Just when the Patriots defense starts to take a step forward in their play, they just took two steps backwards with the news that linebacker Dont’a Hightower will miss the rest of the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Hightower is not only the leader on defense, but also the team’s top player at their weakest position which is linebacker. The team will have some decisions to make on how they go about replacing their star linebacker, whether it be through inside the organization or outside of it through a trade or signing someone off the streets.
The productivity and level of play that Hightower gives, the Patriots likely won’t be able to replace with just one player and might have to make several roster moves going forward. One move that the team is almost certain to make is removing linebacker Shea McClellin off of the injured reserve list when he is eligible to be taken off. The first game McClellin would be eligible to play in is on November 12th against the Denver Broncos following the team’s bye week. McClellin’s presence should help the Patriots linebackers in coverage against backs and tight ends, an area where the team has struggled mightily this season. Given the lack of depth at the linebacker position McClellin should be able to step in and contribute right away.
One thing that might be overlooked with the Hightower injury is his pass rushing ability and how this affects the defensive line. The Patriots really only have two true defensive ends and pass rushers in Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr., as well as Cassius Marsh who has goes into the game in certain third down situations but is primarily a special team’s player. Kyle Van Noy has the ability to rush the passer but doesn’t quite have the consistency and skill of Hightower of getting after the quarterback. The Patriots could turn to a couple of familiar faces to help in this aspect of the defense including Rob Ninkovich, who announced his retirement this summer but didn’t 100 percent rule out a possible comeback, and free agent Akeem Ayers who was a member of the Patriots 2014 Super Bowl team and is someone the team worked out at the beginning of the season. It is unknown what either guy has left in the tank and what they would be able to contribute, but their knowledge of the defense would allow them to be able to step in and contribute right away.
While its unknown what players could be on the trade block, someone who the Patriots could be interested in is also another familiar face in Jonathan Casillas. Like Ayers, Casillas was acquired by the Patriots mid-season in 2014 and was part of the Super Bowl Champion team and has familiarity with the defense. Following the 2014 Casillas signed with the New York Giants, with whom he still plays for, but with their 1-6 record they could look to trade some players and rebuild in the offseason. If available Casillas is someone I would expect the Patriots to look into before the trade deadline October 31st.
The Patriots are now on their third week of training camp and set to play their first preseason game later this week against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team has yet to make any roster moves outside of the retirement of veteran Rob Ninkovich. It may only be the beginning of August, but let’s take a look at what the Patriots 53-man roster could look like a month from now when the regular season begins.
Quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett
Brady and Garoppolo are obvious locks to make the roster, there has been some talk on whether the Patriots hold onto Brissett and keep him on the 53-man roster or move on from the second year quarterback. Ultimately I think the Patriots hold onto Brissett, the team placed him on Injured Reserve with eligibility to return last year and traveled with the team during this time. There have also been reports on how much the team likes his toughness and leadership, both traits he showed last year as a rookie. Brissett still needs some time to develop and isn’t ready to be an NFL quarterback right now, but as a third round pick only a year ago shows a lot of potential and will stay on the 53 man roster, even though the team doesn’t necessarily need to carry a third quarterback.
Running Back: James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, James Develin
Gillislee and Burkhead were both signed this offseason and look to play big roles with the team, especially Gillislee who looks to take over as the feature/powerback role previously held by LaGarrette Blount. Super Bowl hero James White was also given a contract extension this offseason and is a lock to make the roster. Dion Lewis has played great for the team when healthy and is capable of playing a few different roles on offense and can contribute as a return man on special teams. Brandon Bolden misses out on the 53-man roster in this projection, Bolden plays primarily as a special teamer and contributes little to the offense throughout the season. The roster having as much depth as it does makes it hard for Bolden to make the roster as a guy who primarily contributes on just special teams, which the team already has several of.
Wide Receiver:Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell
Probably the easiest position on the team to project for. It’s fair to say that all five of these guys are locks to make the roster. One question could be is would the team consider keeping six wide receivers? Undrafted rookie free agent Austin Carr was the very last guy who didn’t make the roster when I was putting this projection. Carr has had a very good camp so far and looks to capitalize during preseason games and fight for one of the final roster spots on the final roster and is someone the Patriots might not be able to sneak onto the practice squad. I did not consider Matthew Slater as a wide receiver since he just plays special teams.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel
Gronk is back and has looked great and healthy so far during training camp. Allen has been inconsistent so far and have been some reports that he has struggled to learn the offense, but is far too talented at a weak position outside of Gronkowski to not make the team. The third tight end spot could easily be a few different people but I give it to Lengel for now. Lengel played in limited action last year after the injury to Gronkowski and has familiarity with the offense, and was a big contributor towards the end of the season and during the playoffs last year for the Patriots. Lengel can contribute both as a blocker and a receiver, which can help add multiple dimensions to the teams offense when he is in the game. James O’Shaughnessy and Lengel are the top two guys competing for the third tight end spot, but rookie free agent Jacob Hollister could be someone who could make an impression during the preseason as he would provide the offense with more of a receiver-tight end role compared to more of a blocking tight end role like Lengel or O’Shaughnessy.
Offensive Line:Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Tony Garcia, Ted Karras, Cameron Fleming
The starting five from last year are locks to make the roster, as well as Joe Thuney who was the top backup interior lineman last season and rookie Tony Garcia who will be the teams primary backup tackle. The last offensive lineman spot goes to Cameron Fleming, who was last year’s top backup tackle and has proven to be inconsistent throughout his career in New England and so far, in camp. In joint practices with the Jaguars, Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue was treating Fleming like a revolving door constantly beating Fleming in the absence of Nate Solder. Fleming gets the upper hand over LaAdrian Waddle, who was on the 53-man roster last season but was not active for a single game, and rookie Connor McDermott who the Patriots could look to put on the practice squad.
Defensive Line: Trey Flowers, Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown, Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr., Derek Rivers, Vincent Valentine, Kony Ealy, Geneo Grissom
Flowers, Branch, Guy, Wise, Rivers, and Valentine are all locks to make the roster based on last year’s production, draft spot, and contract received this offseason. Wise has had a great training camp so far and could look to start at defensive end opposite Trey Flowers if he continues to impress during preseason action. Kony Ealy and Geneo Grissom are two guys who could be fighting for one roster spot on the Patriots defensive line depending on how the rest of training camp and the preseason goes. Ealy was acquired in a trade this offseason with the Carolina Panthers and was expected to play a big role in the Patriots defense this season. The start of training camp hasn’t been a good one so far for Ealy though, he missed the first day of training camp for unknown reason and when asked was told to ask coach Bill (Belichick) about why he wasn’t out there. He has also had his struggles in camp and hasn’t been able to beat offensive tackles and generate pressure on a consistent basis. Both of these factors could end up in Ealy not making the final roster.
Linebacker: Dont’a Hightower, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Harvey Langi
Hightower is an obvious lock and so is former Jet David Harris, everyone else there could be a case why they should make the team and a case why they couldn’t make it. Van Noy, McClellin and Roberts all saw a good amount of playing time last season, they all had their ups and downs and were inconsistent at times but have shown enough to make the roster again in 2017. Langi is an undrafted free agent who the Patriots were high on during the draft process partly due to his versatility of being able to play both inside and outside linebacker as well as being able to rush the passer as a defensive end. Langi has had a good camp so far and should be able to build on it during preseason games and earn a spot on the final roster.
Cornerback:Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones
Butler, Gilmore and Rowe are all locks to make the team and be part of a Patriots defense and secondary that should be one of the top in the league. Jonathan Jones played well in the slot late last season and so far, has the upper hand to be the teams nickel and slot corner and also contributes on special teams. Cyrus Jones had his struggles last season as a rookie and is looking to bounce back in his second season. Jones has a lot of talent and potential and was evident that his special teams struggles last season affected him mentally and on the defensive side of the ball. If the Patriots hold Cyrus off of special teams he could look to contribute in a positive way defensively.
Safety: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner, Brandon King
The only real question out of this group is Jordan Richards, who hasn’t played too much over his first few seasons in New England after being selected in the second round. Richards has looked good so far early into training camp before having some struggles during joint practices with the Jaguars. Ebner and King and mostly special teams players who occasionally play and contribute on defense, but will make the roster due to their special teams excellence. Six safeties seem like it could be too many to carry but Ebner and King being primarily special teamers could earn Richards a spot on the final roster in case of any injury that occurs.
Special Teams: Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Matthew Slater, Joe Cardona
The only real surprise when it comes to special teams is that the Patriots don’t have any one in to compete with Gostkowski who struggled drastically last season and missed two field goals during yesterday’s first joint practice with the Jaguars.
The Patriots take on the Jaguars Thursday night for their first preseason action of the year. As preseason and training camp goes by I’ll continue to update my 53-man projection based on players performances and team needs going forward.
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