Patriots 53-man roster projection 7.0: Loading up at wide receiver
This is when things get tricky. Not only are the Patriots juggling roster spots based on positional value, scheme fit and individual skill sets. Now they have injuries to consider. They have the timing of those injuries to consider as well. The question isn't only, "Who's available to play?" For those who aren't it's, "How long will it be before they are available?"
Given what we know about different injury situations across the 90-man roster, given what we've seen from players in practices and games, and given how those players fit the overall system, we've compiled what we feel is the best 53-man roster for Week 1 of the regular season.
Have at it . . .
Tom Brady, Jarrett Stidham
I'm not sure it's a lock that the Patriots go with only two quarterbacks. The value of having depth at that spot is a tricky thing to peg. On the one hand, only one can play at any given time. On the other, it's the last place you can be caught shorthanded. But even with Tom Brady playing at 42 years old, he's shown few signs of aging this summer. He scrambled for yardage Thursday night against the Panthers. He stood in the pocket, took a hit, and connected with Phillip Dorsett across the field for a long gain. It's impossible to predict what he'll look like months from now, but planning for Brady to miss time — and therefore keeping Brian Hoyer — doesn't seem like a productive approach. Plus, what the Patriots get in Jarrett Stidham is an already-competent player with a high ceiling. Hoyer had value as a backup the last two seasons, and in particular during the voluntary portion of the offseason program when Brady was a non-participant. But the team should be able to get by with two at this spot.
RUNNING BACK (5)
Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden
There is little doubt that these five will be on the roster come September. All have shown to be effective in their given roles, and in Damien Harris' case, the rookie has at least shown promise that he can be effective at the NFL level as a solidly-built back with some versatility. Brandon Bolden (pictured) has shown during a few runs this preseason that his value may go beyond that of a core special-teamer. He's running angry and creating yards after contact when they're there to be had.
WIDE RECEIVER (7)
Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Phillip Dorsett, Demaryius Thomas, Matthew Slater
If things play out this way, this would be one of the largest receiver groups the Patriots have had in recent memory. Here's why it would make sense. Julian Edelman is expected to be good to go for Week 1. Josh Gordon remains on the non-football injury list but his talent and the nature of his conditional reinstatement seem to lead to the conclusion that a quick activation would make sense. N'Keal Harry (even as he deals with a minor physical issue) and Jakobi Meyers (even after he didn't exactly light it up with Brady on Thursday) should be included. Phillip Dorsett (pictured) clearly has Brady's trust, and he'd provide somewhat of a steadying presence to the group if Gordon, Harry or Demaryius Thomas are limited to start the year — or if Meyers continues to experience growing pains against upper-tier defensive backs. Thomas, meanwhile, was activated curiously earlier this week. He's eight months removed from a torn Achilles. But had he remained on the physically unable to perform list, he would've been forced to miss the first six weeks of the season. His activation might tell you they'd like to have him sooner than that given the question marks at the position.
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WIDE RECEIVER (7)
Here's a thought: If Thomas isn't quite ready for Week 1 but he'd be ready before Week 6, activating him now is the right call. But in that scenario, it'd be prudent to keep extra receivers on the roster to carry the load until he's a full go. Or at least until the other question marks at this position have been ironed out. Braxton Berrios didn't play Thursday, but he's expected to be good to go next week in the preseason finale. Perhaps he ends up being a practice-squad candidate after two weeks of his game film looking relatively quiet to evaluators across the league. Gunner Olszewski (pictured) looked dynamic as a punt-returner Thursday, and that may be worthy of a longer look and a roster spot. But with the receiver group as large as it is, it might be hard for the Patriots to create the room necessary to keep him. He'd be another player who'd be ideal to land on the practice squad if he made it through waivers. Maurice Harris remains injured; he didn't play Thursday and doesn't seem like a fit at the moment.
TIGHT END (3)
Ryan Izzo, Matt LaCosse, James Develin
We'll keep Matt LaCosse here for a couple of reasons. No. 1, he saw the bulk of the first-team reps in camp before suffering an injury against the Lions during New England's preseason opener. No. 2, going with just one tight end would leave the Patriots vulnerable to an in-game injury early in the season. Should they go with a solitary player here and then lose him early in Week 1, a chunk of Josh McDaniels' offense would go up in smoke. Ryan Izzo (pictured) — thanks to his durability this summer, his ability to block and the trust he appears to be developing with Tom Brady — deserves to be here, in my opinion.
OFFENSIVE LINE (7)
Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Ted Karras, Hjalte Froholdt
No changes here. Isaiah Wynn was solid again in pass-protection on Thursday. The only difference was he kept rushers away from Tom Brady and not one of Brady's backups. Wynn should be good to go to start the season. There is no swing tackle in this group because I'd expect the Patriots should be able to keep either Dan Skipper or Cole Croston on their practice squad after cutting their roster down from 90 players. Croston was released briefly earlier this offseason and not picked up. Skipper, in my opinion, hasn't shown enough on tape to warrant another team scooping him up and handing him a roster spot after releasing almost 40 of their own. If the Patriots needed an emergency tackle during a game, they could turn to Joe Thuney and then replace him on the interior with Ted Karras, who has been their best backup interior blocker this summer.
DEFENSIVE LINE (6)
Michael Bennett, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Mike Pennel, Byron Cowart, Adam Butler
Mike Pennel (pictured) was expected to be a starter at nose tackle when he signed with the Patriots this offseason. He's been out-played by Danny Shelton, though, and it's been Shelton who has received the first-team reps across from opposing centers. David Parry is a name to keep an eye on in this group because he played well on Thursday and flashed as a pass-rusher at 315 pounds. But Pennel is still included here because, from my perspective, we saw what makes Pennel valuable on Thursday. He handled blockers with power and was one of the team's better run-defenders. The issue? He was playing late in the game, and against lower-level competitive, so it might've been hard to gauge just how well he actually played. This may be a blatant disregard for summertime performance on my part, but Pennel is a rare body type at a position that is critical to stopping opposing running games for a 3-4 defense. I think he's earned a spot. Rookie Byron Cowart, meanwhile, continued to impress Thursday. I still feel as though he's a better scheme fit than Deatrich Wise. Wise, because he's certainly an NFL-caliber talent, would make sense as a trade option. Maybe Matt Patricia and the Lions would be interested? That's a team that has some tight end depth...
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (4)
Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, John Simon, Chase Winovich
This was a group that appeared to have all kinds of depth not too long ago. Maybe it's deeper than it looked on Thursday. That'd certainly be the case if either Derek Rivers or Shilique Calhoun could get back on the field. But after Brandon King suffered a serious leg injury, and after Rivers and Calhoun missed Thursday's game, it's looking light here. King was a "lock" — thanks to his special teams contributions — that won't be making the roster. The Patriots might try to make up for that loss of depth in the kicking game, and in the linebacker group, by adding an inside linebacker for Jerod Mayo to coach up.
INSIDE LINEBACKER (4)
Dont'a Hightower, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Elandon Roberts, Calvin Munson
Dont'a Hightower and Ja'Whaun Bentley can be locked in, but this is a versatile group that will at times include Jamie Collins or Kyle Van Noy so it's hard to say who will start outside of Hightower. We didn't include Elandon Roberts in last week's projection, but when we saw him on the first-team kickoff unit Thursday that was an indication that the Patriots are trying to get him more involved in the kicking game. (He played six games on special teams last year.) As a base linebacker who isn't going to necessarily provide much in the way of coverage in passing situations, Roberts needs some special teams responsibilities to help secure his spot. The same is certainly true for Calvin Munson (pictured). The reason we have Munson here is because he's been worked in heavily in the kicking game throughout the summer and he's shown good instincts in the middle of the field — especially against the run. He's not the fastest guy in the linebacker room, but he's a good athlete (drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals as a pitcher in 2013), and Mayo has said in the past that there's more value in a linebacker who runs a 4.8 40 and knows where he's going than there is in a player who runs a 4.5 and doesn't have a clue. Munson, who ran a 4.68, seems to have a clue.
Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Joejuan Williams, Jonathan Jones, Keion Crossen, Duke Dawson
Very few questions here as far as I'm concerned outside of maybe Duke Dawson (pictured). But he has the fact that he was a second-round pick last year going for him. He was also used on multiple special-teams units on Thursday, including first-team kickoff. The Patriots would of course like to get more out of Dawson than they did someone like Jordan Richards — a second-rounder whose contributions came exclusively in the kicking game — but that might be his role on the roster until he can work his way up the corner depth chart. Dawson did have a welcome quiet night as a defensive back Thursday, allowing no catches in 18 snaps.
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Terrence Brooks, Nate Ebner
Despite Patrick Chung's pending legal proceedings, I'd expect he'll be with the team and ready to start the season. Odds are it'll be a while before he's facing league discipline — if he's facing discipline at all. Nate Ebner suffered a minor injury Thursday but it's not something that's expected to hinder him. His presence on the roster as an experienced core special-teamer might be made more important by King's loss. Malik Gant (a potential special-teams contributor) and Obi Melifonwu (a potential special-teams contributor with upside for a bigger role as a matchup weapon defensively) warrant consideration here. Melifonwu, though, didn't play Thursday. He saw the fifth-most snaps (48) of any defensive player for the Patriots in their second preseason game last weekend.
SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
Stephen Gostkowski, Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona
A hiccup in the field-goal operation against Carolina isn't going to change things here. This group will be the group going into the regular season, meaning it'll be the first season since 2013 that the Patriots will go without recently-released punter and holder Ryan Allen.