This weekend, roughly 1,184 players will be released as the NFL’s 32 teams reduce rosters from 90 down to 53.
A few hundred of those players will be unusable — too old, too inexperienced or just plain not good enough to play in the league this year.
More of them will have a chance to fit someplace. GMs and pro personnel directors will descend on the discards, trying to find players who were victimized by a numbers crunch or were just plain given up on too early.
And then they “churn.”
Turnover at the end of the roster means the last players on the active squad as well as on the 10-man practice squad are always being eyed for replacement. Meanwhile, jobless players have their faces pressed against the window hoping their agents can get them in someplace.
Not a lot of them will have a chance to fit in New England.
Having played in four of the last six Super Bowls — winning three of them — the Patriots roster is populated with talented players. And in the last two offseasons, they unearthed a slew of promising players — drafted and undrafted — that should help keep the assembly line in working order.
Even so, the Patriots are notorious churners. So with that in mind, let’s look at where the Patriots are stacked and where they lack as the opener approaches.
This position is absolutely confounding. They have a lot of players who’ve had NFL success. But aside from Julian Edelman, would you be willing to bet $500 that N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas or Phillip Dorsett will catch more than 40 balls this year? I wouldn’t. Somebody’s going to. I just don’t know who. And neither do the Patriots.
To me, the murkiness surrounding Harry, the first-round rookie from Arizona State, is the most perplexing issue. He tweaked his leg during joint practices in Detroit on August 6. Hurt it again during the game August 8 after two great catches and has been a virtual ghost since. This is where Bill Belichick’s habit of not discussing or disclosing injuries does the player no favors.
Harry didn’t appear in great disrepair when he left the field. It’s going on three weeks of inactivity and managed participation. So did he reaggravate it? Is it worse than it appeared? Because if neither of those things occurred and Harry just isn’t feeling “right” still it’s as if Belichick’s justification for not spending first-round picks on receivers is sitting right there in the cold tub.
So wide receiver is a where they have individual pieces but the position as a whole lacks.
The Patriots have the best quarterback in NFL history at the top of the depth chart, a “still kinda has it” backup who’s made 37 NFL starts and a 23-year-old rookie with a live arm and a lot of appeal. This is a position that is stacked and it’s going to be interesting to see how the team manages it this weekend.
Tom Brady’s not going anywhere unless a seismic trade is going to drop from the heavens. I’m joking. Mostly. The Patriots aren’t going to release Jarrett Stidham and hope he goes unclaimed so they can put him on their practice squad. He’s got too much promise to expose like that. Which means the decision is whether or not to release Brian Hoyer and leave Stidham a heartbeat from the starter’s job.
I believe the Patriots will let Hoyer go. Brady’s durability is legend. Stidham will benefit from not having to share reps with Hoyer in practice. And, if nobody else signs Hoyer, he’s a phone call away if disaster strikes. Of course a team like the Colts may swoop in and try to bring Hoyer in for depth behind Jacoby Brissett (and find out Hoyer may actually be better than Brissett), but c’est la vie.
That’s what happens when a position is stacked!
This position is deep as a puddle and it’s mind-blowing when you look at the efforts made to populate the spot. The Patriots signed Austin Seferian-Jenkins on April 10. Less than two months later, the team released him as he was dealing with personal issues. Both Benjamin Watson and Lance Kendricks will start the season serving PED suspensions (Watson for four games, Kendricks just one). Jared Cook, the best tight end on the market, was pursued by the Patriots but chose the Saints. The best young tight end, Jesse James, signed with the Lions before the Patriots even appeared to get in the hunt.
The Patriots instead signed Matt LaCosse who has been fighting to stay healthy. Second-year seventh-rounder Ryan Izzo has played the most preseason snaps at tight end but he’s never played in a regular-season game and is more noteworthy as a blocker than a pass-catcher. A move this weekend will almost surely be made at this position that lacks.
The Patriots seem to have this spot exactly where they want it.
They have their early-down back in Sony Michel and they’re working to expand his skill set as a pass-catcher to make the offense less predictable when he’s on the field. Rex Burkhead has so far made it through camp healthy and is the team’s best dual threat back. James White is — behind Edelman — the pass-catcher Tom Brady is going to rely on the most probably for the entire year. And rookie Damien Harris can lighten the load on Michel.
Belichick described the Patriots AFCCG approach in the soon-to-be-aired “Do Your Job Part III” as, “Offensively it was to try to have some balance, not play the game from behind where we had to throw every down and let them tee off on the quarterback.” It worked in that game. It worked in the next game. The hope and expectation will be that it works in many games this season too.
This is a running team and they Patriots are stacked at running back.
At the top of the depth chart, I think the Patriots are going to be recognized as having one of the best situations in the league. Isaiah Wynn looks that good. What’s dicey is the depth behind him. Throughout training camp, Wynn’s backup has been Dan Skipper. He’s not been up to the job.
If push came to shove and it was the regular season, the team could mix and shuffle and put Joe Thuney out there and figure it out at left guard. Maybe they could swap Marcus Cannon over. But David Andrews’ illness is causing a domino effect on the offensive line depth.
The Patriots have a very good line and solid backups but they are going to need more bodies so that — if Wynn or anyone else goes down — the line doesn’t go from strength to liability.
The most important skill position player the Patriots have is Edelman. The team has to get away from sending him back to field punts at the age of 33, especially since he’s probably going to be targeted eight to 12 times per game with passes too.
Who becomes the punt returner? Throughout preseason, Gunner Olszewski fielded the lion’s share and — while he did have some decent returns — it’s hard to overstate how slight the undrafted rookie from Bemidji State is. He looks like a high school senior. Braxton Berrios, a second-year player, is also small but a bit more sturdy. Outside of those two, nobody has been returning punts during the preseason games.
Is the plan to put Edelman back there in harm’s way, to keep either of these two on the roster to play slot and return punts or to go find someone? We will find out soon enough, but it’s a spot that lacks currently.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.