Davis – who was just signed yesterday – will get a quick audition as well.
Defensive End – Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are firmly entrenched as the starters, but after that it gets murky; this is a position worth watching closely. Right now I have Justin Francis as the top backup, with Marcus Benard and Michael Buchanan in the lead for two final roster spots. That would leave Jermaine Cunningham (2nd round pick in 2010) and Jake Bequette (3rd round pick in 2012) as final cuts. While it seems too soon to give up on Bequette, he has simply shown nothing. Cunningham is certainly not out of the race, as Benard and Buchanan have shown occasional flashes but not enough consistency. Any three of those five players could still make the team.
Defensive Tackle – Similar to DE, the backup spots are up for grabs. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are firmly ensconced as the starters while Marcus Forston, Joe Vellano, Scott Vallone and newly signed Gilbert Pena are still vying to prove their worth. Forston started out as the leader of the pack but Vellano has come on strong. Nobody has made a strong enough case for himself as of yet, and we don’t know if the Pats will use three or four roster spots on the position. All four will get plenty of playing time tonight; it’s another position worth focusing on.
Offensive Line – How many OL do the Pats keep? Will Svitek did not look good against Detroit, but keep in mind he was out of position, he’s expected to be the top backup tackle, and was forced to fill in at guard this month due to injuries to Marcus Cannon and Dan Connolly. Matt Stankiewitch, Josh Kline, Chris McDonald and Luke Patterson should see plenty of playing time; they’re in a four-way battle for probably no more than one roster spot.
Tight End – After Rob Gronkowski and Zach Sudfeld, are any of the other players from this unit locks? Jake Ballard has been getting plenty of reps with the starters; he’s been okay, but he hasn’t stood out either. Daniel Fells was having a good camp – early on he looked to be the #2 TE after Gronk – but for the second straight August he is injured. Michael Hoomanawanui can line up in the backfield as a fullback as well as on the line to block or run routes – but he’s nothing more than average in any of those facets of the game. With Gronk out for the first few games of the season the Pats will need to go with at least three other tight ends – but which three is still up in the air.
Running Back – After Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen there are multiple questions. Four RB or five? Keep a FB? Is it worth using a roster spot on a player that will almost exclusively be used just on kickoff returns? Has LaGarrette Blount done enough – beyond one highlight reel run – to clinch a roster spot? Does Brandon Bolden get the nod instead for special teams contributions? Does James Develin have a chance to make the team as a FB, knocking Hoomanawanui off the roster? We should also finally get to see some of RB George Winn and FB Ben Bartholomew – although they are probably showcasing for the Practice Squad and not the 53-man roster.
Wide Receiver – This group is virtually set, with Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkis, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Julian Edelman and special teamer Matthew Slater. At one time Kamar Aiken appeared to have a chance of sticking, but he has been cut. Quentin Sims took over Aiken’s place as the longshot to make it on to the roster as a 7th WR; he’ll need to do something impressive – perhaps on special teams – to buck the odds. Sims and Johnathan Haggerty are more likely auditioning for a place on the Practice Squad.
Quarterback – Unlike the other position battles, this one pits the player against himself. Tom Brady is the starter, Ryan Mallett is the backup – now the question is whether or not it is worth using a third roster spot on the position. Based on what we have seen so far the answer is no; Tebow needs to have a good game to keep his career alive. After sitting out against Detroit, the coaching staff will likely give him a very long look tonight to try and convince them he’s worth keeping.
What: New York Giants at New England Patriots
When: 7:30 p.m. ET, Thursday August 29
TV: National — NFL Network (Mike, Mayock, Spero Dedes, Alex Flanagan); Local Broadcast — WBZ-TV CBS in Boston (Dan Roche, Christian Fauria, Matt Chatham, Steve Burton, Paul Perillo and Andy Hart)
NFL Network Replay: 1 p.m. ET, Saturday, Aug. 31
Patriots Not Expected To Play: WR Danny Amendola, OL Marcus Cannon, DE Jermaine Cunningham, CB Alfonzo Dennard, DE Justin Francis, TE Rob Gronkowski
Giants Not Expected To Play: Jason Pierre-Paul (back surgery) and Henry Hynoski (knee surgery) are back from the PUP list, but neither is likely to play. Victor Cruz (heel contusion), David Baas (knee) and David Diehl (thumb) will not play. Head coach Tom Coughlin said that the Giants starters would play 12-15 snaps.
Follow on Twitter @AllThingsPats