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. Training camp performances 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 12 practices and one preseason game, here's our best guess at what the Patriots 53-man roster will look like.
For a glance at our first 2017 roster projection, which was released following OTAs and minicamp, head here.
QUARTERBACK (3): Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett
Jacoby Brissett is the lone question mark here. Headed into training camp, I assumed he was a lock for the 53-man roster. But after a handful of bumpy training camp practices and consistent issues with sailing passes too high, his rate of progression has become a bit hazy. He sticks in this projection due in part to the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo is in the final year of his rookie deal.
RUNNING BACK (5): Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, James White, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden
The first three names listed above should come as no surprise to anyone. Same should be said for Dion Lewis. His heavy-ish workload (23 snaps) against the Jags in preseason game No. 1 seems more to me like an opportunity at full-speed reps for a player who missed a large chunk of the last two seasons. Showcasing him for a trade? Seems unlikely since his injury history would limit the return for Lewis regardless of how good he looks in exhibition play, but never say never. Brandon Bolden gets the nod here primarily for his special-teams work, but he has the size (5-foot-11, 220) to serve as a big back should Mike Gillislee continue to deal with injury issues.
RECEIVER (6): Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Matthew Slater
This group could have a slightly different look headed into Week 1, especially with Matthew Slater dealing with an injury, but things seem set here for the most part. Austin Carr's performance in the preseason opener was encouraging, but it's hard to envision him winning a roster spot unless there's more injury-related shakeup at the position.
TIGHT END (4): Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James Develin, Jacob Hollister
On an offense that came into training camp with seemingly very few jobs open, the third tight end role -- if the Patriots wanted one -- was one of the most hotly-contested. Matt Lengel (more of a blocking option) and James O'Shaughnessy (missing practice time due to injury) could be surpassed as the top option by Jacob Hollister, undrafted rookie out of Wyoming who caught seven passes for 119 yards against the Jags. "He's done a good job of adapting to the things that we've asked him to do," Belichick said on Friday. "He's learning. He's got a long way to go. There are a lot of things that he needs work on in all phases of the game, running game, passing game, kicking game. But he's a hard working kid. He’s out there every day and he's made improvement. Had an opportunity to make a couple of plays last night and made them so that was good.”
OFFENSIVE LINE (8): Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Ted Karras, Tony Garcia, Cam Fleming
Ted Karras has shown good versatility and impressive power at times in camp, and he seems to have locked down the role of primary interior backup since he can play both guard spots and center. On the edge, things are a little less clear. Cam Fleming has not had a clean-and-tidy camp as he's competed with LaAdrian Waddle for reps. Yet Fleming has plenty of game experience in Dante Scarnecchia's system and he's proven both at tackle (where he started on the left side Week 1 in 2016) and as a jumbo tight end that he can serve in a variety of roles and give a representative effort. Because it's unclear as to whether or not Tony Garcia will be ready to be the team's swing tackle in his rookie season, Fleming provides some veteran insurance. Rookie Conor McDermott, one of the team's four draft picks this season, could be a nice depth option on the practice squad.
SPECIAL TEAMS (3): Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona
Stephen Gostkowski missed a long field goal against the Jaguars on Thursday, but the Patriots appear comfortable with him as their lone kicking option. Despite some of his issues dating back to last season, his track record puts him among the best kickers in the league.
DEFENSIVE LINE (8): Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, Lawrence Guy, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers, Geneo Grissom
The glaring omission here is Kony Ealy, who the Patriots acquired in a trade with Carolina last offseason. Ealy's former head coach Ron Rivera said at this year's league meetings that Ealy will be fine if he listens to the Patriots coaching staff, but it's not clear how well that relationship has started off. Ealy said he was held out of the first day of camp because of a disagreement with Belichick, and he's gone mostly unnoticed since he's been on the field. He told me after the Jaguars game that he's still trying to learn the techniques he's being taught by the Patriots, but he felt as though he was headed in the right direction. For now, it looks like he could be on the outside looking in. Undrafted rookie Adam Butler, who has shown flashes of potential in camp due to his quickness on the interior, is an ideal candidate for the practice squad. Geneo Grissom has received less work on the edge of the Patriots defense as camp has worn on, but his special-teams value could win him a job.
LINEBACKER (6): Dont'a Hightower, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Harvey Langi, Jonathan Freeny
Like many of the position groups we've covered, things are relatively set at the top. (Should Dont'a Hightower begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, that would obviously change the outlook.) One or two depth spots, however, seem fluid. Harvey Langi has seen a great deal of time on the left edge recently with Rob Ninkovich retired and Shea McClellin missing practice time. Langi's an intriguing athlete, and while he admits he has a lot to learn to understand the team's defensive principles, but gauging by the amount of practice time he's accrued alongside established veterans, the coaching staff seems to be encouraged by what they've seen. The undrafted rookie out of BYU has also seen extensive work in the kicking game, which is his best ticket to a roster spot. Jonathan Freeny is still considered a valuable special teams asset. He's also in his third year with the team, understands the system, and therefore provides some depth as an off-the-ball option. Elandon Roberts could factor into the mix here as a hard-hitting run defender, but his aggressiveness against the run got him into trouble against the Jaguars.
CORNERBACK (5): Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones
Five may be a little light in terms of numbers, and perhaps players like Justin Coleman or undrafted rookies Kenny Moore and DJ Killings will show that they deserve spots on the active roster. But with two corners who figure to start wire-to-wire if healthy, maybe the Patriots feel like they can get away with what they have here. It seems as though Cyrus Jones will have a good long crack at being the team's primary returner. The Patriots under Belichick have never released a first or second-round pick before the player's second season.
SAFETY (5): Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Nate Ebner, Brandon King
This is one of the most experienced groups on the Patriots roster, and there seems to be very little in the way of pressure coming from young-up-and-comers for any of their active roster spots. Brandon King is listed as a defensive back but often practices with the linebackers. He's established himself as a core special-teamer over the last two seasons and appears to be on track for a similar role in 2017.