53-man roster projection 3.0: Opportunity opens for Ealy
Rodney Harrison gave a colorful description of Bill Belichick's approach to roster-building when the former Patriots safety spoke to The Ringer for a piece on how the Patriots have taken "no-name" players and turned them into valuable commodities.
“When the season started, he showed us an empty depth chart,” Harrison said of Belichick. “He does not care how many Pro Bowls you’ve made. He says: I don’t make the depth chart; you guys make the depth chart.”
Training camp matters. Preseason games matter. And in New England, when well-established players say they're "just trying to make the team," that's not just humility.
The reality is, even accomplished players aren't guaranteed spots. Years ago, Lawyer Milloy was the foremost example of that. More recently, deals involving Logan Mankins, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins have put players on notice.
Want a shot? Be on board. Be improving, or at least maintaining a level that your peers have yet to hit. Be available. Be, in Belichick's eyes, "what's best for the team."
With that in mind, after two preseason games and over a dozen practices, here's our best guess at what the Patriots 53-man roster will look like.
Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett
Jacoby Brissett's spot could be in jeopardy, but having a third quarterback on board brings a unique kind of value. He has improved since his rookie season, and he feels as though he's progressed during training camp despite seeing limited reps. His performance against the Texans was far from perfect, but upon a second viewing, it was better than the numbers might've indicated (5-for-10, 36 yards). He didn't get much in the way of help.
RUNNING BACK (5)
Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, James White, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden
Sticking with five backs here as Brandon Bolden's special teams value earns him a spot. Here's what Belichick had to say about Bolden during a recent press conference: "He’s a smart player and has a good set of skills. I mean, he can run, he can catch, he can pass protect, and he’s given us a lot of production and leadership in the kicking game. So he does a good job in the room with it being the running back room or in the special teams room of being prepared, helping out the younger guys. He’s a good communicator, so things on the punt team, punt return where things can happen pretty fast and you need to make some adjustments, he’s good at that, very good in blitz pickup and his understanding of the passing game. So, he’s a four-down player, three-down offensive player with versatility in the kicking game and all the different phases."
The top four at this position -- with Dion Lewis looking more and more like the Dion Lewis of early 2015 -- seem to be locks.
Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Matthew Slater
Not much in the way of surprises here. Austin Carr is still on the outside looking in, though he would seem to be an ideal candidate for the practice squad. Matthew Slater's missed weeks of practice time with an injury, and if he's unable to start the season then perhaps things will be shaken up a bit at this position, but in all likelihood the team would replace him with a special-teams contributor -- someone like Jordan Richards, Justin Coleman or Kenny Moore -- rather than a pure receiver.
TIGHT END (4)
Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James Develin, James O'Shaughnessy
James O'Shaughnessy was left off of our last projection in favor of Jacob Hollister. The reason? One player was available. The other wasn't. Now that O'Shaughnessy is back on the field, he's the choice as the No. 3 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen. He was solid in New England's second preseason game, catching five of six targets for 41 yards. His best play of the week was one that came during a joint training camp practice with the Texans, as he rose up on a seam route and plucked a Tom Brady pass off of the helmet of a linebacker in coverage. Celebrating the play more exuberantly than anyone was Josh McDaniels. O'Shaughnessy said on Monday he hoped to continue to give McDaniels and the Patriots coaching staff reasons to be excited.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8)
Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Ted Karras, Tony Garcia, Cam Fleming
Both Nate Solder and Tony Garcia are dealing with injuries that have thinned out the tackle group, leaving LaAdrian Waddle and Cam Fleming to split the majority of the work at that position. When Waddle went down with an injury at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, Fleming was the last man standing. If Fleming can stay healthy, he looks like he has the inside track on what looks like a battle between him and Waddle to be the team's backup veteran tackle. Rookie Conor McDermott has been one of the team's more consistent tackles in camp, though he's played solely on the right side. If he can slip through waivers, it would be a surprise if he wasn't one of the first names added to the Patriots practice squad.
SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona
Don't overthink this one. Stephen Gostkowski looked locked in against the Texans, making all three of his field goals as well as two extra points.
DEFENSIVE LINE (8)
Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, Lawrence Guy, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Geneo Grissom, Kony Ealy
The knee injury suffered by Derek Rivers could open up a spot for Kony Ealy, who has had an inconsistent camp and preseason. For every positive play that Ealy provides, there often is another that leaves you scratching your head. For example: After creating a pressure to help force a Texans incompletion in exhibition game No. 2, Ealy lost contain on Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson and allowed Watson to run for a first down. As for Geneo Grissom, who could be viewed as a bubble player, here's what Belichick had to say during a recent presser: "We’ve used him inside as a rusher, used him outside. He’s got some versatility. He can fill in at some different spots for us depending on where we need him, even some linebacker responsibilities. So, he definitely understands how valuable that is to our team and our defense to be able to combine those defensive roles with the kicking game and multiple roles on defense. He’s worked hard at that, and I think he made a jump this year, just really understanding, now that he solidified his special teams role last year, understanding how he can move to the next step defensively."
Dont'a Hightower, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Harvey Langi, Jonathan Freeny
Elandon Roberts appeared to be gaining some momentum, particularly after multiple disruptive plays in the running game against the Texans, but he left Saturday's game with a rib injury and had to be carted back to the locker room from the sideline area. If he can't begin the season healthy, Jonathan Freeny would seem to be the next logical choice as one of the team's reserve off-the-ball linebackers. Freeny still carries value in the kicking game, enhancing his importance to the roster.
Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones
No changes here. Cyrus Jones put together a strong enough performance as a punt-returner against the Texans that his roster spot seems to be safe. Even if he contributes sparingly on defense, his presence on the roster as a returner does two things: 1) He showed in college that at his best, he can be a big play waiting to happen, and 2) he'd give longtime returners Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola a break from the handful of hits a game that they might otherwise absorb on special teams if Jones wasn't around. The Patriots have never released a first or second-round pick before the player's second season.
Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Nate Ebner, Brandon King
One of the most experienced groups on the Patriots roster, there seems to be very little in the way of pressure coming from young-up-and-comers for any of their active roster spots. The key for this group will be to stay healthy. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung played 98.1 and 95.3 percent of Patriots defensive snaps last season, respectively, and both have roles in the kicking game.