Saturday, September 01, 2012

New England Patriots - Roster Gets Tight

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Well, so much for the idea of the New England Patriots offense under new/old Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels being a radical change back to 2007's version of a pound and bomb offense with wide receivers and fullbacks on the field.  After bringing in a number of fullbacks and wide receivers from these past teams, the offense looked again like Brady and a number of veteran receivers on the field.  However, reality interceded, and Patriots have looked at their team and concluded that this team really is essentially running at all times with a slot receiver (Wes Welker currently), and outside receiver (Brandon Lloyd) and the two-headed tight end monster (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) along with a running back (take your pick based on down and distance). 

The big surprise was the cut of wide receiver Deion Branch who many thought was a lock to make the roster as Tom Brady's security blanket.  To me, the surprise was the cut of wide receiver Jabar Gaffney who looked like he had a little hop in his step and good hands before being injured in the pre-season.  Branch looked slow and Donte Stallworth had hands of stone this summer. As the Patriots are down to four wide receivers, the expectation is that despite keeping four tight ends, another wide out other than special teams mavens Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater is needed for depth.  

Seventh round pick Nate Ebner is a candidate for the practice squad, but I would not discount Jabar Gaffney being back on the team once he is healthy.  One thing to watch with any veteran cut before the season is that the team can bring the player back after the season starts, on a non-guaranteed contract for the season. That leaves a glimmer of hope for bringing back a veteran and sneaking a young player through waivers to the practice squad when the other teams roster is set and less likely to be scooped up while other teams circle the Patriots cuts like vultures.

It was no surprise that tight-end Daniel Fells made the roster despite injuries early in camp.  Visanthe Shiancoe making the roster while sitting in the trainers room was the biggest surprise of all.  The obvious explanation is Super Bowl XLII.  Without a viable option with Rob Gronkowski injured, the offense struggled as Gronkowski was not effective as a receiver or blocker.  With no depth behind him, the offense sputtered out against a Giants defense that needed a big play receiver or strong running game to off-set the lack of big plays in the passing game.  Exit Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis and enter Brandon Lloyd and a myriad group of tight ends and receivers to provide depth behind the big play offensive players. No doubt Super Bowl XLII was in the back of Bill Belichick's mind as he set the roster this summer.

At quarterback, the team goes again with only two, as Brian Hoyer and his $1.9 million dollar contract hits the road.  It was very surprising that there wasn't a market for Hoyer via a trade for a draft pick before the roster was trimmed.  Of course, Hoyer was a restricted free agent this off-season and was available to any other team for the cost of a draft pick.  Not one nibble.  Apparently, Hoyer is not equal to former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel in the minds of the other teams.  Ryan Mallett looked like the better quarterback this off-season, and showed the growth needed to lock down the back-up quarterback spot.  Look for a young QB to be added to the practice squad at some point.

At running back, it was no big surprise that Brandon Bolden made the team. Bill Belichick wisely handed-out a redshirt to rookie running back/kick returner Jeff Demps.  Demps may be the first Patriot on the new short-term injured reserve.  The team can keep him now without going through waivers (where he would no doubt be snapped up).  After missing training camp, Demps clearly needs polishing and can serve to digest the playbook and get from sprinter conditioning to football ready. 

With no fullbacks on the roster, speculation runs high that one will still be added.  Tony Fiammetta was expected to compete with Spencer Larsen.  Larsen was placed on injured reserve and Fiammetta left the team for personal reasons.  Eric Kettani really was not a true fullback and had little chance of making the squad.  The good news for Josh McDaniels is that there are plenty of fullbacks that get cut each summer.  Right now, Ovie Mughelli was released by the St. Louis Rams and Jacob Hester was bounced out of San Diego. Either one could very easily be scooped up by the Patriots. 

The offensive line was reset with veteran Dan Koppen getting cut.  When a veteran is out on the field fighting for a job in the fourth pre-season game against a younger veteran who makes a lot less, the writing is on the wall.  With Nick McDonald earning a spot with his versatility and Donald Thomas performing well in his pre-season appearances, the spot came down to Ryan Wendell and Koppen.  Wendell performed as well as Koppen, and earns a lot less.  The Brian Waters question still remains unanswered, but expect a resolution soon.

Not quite the same fireworks on defense, as the big surprises were the players who snuck onto the roster.  Rookie Justin Francis, Marcus Fortson and Jake Bequette earned a spot on a defensive line that desperately needs athleticism and youth.  Mission accomplished. Add in the resurgent draft busts, Jermaine Cunningham and Ron Brace, and veteran Trevor Scott, and the Patriots big guys on defense are reloaded and ready to contribute.

At linebacker, the three starters and top back-up Bobby Carpenter are set.  Jeff Tarpinian, last year's wonder and veteran special teams player Niko Koutouvides got cut.  Surprisingly, veterans Tracy White (injured all of camp) and Mike Rivera edged their way onto the roster.  Rivera just plain outplayed Tarpinian, plain and simple.  Being last year's star is not worth anything this year.  

At cornerback, rookie Alfonzo Dennard and second-year player Sterling Moore showed enough in the pre-season game to earn another look at a position desperate in need.  Marquice Cole fortunately earned his way on the roster. He impressed on both special teams and in the defensive backfield. Rookie safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner stepped up and impressed this pre-season, leaving Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo looking for work on the waiver wire.  

As far as sticking on the practice squad, wide receiver Nate Ebner seems likely to stick if he clears waivers. Tight end Alex Silvestro showed enough as a big body (moving from defensive end to learn a new position) who can back-up Gronkowksi in the future and should gain a spot to develop this season. All four rookie free agent offensive linemen showed flashes of potential to take a shot developing them.  Add Derek Dennis, Dustin Waldron, Jeremiah Warren and Darrion Weems to the practice squad roster if they clear waivers.  Always expect a player that the Patriots have an eye on from another squad, or perhaps another player cut (tackle Matt Kopa, receiver Jesse Holley, defensive lineman Marcus Harrison) can squeak onto the squad.

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