New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo share a laugh during warm ups Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
With three preseason games already played, the New England Patriots still have a number of position battles and roster decisions to sort through before opening their regular season in Arizona against the Cardinals on Sunday night. While the Patriots know that quarterback Tom Brady will be out the first four games of the season, there is more intrigue than simply whether quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will hold down the position until Brady returns.
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There are a number of questions about the roster as the team has to be down to 75 by Tuesday and then down to 53 by Saturday after the final preseason game. There have already been a number of surprising cuts (and a release/trade/retirement/failed physical/rescind of trade/release of center Bryan Stork) with veterans such as running back Donald Brown, wide receiver Nate Washington, defensive linemen tackles Terrance Knighton and Frank Kearse (actually on injured reserve and not released as initially reported), cornerback E.J. Biggers and safety Cedric Thompson (along with the odd retirement/release of safety Brock Vereen).
With the roster at 82 players headed into Tuesday, most of the cuts are going to be made after the final preseason game Thursday night against the New York Giants.
On defense, the Patriots have a handful of young cornerbacks fighting a spirited battle for what is probably just one roster spot. With Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower potential free agents at the end of the year, at least one linebacker landed a contract (just not the expected pending free agent linebacker). On the defensive line there are young players stepping up and veterans sitting on the bench.
On offense at running back what was a wide-open battle seems settled heading into the last preseason game. On the offensive line a potential star has emerged. Finally, the wide receiver position still has questions that need answers before the regular season begins.
With these questions facing head coach Bill Belichick heading into September, the Patriots have a lot to figure out with less than two weeks to get it done. With many more cuts to be made before opening day, here is a deeper look into these issues and battles after three preseason games.
New England Patriots cornerback Cyrus Jones. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
DEPTH CORNERBACK BATTLE RAGES ON:
When the New England Patriots went from future Hall-of-Fame cornerback Darrelle Revis and former Legion of Boom founder Brandon Bolden after the 2014 season most observers were puzzled. Why did Bill Belichick jettison the veterans rather than keep their Super Bowl duo together? To further complicate the moves, the Patriots also released top backups Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard.
Young cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan both stepped up last year and were one of the top-five cornerback duos in the AFC as both exceeded expectations. Both are back in this year and the Patriots added cornerback Cyrus Jones in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He is battling last year's surprise contributor at cornerback Justin Coleman who joined the team during the season and was solid as the third cornerback.
Jones has also contributed on special teams as well as showcasing his athleticism at cornerback. Coleman was picked on in the first two games before bouncing back strong against Carolina in preseason game three. The two are neck-to-neck in the battle for the nickel cornerback role right now.
However, the biggest battle is behind the first four as youngster Darryl Roberts, and undrafted free agents Jonathan Jones, and Cre'Von LeBlanc have impressed. LeBlanc has allowed just a 24.2 passer rating against with an interception and two pass breakups; Jones allowed just 52 yards passing on 11 targets with three pass breakups and finally Roberts (who spent all last season on injured reserve after an electric training camp) shook off a rough training camp to allow just one reception on 11 targets with three pass breakups and a pass interference penalty (Cornerback stats from Doug Kyed at NESN.com).
There is just one spot potentially open between the three young cornerbacks as Butler, Ryan, Coleman and Cyrus Jones seem to have the top four spots tied up. LeBlanc and Roberts appear to be better cornerbacks than Jonathan Jones, but Jones has been excellent on special teams which could help his case. Roberts seemed to be on track for a roster spot last year which seems to give him an advantage. However, LeBlanc has been the most consistent over three preseason games and has been entering the game first off the bench.
New England Patriots linebacker Jonathan Freeny. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
LINEBACKER CONTRACT EXTENSION:
In the surprise of the preseason, the New England Patriots recently extended one of their pending free agent linebackers. No, not Jamie Collins or Dont'a Hightower. Instead the Patriots extended special teams maven and backup linebacker Jonathan Freeny with a two-year extension.
Freeny is not a high-profile player on defense, but the Rutgers product won over Belichick. Freeny has some athleticism but struggles in pass coverage (he allowed an 18 yard reception against Carolina on Friday night) and is not always strong at the point of attack in the running game. However, he is a regular on the special teams units and a leader in the locker room.
No team values it's non-returner special teams players more than Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Freeny is a backup at all three linebacker spots, but his main contributions are on fourth down. Freeny is valuable in that he can add depth at linebacker both inside and outside and contribute and thrive on special teams. For Belichick, those types of players are valued and he wastes no time locking them up.
Of course, there is still no movement publicly on the Hightower and Collins potential extensions. Because Collins' salary and cap hit is so low (less than $1 million) this season, he will likely be the prime candidate for the franchise tag. Hightower remains the most likely of the duo to get his money and extension this year as he is in his fifth year option and is due and counts almost $8 million against the salary cap this year.
Freeny did not get starting linebacker money and is expected to be the backup and special teams role player that he has been in New England. The Patriots continue to value versatility and Feeny is just another example of how those low-key role players can be rewarded in New England.
New England Patriots defensive tackle Markus Kuhn. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
DEFENSIVE LINE TAKING SHAPE:
The surprising release of veteran defensive tackle Terrance Knighton this week is less an indictment of Knighton and more of a byproduct of young veterans Markus Kuhn and Anthony Johnson and rookie Vincent Valentine's strong play in training camp and in the preseason games. Knighton was a surprise DNP-CD against Carolina last Friday night in the third preseason game and the writing appeared to be on the wall.
The top two spots on the defensive line are set with future star Malcom Brown building off his impressive rookie season and veteran Alan Branch (back from his team suspension -- which was more likely a "veteran practice break" more than anything else). Kuhn was a cast-off from the Giants but has one of the biggest surprises on the defensive line playing with surprising athleticism and strength at the point of attack.
Valentine has been the powerful bull rushing two-gapper that Knighton was meant to be on the defense. Against Carolina while Knighton was on the bench it was Valentine using his size and strength to get in the backfield and clog up the middle of the defense and force the running game into the sure tackling linebackers.
Markus Kuhn spent four years with the New York Giants but never seemed to take the next step to starter and impact player. New England picked him up and have had him starting alongside Malcom Brown. Kuhn needs some work on his technique in the two-gap style inside on the defensive line, but he has shown suprising power inside and shows promise as a contributor during the season.
Young veteran Anthony Johnson was probably the most under-the-radar signing of the offseason. Johnson had bounced around with Miami and Washington after starring at LSU. Johnson has dropped 50 pounds since his time in Miami and introduced himself to Patriots Nation with a dominating perfromance in the second preseason game against Chicago. Another strong performance by Johnson could land him on the roster as an interior sub-rusher.
New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
RUNNING BACK SITUATION SORTING ITSELF OUT:
With the news of veteran running back Donald Brown having been released (with an injury settlement) it appears to indicate that the competition at the position is all but over. Originally having thought to be fighting for a roster spot, veteran starter LeGarrette Blount has come back strong from the hip injury that ended his 2015 season prematurely.
Blount has run hard this summer and put himself at the top of the depth chart. His usual decisiveness hitting the hole, hard-charging style, and deceptive speed have been on display throughout the preseason. As usual, special-teams stalwart and backup running back Brandon Bolden appears to have his role set on the 53-man roster.
With Dion Lewis likely opening the season on the PUP list, that means the maddeningly inconsistent James White will be in the third-down receiving back role when the season starts. White lacks Lewis' jitterbug ability to make tacklers miss in the open field, but he has good hands, has the size to run between the tackles, and occasionally makes a big play.
One big play has been the only thing that has separated Tyler Gaffney from the pack as his 44-yard touchdown run versus New Orleans in preseason game one stands out. However, outside of that touchdown run he has just 51 yards on 19 carries in the preseason. Gaffney has missed the past two seasons due to injury so he will likely have to get the momentum back on Thursday night.
With fullback James Develin back at full strength from the gruesome broken leg he suffered last preseason, he should be on track to grab a roster spot. His blocking has been spot-on in the preseason so far. His only competition for the last spot has been Joey Iosefa and undrafted free agent DJ Foster. Iosefa has done little to standout and Foster has spent much of the summer out with a hamstring injury.
Short of scooping up another running back after the rosters are cut-down to 53, the Patriots seem to have settled on the running back position.
offensive lineman Joe Thuney (44) during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
OFFENSIVE LINE HAS A NEW STAR:
The offensive line was the Achilles heel of the Patriots last season as injuries and ineffectiveness cost offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo his job as Dante Scarnecchia came out of retirement to take back his long-time job in New England. So far the team has already seemingly lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer indefinitely after shoulder surgery and being placed on the PUP list.
Marcus Cannon -- who struggled last season after a foot injury (believed to be a broken big toe) robbed him of his strength and movement -- is set at right tackle and has taken to the coaching of Scarnecchia. So far Cannon has looked like the tackle the Patriots hoped he could be when he was drafted in 2011. Opposite Cannon, Nate Solder has been slowly returning to form after missing the last 11 games after tearing his right biceps. La'Adrian Waddle should be fine as the swing tackle behind the starters.
The right guard position is wide-open as last year's left guard Josh Kline, second-year guard Shaq Mason, and former high first round draft pick Jonathan Cooper (who has been out injured for all the preseason games so far) are battling for the starting job. Second-year guard Tre Jackson has not practiced and will start the year on the PUP list.
At left guard it has been the surprise of training camp, third-round draft pick out of North Carolina State Joe Thuney, who stepped in at the first practice and has refused to give up the job. Thuney graded high with stats-based scouting service ProFootballFocus.com while in college as they ranked Thuney as one of the better blockers in the draft based on their proprietary ratings. So far Thuney has looked like a steal.
Thuney was expected to be a developmental project at guard with Kline, Mason, Jackson and Cooper ahead of him. Instead Thuney -- who showed surprising athleticism at the scouting combine running a sub-5.0 40 time and 28 bench press reps -- has grabbed the opportunity early in camp with Mason, Jackson, and Cooper all sidelined and refused to give it up.
Thuney has been highly intelligent as advertised after playing tackle and guard at North Carolina State has been solid blocking in the passing and running game. Thuney has looked like a potential long-term solution and if his play continues into the regular season the Patriots may have finally found their replacement at left guard after almost a decade of Pro Bowl quality play from Logan Mankins.
It may be early to compare Thuney to Mankins, but he could be the manning that position for a long time in New England.
New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH STILL UP-IN-THE-AIR:
A few weeks ago I looked at the wide receiver position as one of the best training camp battles (Patriots Wide Receivers Shaping Up as Best Battle in Training Camp) and the position battle will continue into the final game of training camp. With a report from Albert Breer of MMQB.com (formerly of the NFL Network and the Boston Globe) that Aaron Dobson is being shopped around the league, it would appear that Dobson is not the roster lock he may have thought he was during training camp when Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell were all not practicing due to injury.
With Dobson seemingly on the outs, it appears to be a sign that the team expects the injured duo of Amendola and Mitchell to contribute sooner rather than later. It also begs the question of whether there is a surprise addition to the roster beyond Edelman, Mitchell, Hogan, Amendola and Keshawn Martin. Edelman should be ready to go and Hogan seems ready to go, but Mitchell and Amendola are huge question marks heading into September simply because they have been unable to practice or play recently.
Martin has been consistent and was a surprise contributor last year showing the ability to play outside as well as in the slot. Coming from Houston he had the basic concept of the offense (as former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien installed his offense there) and was a big contributor making some big plays in the passing game. He should be a contributor in multi-wide receiver sets.
Chris Harper was an undrafted rookie free agent last year who had a strong training camp, landed on the practice squad and was activated later in the season due to injuries at wide receiver. He had a costly special teams fumble and failed to make an impact on the field with the offense. Harper has been reliable so far in the preseason but failed to make many memorable plays so far to make his case to stick on the 53-man roster.
Devin Lucien was drafted in the seventh-round and at six-foot-two and 200 pounds has NFL size. Known for great hands in his one year at Arizona State, he blew a big chance in the first preseason game against New Orleans when he dropped a long pass in the end zone after pushing off and being flagged for offensive pass interference. That seemed to slow the momentum he had built up in training camp and he is on the outside looking in now.
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