We interrupt this major league All-Star break to bring you an overlong, not-nearly-informed-enough look at the Patriots’ roster. The Red Sox’ run has helped New England fans get away from football and all of its speculation for a bit. This has been a good thing, though I may have lost track of the weeks without Mike Reiss’ Sunday Quick-hit Thoughts column to guide me.
Given the talent at Foxboro, this squad could once again vie for a championship. It’s become a local pastime to dwell over this team’s negatives, but please try to remember – or just take my word for it – that not so long ago, New England had a football franchise that served as a sad, predictable punchline. Reading From Darkness To Dynasty by Jerry Thornton will, depending on your age, a) clue you in, or b) refresh your memory to the point where you’re repeating the phrase “Oh, yeah,” more than that song by Yello. Maybe the most amazing aspect about this team’s run has been its ability to help us push aside its past.
In terms of putting this roster together, I went with equal parts heart and gut. (The amount of brain involved was smaller than a Hannibal Lechter amuse-bouche.)
Rookies in italics to help keep track of the many new contributors. And off we go…
OFFENSE (25) (Probably. Math was never my strong suit.)
Quarterback (2): Tom Brady, Danny Etling
WILL BRADY QUIT MIDSEASON? I DO NOT THINK HE AND BILL BELICHICK LIKE EACH OTHER VERY MUCH NO I DO NOT!
Yiiiiikes. Just relax, guy. Let’s enjoy the team while Brady’s here, and avoid headlines with questions marks that can most often be answered “No” (“Do Brady and Belichick Hate Each Other?”). Brady should continue his record-setting run of greatness, though he and the team need to get comfortable with new receivers this summer. (More on that below). I’m putting Etling here because it’s the best way to get the rookie the time he’ll need to reach the point of possibly contributing. That means –
Tough Cut: Brian Hoyer. Yes, the Patriots can put a better offense on the field with Hoyer than Etling right now, but time and experience will go a long way toward determining future investment on the rookie. (This, by the way, is why preseason can get interesting.)
Curveball: Christian Hackenberg.
Don’t laugh. (Okay, laugh, but hear me out.) Traded from the Jets to the Raiders for a seventh-rounder this spring, then waived by the Raiders a month later, the former second-round pick has thrown as many NFL passes as you or I. Is he a dud, or is he a victim of eye-averting mismanagement? At the end of last season, when asked if the QB could play or not, Jets coach Todd Bowles said, “We don’t know if he can or can’t.” Not a good look for anyone, as summarized in this New York Post piece.
One positive sign: Hackenberg wrapped up his career at Penn State as the only 8,000-yard passer in the school’s history, achieved in a mere three years (he left early for the draft). Was coached by former New England offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien his freshman year, when he passed for 2,955 yards.
Running Back (5): Rex Burkhead, James White, Sony Michel, Brandon Bolden, James Develin
The Patriots ranked 10th in the league in rushing last season with 118 yards per game. They could continue their Cerberus-like attack, as Burkhead and White get joined by rookie Michel (not replacing, but in place of, Dion Lewis). Any one of those three brings versatility that the bigger backs currently seem to lack. Bolden stays as a special teams mainstay who will carry the ball about as often as my daughter carries her pail and shovel back to the beach parking lot. “But I’m soooo tired…”
Hoo, boy. Anyway, Develin stays, continuing his career in road-paving.
Tough Cut: Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee
No one wants Hill to succeed in Foxboro more than I do (well, probably Hill and his family. And his agent. Probably a few other people as well, like his school buds. But, beyond those folks, no one). If the 235-pounder could take on a LeGarrette-Blount-type role and run out the clock at the end of games, fantastic. Just not sure if he can bring that at a level far enough beyond what Burkhead and Michel can potentially do.
Gillislee ranks highly in the Wes Welker Appreciation List of former AFC East opponents whom Coach Belichick brought to Foxboro. Some have done well here (Welker, Chris Hogan), others not so much (tight end Scott Chandler, defender Shaun Ellis). Gillislee, who gained 383 yards last year on 104 carries (3.7 avg.) in only nine games due to injury, could dispel doubts now that he’s healthy. I just don’t see it right now, especially given his lack of contributions on special teams. (If he makes the roster, come back and roast me like a turkey linguiça.)
Practice Squad Hopeful: Ralph Webb
As we pointed out in our UDFA round-up back in early May, Webb became Vanderbilt’s career rushing leader with 4,173 yards. Despite SEC opponents finding the 1-8 Commodores about as difficult as a Sunday morning, Webb averaged 4.3 yards per carry with a total of 857 yards last season. Built like a trash compactor at 5-9, 202 pounds. Odds-on favorite to become a preseason pop star.
Wide Receiver (6): Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Jordan Matthews, Cordarelle Patterson, Braxton Berrios, Matthew Slater
It seems as though the receiving corps has become a Brooklyn beer garden with waay too many choices. From a hoppy, coffee-infused lager to a bulgur wheat brew with cranberry orange zest, Brady has quite the selection in front of him. Will it be overwhelming?
BRADY TOOK TIME AWAY FROM THE TEAM BECAUSE HE HATES BELICHICK!
Dude will you calm the eff down for a minute at least?
Sobering fact: Hogan and Dorsett are the only two receivers of this group to have caught passes from Brady last season. Hogan’s going to see a lot of throws this summer and early fall, while Dorsett will demonstrate what a full preseason with the team can do (I have probably-too-lofty expectations of the speedster, but what can I say, I’m a sucker for a 4.28-second 40-yard dash). Matthews caught 85 passes for the Eagles in 2015 and could fit as a fine complementary piece in Foxboro if he can get up to speed. Patterson’s built like a running back (6-2, 220) who returns kicks with the urgency of a teenager late for a prom date (30.2-yard career avg. and a fun watch online). Berrios will audition for the slot role, and has shown an ability to return punts (his highlight reel here). Do I need to mention Slater? Okay, fine: I predict he catches a pass this season. Overall, a fun group that will have to work through some early frustration as they develop chemistry (kind of like that aforementioned hypothetical prom date).
Suspended: Julian Edelman
Oh, the irony of taking foreign substances to rush back to play, only to get suspended for a month. Come on, man!
PUP List: Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell
Why hurry either of these guys? There’s talent on the roster that needs work. The Player Unable to Perform list seems as good a place as any to stash Britt and Mitchell for the first part of the season.
Tough Cut: Edelman and the injured receivers have, at the very least, delayed any tough cuts at the position for the beginning of the season.
Tight End (4): Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Troy Niklas, Jacob Hollister
Watching a healthy Gronk last year provided a treat for fans, as his legend continued to grow. Last year he totaled 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns on a wonderfully appropriate 69 receptions. He’s a monster (a monstah!) and he’s New England’s.
PATRIOTS WON’T PAY HIM THOUGH BECAUSE THEY’RE WICKED CHEAP!
Why are you even here? Don’t you have someplace to go?
You may like Dwayne Allen as a blocker, but Belichick looooves Dwayne Allen as a blocker. (Watch the play in question and the coach’s I-may-need-a-fainting-couch reaction starting at the 0:42 mark of this “NFL Turning Point” clip.) Allen on the line and Hollister going out for passes almost combine to make one Gronk. I have “I-should-know-better-by-now”-level expectations of Hollister as a sophomore tight end (see my previous crush on A. J. Derby), but he has proven a reliable pass-catcher when given the chance (he tallied only four receptions last year).
Niklas has the Gronk bod (6-6, 265) but has never caught more than 11 passes in a season. Is he an orchid who doesn’t do much beyond looking great on the shelf, or is he a wallflower ready to blossom fully? And have I gone too far with these metaphors?
Yeah, seems so. Anyway, solid tight end group!
Tough Cut: Will Tye
I think this guy’s going to have a great preseason, statistically. Don’t think that’s enough.
Offensive Linemen (8): Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle, Joe Thuney, Ted Karras
I put the first five linemen in that order because that’s the crew that, from left to right, saw time together in spring camp, and I find myself enamored with the idea of having a veritable Kraken at left tackle. Brown is listed at 6-8, 359, and that latter number reeks of greater underestimation than the amount of donuts I tell my wife I had.
“Who, me? Oh, like, one, probably?”
Be that as it may, the rookie Wynn could take over for Thuney, which would add an additional 25 pounds to the left guard spot. Thuney’s a great technician, but technique didn’t prevent him from getting rolled like the bottom of a snowman on a post-blizzard Saturday. With Andrews at center, Mason continuing his strong work at right guard, and the return of Cannon, this could be the strongest O-line New England has fielded in years. Thuney could provide excellent depth, with the reliable Waddle as the swing tackle. Karras has valuable experience at center and guard.
Tough Cut: Cole Croston
Croston can play just about anywhere on the line, but he could lose his spot to better competition, including Wynn, who has shown an ability to play tackle.
Defensive Linemen (4): Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Vincent Valentine
Brown and Guy did yeoman work in the middle last season, though without much depth they seemed to get worn out by the end of the playoffs. Two important building blocks to have back this season. Interesting to see what Shelton can do, as he has experience as a head-up nose guard. Does this mean more 3-lineman, 4-linebacker looks, with more aggressive blitz calls in 2019? Could get fun. I’m keeping Valentine, and not just for his goal-line stop vs. Pittsburgh lo those many years ago (it was, seriously, 2017). He’s another planetoid (6-3, 320) who didn’t get to play last year due to injury but could provide strong backup/rotation minutes for this group.
Tough Cut: Adam Butler
Last year’s undrafted rookie showed solid pass-rushing skills in 2019, wrapping up with 19 tackles and two sacks that don’t feel like they tell the whole story. Good pressure from Butler throughout, he just gets pushed out by greater talent here.
Defensive Ends/Pass Rushers (4): Adrian Clayborn, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers
Clayborn can add experience and consistency to a young group. Flowers had 6.5 sacks last season, a stat that only begins to tell the story of his ability to pressure from any spot on the line.
THE PATS AIN’T GONNA PAY HIM THOUGH JUST YOU WATCH!
Seriously, man. Go lie down in the backyard and take a nap.
Putting Wise here to see if the defensive end bumps up his second year. Stout against the run, and maybe he can improve on his five-sack total. The wild card at this spot remains Rivers, whose 2017 preseason play flashed – an appropriate word here because it proved bright and brief – before his knee injury. We do know that Rivers has athleticism and one year of experience in this system, enough to keep expectations above average.
Tough Cuts: Eric Lee, Keionta Davis
In only six games for New England, Lee tallied 19 tackles, 3.5 sacks (including a safety vs. the Jets), and an interception. He filled his role admirably in a short amount of time (his highlight reel at Buffalo speaks for itself), it just seems like he’ll get beaten out by better athletes. Would love to see Davis compete for a role here, especially given his raw abilities (6-3, 271 pounds, 4.72-second 40, 30 bench reps at his pro day). At this point, his lack of chances to show what he can do keeps him from making this imaginary, no-impact-whatsoever roster.
Cue the song parody to the tune of the Dionne Warwick/Elton John/Stevie Wonder/Gladys Knight classic: “That’s what (preseason games) are forrrrr…”
Linebackers (7): Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Marquis Flowers, Harvey Langi, Brandon King, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Christian Sam
Hightower will bring back the toughness against the run that New England lacked in the playoffs. His strength in taking on blockers as well as rushing the passer (oh, yes, Dont’a, we remember), will solidify the defense, as Van Noy and Flowers serve better as complements than main pieces. Interested to see what Langi can do after some notable plays early before a nasty car crash ended his season: in his final two years at BYU, the 6-2, 250-pounder compiled 6.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. King’s work on special teams keeps him in Foxboro.
Ah, the rookies. Neither one’s a speedster, but Bentley combines toughness and savvy, while Sam seemed to make plays all over the field (a whopping 127 tackles for Arizona State in 2017). Their versatility could factor in to confusing offenses as they gain experience.
Oh, want highlights? Sure. Here’s Bentley, and here’s Sam in his sophomore year, when he had a mere 98 tackles.
Tough Cut: Elandon Roberts
Hard to let go of a guy Matt Chatham once referred to as “a bouncing ball of butcher knives,” but the rookies need some roster space, and Roberts, who may have hit his threshold, may not be able to provide much beyond what others can.
Cornerbacks (6): Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson
WHY DIDN’T BELICHICK PLAY MALCOLM BUTLER? IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!
Will you just shut your… oh. Yeah, I don’t know, either.
Gilmore is back and remains the best DB on the team, a sentence very few of us were saying a little less than a year ago. McCourty was hampered by an injury during camp but should help, especially as he will have that weird twin telecommunication thing happening with his brother. Rowe proved a solid starter. I think the Patriots missed Jonathan Jones in the playoffs more than they realized they would; he remains an excellent special-teamer who could provide slot help. Speaking of which, Dawson seems like a ready-made slot defender, another point of interest for these NFL summer games.
Hey there, Cyrus Jones. I just can’t quit you. Would surprise more people if he makes the roster than if he doesn’t, but the talent remains. If I were Belichick –
BUT YOU ARE NOT THOUGH! NOT AT ALL!
Okay okaaayy for Pete’s sake…
– make that an all-caps “IF” – I’d have Cyrus Jones immersed in everything even remotely resembling punt returns. I’d have him delivering parcels on foot, catching baked hams off a top shelf, playing tag with dogs while carrying a slippery bag of liver through a canine obstacle course. I wouldn’t just have him sleep with a football, I’d make him take that football to city hall and make it official. This is it for Cyrus Jones. We’ll see what happens.
Tough Cuts: Keion Crossen, Ryan Lewis
New England drafted Crossen in the seventh round, fitting him firmly in the 3-Cone Guy category for the “That Guy” draft series. The Western Carolina product lacks size (5-9, 178) but not much else, as he ran a 4.33-second 40, leaped a vertical of 39.5 inches, had a 10-11 broad jump, and completed a pinballish 6.67-second 3-cone drill that would have been the fourth-quickest among corners at the NFL combine. If Cyrus Jones can’t get it together, Crossen has the pieces that might fit. Lewis is similarly athletic (4.37 40, 6.87 3-cone), plus he’s 5-11 and has one year of experience on the Patriots’ practice squad. Some potential young depth for New England, here.
Wake up, Cyrus! It’s ham-catching time!
Safeties (4): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner
Not as much youth nor depth here as one would want. McCourty and Chung will both be 31 by Week One of the season (both have August birthdays). It’s not retirement time yet, but safe to say that neither player got faster last year. Harmon, a comparable spring chicken at 27, could see an expanded role that he seems more than able to handle. Ebner continues on special teams, possibly taking up more of a run support role closer to the line of scrimmage. Maybe the other McCourty could contribute at the safety level? He’s got some things to learn, but he also has a familiar study partner.
Tough Cut: Jordan Richards. Prediction: the second-round pick won’t make it to the roster this fall. Adieu, Monsieur Richards. Wish you were as good on the football field as you were off of it.
Curveball: Eric Reid
The only impediment to this signing should be a high price tag for the talented, experienced Reid, who is getting the league-wide Heisman treatment in part due to kneeling during the anthem. Under Belichck, the Patriots have signed players accused of using PEDs, driving while impaired, and even punching a police officer. Taking a knee in protest shouldn’t matter so much.
SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
Kicker/Punter/Longsnapper: Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona
I think we should have more concerns about Gostkowski. Last season he missed three extra points, one of those in the Super Bowl. In 2016, he missed five extra points, two of those in the playoffs. In 2015, he went perfect on regular-season PATs (52 of 52), but missed his only attempt at Denver, forcing Brady to pass for a 2-pointer that failed. In the past three regular seasons, he has made 96.5 percent of his extra-point kicks (his 96.8 percent in 2017 ranked 11th in the league). In the past three playoffs, he’s made 81.5 percent. A very good kicker overall, but at this point, his post-season reliability has become a concern.
Allen punts; Cardona snaps. If rookie punter Corey Bojorquez wants to come in and give us something to read about this preseason, sounds fine. Like Allen, he’s a lefty. He may have more leg but, like a college kid building a beer can pyramid, he needs to focus on his placement.
Curveball: Josh Gable
A trick kicker and punter (video here, with NSFW lyrics for some silly reason), Gable can make field goals from 85 yards away. He had a workout with the Patriots last year. Let’s do this. Let’s have some summer fun, Coach Belichick!
Sooo … am I wrong? Of course! Of course I’m wrong! That’s half the point. Now you tell me where you disagree, and after the roster gets compiled in September I’ll come back here and give you the ol’ what-for.
See you later this month.
Chris Warner thought more one-hit wonders existed in the 1980s than any other decade, but hearing “Dizz Knee Land” recently got him re-thinking this point. His email is email@example.com, Twitter @cwarn89.