Patriots 53-man roster projection: Josh Gordon shakes things up
Two games into the preseason and it's becoming pretty clear there is a bit of a youth movement underway at One Patriot Place.
The team drafted 19 players in its last two draft classes, and that number doesn't include some of the undrafted players they've selected — J.C. Jackson, Jakobi Meyers — who appear to have real staying power.
You'll find 17 first- or second-year players here in our latest 53-man roster projection. It's still early to be able to say definitively whether or not Bill Belichick has found his next great young core the way he did when he put together his 2010, 2011 and 2012 draft classes. But through two preseason games this summer, it looks like something is brewing with this group of young 20-somethings.
Here's our latest stab at how the Patriots will look come September...
Tom Brady, Jarrett Stidham
The Patriots have rolled with the two-quarterback plan before. They've even done the Tom Brady-with-a-rookie-and-no-one-else plan before. That was the case in 2009 when Brian Hoyer beat out Kevin O'Connell for the backup job. It happened again, of course, in 2014 when Ryan Mallett was traded away at the end of camp to give Jimmy Garoppolo the No. 2 gig. Jarrett Stidham hasn't been perfect, but he's impressed this summer with his accuracy to all levels of the field, his athleticism, and his ability to run an offense entirely different from those he shouldered in college. Is he as consistent as the Patriots would like? That's the question. Because even if Brady gets hurt in Week 1, the AFC East looks weak enough that Belichick's club might still be able to contend with a backup behind center. Tom Brady, even at 42, is well-versed in keeping himself out of harm's way so the No. 2 might never see significant action as it is. But even if he does, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that Stidham could provide something close to what Hoyer would. Parting ways with Hoyer, according to Over The Cap, would dock the Patriots about half of his $3 million cap number for 2019. That's something worth considering here. Anyone who gets that 53-man roster opening — an additional corner, a tight end? — would have to be worth it.
RUNNING BACK (5)
Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden
No changes to this group. It's been the same five for us all summer. But it is worth mentioning a couple things here. First, Damien Harris (pictured) looked fluid as a receiver on Saturday night in Nashville. Should Sony Michel make good on the promise he held as a passing-game player in college — something he's working on in camp — then that'd give the Patriots three multi-purpose backs to give opposing defenses headaches (Harris, Michel, Rex Burkhead). Second, the Patriots have deployed their backs in an interesting fashion through two preseason games. It was the Brandon Bolden Show in Detroit. Against the Titans, it was primarily Harris. It wouldn't shock me to see Bolden get another good-sized workload Thursday in preseason game No. 3.
WIDE RECEIVER (6)
Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Braxton Berrios, Matthew Slater
Here's where you could get creative. Is Josh Gordon (pictured) ready to play? Is he in shape? He's currently on the non-football injury list, according to ESPN. He could stay there through camp and then be eligible to return mid-season. That'd open up another roster spot in September. But the Patriots need some talent at wideout now, and his arrival knocks Phillip Dorsett off this iteration of the 53. There are simply too many bodies for Dorsett and Maurice Harris, as Jakobi Meyers deserves to be this year's UDFA to make the club. Trading or releasing Dorsett at this point would save the Patriots $2.1 million in cap dollars. Perhaps the argument could be made that the Patriots should roll with one additional receiver, knowing Gordon could be gone without much warning. In that case you might be willing to sacrifice a player at tight end in order to keep another veteran receiver...
TIGHT END (3)
Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, James Develin
...This might be the most difficult position to project at the moment. Mostly because no one has separated themselves as being clearly worthy of No. 1 billing while Ben Watson sits out the first month of the season suspended. We'll go with Matt LaCosse (pictured) as the pass-catcher of the group, even though he's currently dealing with an injury and missed last week's practices with the Titans. He has some versatility, it seems, though it'd be nice for the Patriots to get another look at him in preseason game No. 3. Then, in the Dwayne Allen role as a blocker, Ryan Izzo seems like he could be a fit. The second-year tight end made a nice catch down the seam against the Titans on Saturday, but he was immediately chopped down at the knees and had to come out of the game briefly. Lance Kendricks, believe it or not, might be making a play for a roster spot here as well. He had a boneheaded hold called against him in Nashville that resulted in a safety, but as a run-blocker he was impressive. Plus, he had a 28-yard reception where he was able to show off some receiving skills. If LaCosse isn't healthy enough for September, I could see the Patriots going with Izzo and Kendricks here.
OFFENSIVE LINE (7)
Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Ted Karras, Hjalte Froholdt
The seven names here were relatively easy for me to come up with. Isaiah Wynn (pictured), as expected, is on track to be healthy for Week 1. Ted Karras has solidified himself, in my opinion, as the top interior offensive lineman as James Ferentz has now had a couple of rocky preseason games. Hjalte Froholdt isn't going anywhere as a fourth-round pick. Dan Skipper, meanwhile, was the last man out. He's struggled in pass-protection in one-on-one drills in practice. He struggled against Titans pass-rushers, allowing a quarterback hit and a pair of hurries in 52 snaps Saturday. The Patriots have him playing both right and left tackle — and he's playing a lot. I'm just not sure he's worthy of an active roster spot as a swing tackle. The Patriots could very well release him, have him clear waivers, and place him on the practice squad as an emergency option moving forward. I don't think he's shown enough on tape that other teams will necessarily be clamoring to sign him after rosters are cut down. The Patriots had seven linemen on their initial 53-man roster last year.
DEFENSIVE LINE (6)
Michael Bennett, Lawrence Guy, Mike Pennel, Danny Shelton, Byron Cowart, Adam Butler
The lone shift here is swapping out Deatrich Wise for Byron Cowart (pictured). Wise has been a solid addition for the Patriots through two seasons, but I'm not sure this roster is the best fit for him in 2019. He's not a true 3-4 defensive end, and he's not a "Sam" or "Jack" outside linebacker in a 3-4. He also would likely fall behind Michael Bennett and Adam Butler as the interior pass-rushing down-lineman in sub situations. He's a big-time locker room presence and someone who's done everything asked by the coaching staff from a work-ethic perspective. He'd also provide the team a strong option if they want to change things up with their fronts and utilize a more traditional defensive end. But it looks like Cowart, the fifth-round rookie who continues to impress against the pass and the run, looks like a better fit for this scheme.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (6)
Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, John Simon, Chase Winovich, Shilique Calhoun, Brandon King
We're still waiting on word as far as Derek Rivers' injury from Saturday night is concerned. He wasn't spotted in the locker room after the game, yet Shilique Calhoun (also injured, pictured) was around and reportedly telling people he was OK. Clearly any news on either player here could shake things up further, but even if Rivers is forced to miss time, this is a relatively deep group. Those are five NFL-caliber options plus a core special-teamer in Brandon King.
INSIDE LINEBACKER (3)
Dont'a Hightower, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Calvin Munson
If Rivers is hurt, that could thrust Dont'a Hightower into a few more snaps on the edge. I think he'll still be used off the line more than he is on the line, but if the injury picture makes the Patriots lighter on the outside then Hightower could bump down. That might free-up a roster spot for another true off-the-ball player. Enter... Calvin Munson (pictured)? Maybe. The third-year linebacker made our "Prototypical Patriots" list in 2017 as a smart player with decent size 6-foot-1, 245 pounds and good athleticism (4.68-second 40-yard dash, 117-inch broad jump). A practice-squadder last year, he's been utilized quite a bit in Patriots special-teams packages this summer, and he appeared to be a quick processor in Saturday's game against Tennessee. If it's close between Munson and Elandon Roberts, Munson might get the nod if the team thinks he can play in the kicking game. Elandon Roberts saw special-teams action in six games last year and has three-career special-teams tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Joejuan Williams, Jonathan Jones, Keion Crossen, Duke Dawson
Duke Dawson (pictured) has had a hard time in coverage this summer. Through two preseason games he's allowed three catches for a total of 74 yards. Each has gone for 21 yards or more. In practice, the positive moments have been hard to come by as well. Still, he's a second-round pick, and I don't think the Patriots are looking to give up on a player taken there. Dawson might not find himself active on game days all that often in this deep group, but the Patriots have to believe there is more potential there than what he's shown.
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Terrence Brooks, Nate Ebner
Obi Melifonwu was included on last week's list, but he was never a lock, and this projection — where Duke Dawson gets a spot but Melifonwu doesn't — shows just how tenuous his role may be. Melifonwu has been used frequently in the kicking game, and his work against the run lately has ben solid. But he was on the scene for a Titans touchdown on Saturday in the deep middle portion of the field, and it feels like the Patriots are still trying to figure out his best fit. They've had him playing free safety — perhaps to push Duron Harmon? — but he looks like a better fit as a Patrick Chung backup. If that's the case, the issue for Melifonwu is that Terrence Brooks (pictured) probably already has that gig sewn up. Then the question becomes, would the Patriots keep Melifonwu over Nate Ebner? Ebner recently got back to practice, and the Patriots love him. But if they feel like Melifonwu can provide special-teams value, and if they feel like he has the potential for a bigger role defensively, then that's a swap I could foresee.
SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
Stephen Gostkowski, Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona
Give Jake Bailey credit. It looks like he's winning the job on merit at the moment rather than draft status (which might've been enough). The fifth-round pick crushed a couple of punts in Tennessee, including a post-safety bomb that had sideline reporter Rob Ninkovich openly in awe on the broadcast immediately after the boot. Bailey is hitting hang times of five seconds or more fairly regularly, and the frequent shanks we saw early in camp appear to be a thing of the past.