New England Patriots Roster Battles - Defense

by Hal Bent,

I'm back from vacation and the New England Patriots are now more than 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.  

Key spots remain 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 on defense (Find the roster battles on offense here): 

  • Defensive Line (Tackles and Ends):
    • Start with the roster locks: Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love at tackle, and Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich at end. Beyond those four, all the spots are up in the air.  With defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene already surprisingly released with a battle looming about whether he is able to collect his almost $4 million dollar signing bonus. 
    • The big decision at defensive tackle involves whether the Patriots carry four or five big men in the middle. Ron Brace has played his way into a roster spot this summer, and now the decision looms with Brandon Deaderick and veteran Gerard Warren for likely one position available.  Deaderick has youth and size, but has not always shown up in the preseason.  Bill Belichick knows exactly what he will get out of Warren, having him as a steady presence these past two years. Marcus Forston is likely headed to the waiver wire and a possible practice squad spot.  Marcus Harrison has not made enough plays to make the team, and Myron Pryor has not been healthy enough to make the practice field and will likely be on the PUP list to start the year.
    • At defensive end, expect one-time bust Jermaine Cunningham to win a spot.  Cunningham, after a failed attempt to play OLB in a 3-4 defense, has looked great at DE in a 4-3 and even moving inside to rush the passer in the nickle and dime defenses.  That flexibility bodes well for Cunningham.  Trevor Scott, a veteran brought in has made the plays and should be a lock.  That leaves the surprising Justin Francis battling 3rd round pick Jake Bequette (sorry, Tim Bulman, hope for the practice squad to have a spot).  Bill Belichick won't hesitate to drop a 3rd round pick if he is outplayed by another player, and somehow I doubt Bequette would make it to the practice squad.  Francis has impressed so much, it is hard to see Bequette beating him out.
  • Linebackers:
    • Again, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower, and Bobby Carpenter should not be sweating out any visit from the turk.  That leaves the special teams crew fighting for back up spots.  At this time, it appears as if Tracy White and Niko Koutouvides should make the squad based on their contributions to special teams.  Neither is worthy of playing a regular season snap with a less than 28 point lead, but I really did not see enough out of Mike Rivera or Jeff Tarpinian to see either make the team.  Tarpinian made the squad as an undrafted free agent last year and with the injury to Dane Fletcher had the inside track to a job, but has not been the same player this season he was prior to injury last year.  Rivera is a young veteran who just looks a step behind out on the field, even against the other second-teamers. Aaron Lavarias was just camp fodder.  Good luck catching another team's eye, kid.
  • Defensive Backs (Cornerbacks and Safeties):
    • The starters in the base, nickle and dime defense are set in the secondary, as the Patriots will live and die with cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, and Ras-I Dowling and safeties Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, and second-round pick Tavon Wilson.  After the top six, it's a jumble.
    • Cornerbacks Sterling Moore, Marquice Cole, and safety Nate Ebner should be locks on the roster.  I hope Will Allen sticks with his veteran savvy, flexibility to play corner and safety, and good play this summer. Ten defensive backs leave a lot of players on the outside looking in.  
    • Safety Sergio Brown is terrible and has shown he never belonged on the field. Safety Josh Barrett went from promising to bust and James Ihedigbo should be on the injury short list since he knows the defense and no one else would waste a roster spot on him.  Ross Ventrone has lovely hair and limited skills.  Buh-bye to him and Malcolm Williams.  I did not even realize practice fodder Derrick Martin was still on the 90 man roster!   
    • Alfonzo Dennard is the tough call in the secondary. The seventh round pick cornerback has been injured much of camp.  He was a supposed draft steal with third round talent.  He is ineligible for the PUP list and just got healthy. How he will show enough to make the squad looks unlikely.  Also unlikely is sneaking a talented defensive back through waivers.  Hopefully, Dennard will "tweak" "something" and have a "red-shirt" season on inured reserve.  I don't see any other way he can stick.

Well, I didn't think I'd get this in before the cuts.  Somehow did it. Let's see how it all works out.