The most, least surprising parts of Patriots' final roster
We've been preparing for the moment when the Patriots would pare their roster down to 53 players for about a month now. After each preseason game, we projected which players at that point in time appeared to have the inside track on roster spots.
We were wrong. Often. And on our last projection, following Thursday's preseason finale between the Patriots and Giants, we hit on 49 of what were eventually 52 players on Saturday night's active roster.
That doesn't sound like a terrible percentage, but it's really a total of seven mistakes, which is far from perfect. I whiffed on Geneo Grissom, Keionta Butler and Ryan Izzo. I included Riley McCarron, Brandon Bolden, Matt Tobin and Cyrus Jones -- all of whom were cut.
It's not the easiest thing in the world to try to predict where Bill Belichick will go with his team. But now that he's gone there -- cutting his initial training camp roster almost in half -- let's look at how he arrived at this 52 with some superlatives.
Most surprising cut: Cyrus Jones
Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran touched on this one in depth here. The Patriots rarely give up on second-rounders before year No. 3. Jones is the fourth, joining Chad Jackson, Terrence Wheatley and Ras-I Dowling. His path has been most similar to Dowling's. Lots of promise. Injuries struck. Their time in New England ended abruptly. Jones is one year removed from his ACL injury, and he seemed healthy after missing all of last season, but the Patriots must've felt like they'd seen enough. The "surprise" is about more than Jones' draft status, and the relative lack of opportunity he'd had, though. He was drafted as high as he was because of his punt-return ability . . . and the Patriots don't have a clear punt-returner at the moment. He has practice-squad eligibility and should he clear waivers, it'd be interesting to see if he felt a return was worthwhile.
Most surprising cut (honorable mention): Cole Croston
Croston could receive an honorable mention here since he spent the entirety of last season on the active roster, eating up a spot on the 53, and now he's available on waivers to any team that wants him. That 2017 investment could just go up in smoke if he lands elsewhere. The Patriots, and Dante Scarnecchia in particular, were high on Croston at the end of last season. But his progress must have stagnated to the point that they were comfortable parting ways with him. I thought there would be a place on the roster for either Croston or Matt Tobin, but both were released. Croston could still end up on the practice squad if he clears waivers.
Least surprising "surprise": Jason McCourty
Once Jordan Richards was traded, it felt like the Patriots truly couldn't afford not to keep McCourty. Though Richards had struggled defensively in meaningful reps given to him, the Patriots had long held out hope that things would click on that side of the ball for him. For a while he was, in their eyes, some measure of safety depth. Now McCourty, who may be viewed as a jack-of-all-trades defensive back, seems to be that guy. He's smart. He's a pro (on a roster that still doesn't have a roster full of them). He's a dependable option at corner, a position where teams can never have enough. Basically, he's everything the Patriots like. That's why -- even though there is good young talent at the corner position -- it comes as little surprise he's sticking.
Most intriguing keeper: Ryan Izzo
The rookie tight end out of Florida State was touted by Caserio as a tough-minded player when the draft finished up in the spring. He looked like a grind-it-out blocking option early in camp and he played well in New England's first two preseason games before getting hurt. Izzo is expected to head to IR later this weekend, opening up the possibility for him to return to the roster later in the season. Why would the Patriots use a roster spot just to make sure they have a mid-season depth option at a spot that already seems secure with Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister? They must've really liked what they'd seen in the work they'd done with him. Should anything happen to Allen in-season, Izzo would seem like the logical fill-in. Both are block-first players.
Thinnest position group: Receiver
We've been harping on this for weeks now. That open 53rd spot was not held for McCarron, as we thought it could be when McCarron was benched for the presason finale. It seems to be screaming for a receiver. And when Izzo hits IR, that'll make two open spots. One would think that at least one receiver has to be headed to Foxboro. Anyone who enters the Patriots locker room at this point in the year will face an uphill climb to adjust early on -- which, unfortunately for the Patriots, is exactly when any new additions would be needed thanks to Julian Edelman's suspension. But the Patriots could still try to find someone on waivers. The options? Braxton Miller, coming from Houston's offense, would make some sense because the learning curve wouldn't be quite as steep for him. (Remember the Keshawn Martin Era?) Daniel Braverman has looked like a prototypical Patriots slot since he entered the 2016 draft. And Kendall Wright may not be as dynamic as he once was, he's a slot only, and he has no recognizable special teams skills, but he caught 59 balls with the Bears last year and was just released by the Vikings.
Thinnest position group (honorable mention): Offensive line
The Patriots kept just seven when it looked like at one point they could have kept eight or nine. Tackle is a spot they may want to add to; they needed four starters at tackle last season, and it's the one spot where a lack of depth could put the entire season in jeopardy. Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle -- the team's three tackles at the moment -- all missed time due to injury last season.
Deepest position group: Defensive line
The Patriots went double-digits here. They have edge depth with Trey Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers. They have power on the interior with Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy. They have an interior rusher in Adam Butler. They have a project, who's been used both on the edge and inside in Keionta Davis. And they have a special teamer who might be able to provide some emergency pass-rush if injuries strike in Geneo Grissom. When it comes to Grissom, maybe we should have created a "hardest to divorce" superlative. Drafted in the third round in 2015, he didn't make it through the 53 cut in 2016 but was signed to the p-squad and then the active roster. Same thing happened last year. He was released again, re-signed to the p-squad and later called up to active roster a second time. The Patriots keep coming back to Grissom -- who is a tremendous athlete for someone his size and a reliable special teamer -- and it's a credit to him.
Most likely former Patriot to succeed: Mike Gillislee
Gillislee has had his issues in short-yardage. He's had trouble breaking tackles. And it was Jeremy Hill who looked like the more agile "big back" with better vision this summer. But Gillislee was handed a two-year $6.4 million contract as a restricted free agent last year and he's still just 27 with less than 300 career carries (258) under his belt. There's no real reason he shouldn't still be a productive back, but he was squeezed out in New England, thanks in part to Hill's emergence. Maybe he just needs a fresh start?
Most likely to be back: Brandon Bolden
This may be deja vu for Bolden. He was released at the 53-man cut last year and brought back immediately as soon as the Patriots cleared a spot by sending Shea McClellin to IR. The same could happen once again. He'd provide the Patriots with a strong presence in the kicking game, and he'd be running back depth should the group deal with any more injuries beyond what Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel are already dealing with. Bolden is a vested veteran so he's not subject to waivers and can control his next destination.
Most impressive streak: JC Jackson continues UDFA roll
Fifteen years. Fifteen years? It's been 15 consecutive years under Belichick that the Patriots have had at least one undrafted rookie make their 53-man roster out of camp. The latest is JC Jackson, the corner out of Maryland. His chances of making the team were never really in doubt. He's been running with first-team special teams units since Week 1 of the preseason, and he's been making plays on the football in practice since the spring. His two picks on Thursday night against the Giants were just confirmation that the Patriots would risk losing him to a corner-needy team if they waived him.
Latest Day 3 hit: Ja'Whaun Bentley
The release of Cyrus Jones has sparked conversation surrounding some of the early-round draft-pick misses in Belichick's 19 years as head coach. But it's fair to note some of his mid-round hits as well, and Ja'Whaun Bentley looks like the latest. An instinctive middle linebacker who has flashed in the passing game despite entering the league with a reputation as strictly a run-game thumper, Bentley has a chance to factor into Belichick's defense in his first year. The Patriots held him out of the preseason finale, knowing he'd be on the team. Not bad for a fifth-rounder. Belichick and the Patriots have chosen wisely on a number of early Day 3 types in the draft in recent years and Bentley could be the latest. Deatrich Wise (fourth round, 2017), Malcolm Mitchell (fourth round, 2016), Trey Flowers (fourth round 2015), Shaq Mason (fourth round 2015) and James White (fourth round, 2014) would all fall into that category. The fourth round has obviously been good to the Patriots. They didn't have a fourth this year, and Bentley was their lone fifth.
Toolsiest keeper: Keion Crossen
Crossen's path to a roster spot is somewhat reminiscent of Malcolm Butler's in 2014. Crossen was drafted (seventh round) and Butler wasn't, obviously. But both were raw. Both were standout, clear-cut NFL athletes. Both were even tucked away in the same back corner of the locker room, lumped together with other low-end draft picks and undrafted rookies. Crossen's potential -- both defensively and in the kicking game -- is certainly worth some continued behind-the-scenes work.
Most inseparable: Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner
We haven't seen either of these two kicking game staples this preseason, but both are back on the active roster together for the seventh consecutive season. For Slater, it's Year 10. Both have dealt with injury -- Ebner is coming back off of a season-ending ACL tear, while Slater dealt with a nagging hamstring in 2017 -- but seem healthy enough to play soon. There's a young crowd of special teamers at Gillette in Brandon King, Jonathan Jones, Nicholas Grigsby, Jackson and Crossen, but Slater and Ebner are headed into yet another season as old reliables there.
Toughest injury: Ulrick John
John suffered a foot injury in the preseason finale that will land him on injured reserve. Now in his fifth year, and on his fifth team, John seemed to have a very real shot at the active roster as an eighth lineman and backup tackle. Braxton Berrios and Christian Sam will join him on IR. The slot receiver and linebacker carried with them some promise coming out of the draft -- two more Day 3 selections -- but couldn't put together a full summer. Call it a red-shirt year for the rookies.
Best practice squad: A quarterback, a receiver and . . . a punter?
What if the Patriots were to roll with Danny Etling, Cole Croston, James Ferentz, Trent Harris, Harvey Langi, Riley McCarron, Vincent Valentine, Ralph Webb, Cyrus Jones and Corey Bojorquez as their 10-man practice squad? They'd add a receiver who knows the offense in McCarron. There would be some versatile offensive line depth in two more Iowa products (Croston, Ferentz and McCarron were all Hawkeyes). Etling might be able to help the Patriots mimic some of the mobile quarterbacks they'll face in the regular season. Harris and Valentine have shown some promise up front. Same could be said last year for Langi, who also has special teams potential. Webb has been offered a practice-squad deal and could bite if he's available. We know the story with Jones. And Bojorquez . . . Bojorquez has a booming leg, even if it was inconsistent at times in camp. He didn't take the field in the preseason, oddly. Maybe, as ESPN's Mike Reiss has posited multiple times, the Patriots wanted to keep Bojorquez's talent under wraps so other teams wouldn't come after him for their rosters this weekend. Ryan Allen will be the punter to start the 2018 season, but it's not totally out of the question that the Patriots try to stash another.