New England Patriots Roster Battles - Offense

by Hal Bent,

I'm back from vacation and the New England Patriots are half-way through the preseason and find the roster jumble seemingly in flux.  In fairness, any moves are going to come from the bottom end of the roster and be found in players number 45 to 53 on the roster.  Starters and top back-up are fairly well established throughout the offense and defense.  

The first shot has already been fired with the release of DT Jonathan Fanene.  As the top free-agent brought in to shore up the defense, Fanene and his injured knees are on the outside looking in and likely to be fighting to keep his signing bonus.  Just a few weeks ago (see my link here: Questions) I posited that the Patriots would spring a big name veteran that no one saw coming (I figured it was Ron Brace or Jermaine Cunningham, both who look close to earning a spot this season), and Fanene fits the bill.

Forget that this whole "undisclosed injury" thing is going on, I am sure Bill Belichick has no reservation of wasting $3.85 million of Robert Kraft's money to send a message to his entire roster to let them know that they are in competition for a roster spot.  Belichick has no reservations about eating money to put the best players on the field at all times.  Bill Belichick has one goal, and that is to win. Period.  He's not there to stroke egos or let bozos run around unchecked.  No matter who you are, the team is in the business of winning games, and if you are not part of the solution, you are going out that door.  This is a huge wake up call to the under-achieving veterans (*cough-cough*Dan Koppen*cough-cough*) taking up valuable salary cap space. 

Key spots remain in wide receiver, running back, and back-up tight ends on offense.  The offensive line is still an open competition. On defense, back-up spots on the line and at linebacker (Mike Rivera, it is time to shine!) as well as the final spots in defensive back-field warrant attention as training camp winds down with a ridiculous three games in ten days.  Here's a quick peek at the remaining battles coming down to the wire starting with the offense (defense to follow shortly!):

    • With speedy rookie U of Florida running back Jeff Demps running back kicks in his first practice, running backs Danny Woodhead and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden are served notice.  Both draft picks from last season, Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley have impressed in the preseason games, and with so many wide receivers to choose from, Nick Caserio and Bill Belichick must be thinking they have five running backs to fill four roster spots.  Would the Patriots release third-down specialist Danny Woodhead? Can Jeff Demps (who looks like he would be dynamic in that role) pick up the offense and steal his roster spot?  Does bruiser Brandon Bolden have to fight for a spot on the practice squad with Vereen and Ridley looking ready to hold onto the 1A and 1B running back spots?  Is there even space for Spencer Larsen to sneak onto the roster as a fullback? Two games are all that is left to answer a lot of questions here.
    • Jeff Demps returning kicks does not bode well for Julian Edelman, despite his punt-return role and versatility on offense and defense.  With Edelman and special teams captain Matthew Slater (technically grouped in with the wide receivers) most likely to stick due to their end-of-roster flexibility and core-four special teams role. That leaves Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd locked in and Deion Branch, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte' Stallworth fighting for one or two roles at the most.  
    • At tight end, there are the big two locked in (Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski) and then...well, I don't see Visanthe Shiancoe on the field at all, let alone making the roster.  Daniel Fells is finally healthy and stands to make the team as the blocking tight end with some receiving skills. 
    •  There are issues aplenty on the offensive line.  Don't buy the hype about tackle Nate Solder not able to replace Matt Light. He outplayed Light there last season and lest anyone forget, Light was hardly Bruce Armstrong on the edge (I still have nightmares of Jason Taylor flying past Matt Light like he was a turnstile). Right tackle desperately needs a healthy Seabass. Sebastian Vollmer has shown he can do the job, when healthy.  Behind Vollmer is Marcus Cannon, who desperately needs work in the Dante Scarnecchia boot-camp this season and maybe next as well.  The size is there, the technique is lacking.  
    • Without a true backup tackle after Cannon, the big battles are inside.  No one knows if Brian Waters is back, but Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly are locks inside. Dan Koppen needs to get up to speed to stay on the roster and earn a spot as a starter, and if Waters retires, Koppen at center with Mankins and Connolly stands to be the best starting line-up.  The rest of the inside back-ups are a battle between Ryan Wendell, Nick McDonald, and Donald Thomas for maybe two spots, though all three could return if Waters is gone.  None of the three have stood out this summer, but McDonald can play all 5 spots on the line, and that is worth its weight in gold with Bill Belichick.  Wendell can backup at center and both guard spots, so he stays as well.  Thomas needs to show what he can do these last two preseason games.
Defense to come later this weekend, but the battle on offense is going to be full-tilt for the last spots available.  Time to review the film from the Tampa game and see who is looking at a pink slip in their future.