FOXBOROUGH — A Super Bowl MVP, a Pro Bowl center, and the quarterback presumed to be Tom Brady’s top backup were among the players released by the Patriots on Friday as they whittled their roster from 75 players to the league-mandated 53.
New England is actually at 52 players: The team released 22 players and placed rookie Jeff Demps on injured reserve. Demps injured his lower right leg Wednesday night against the Giants.
Deion Branch, Dan Koppen, and Brian Hoyer were the big names among those New England cut ties with on one of the toughest days on the NFL calendar, and it should be expected that the Patriots will make more personnel moves in the days to come.
Branch left New England for what turned out to be four-plus seasons, traded to Seattle for a fourth-round pick on the eve of the 2006 season after a contract dispute. But he returned in 2010 after the Patriots’ relationship with Randy Moss soured, lured back in part by his close friend Brady.
The 32-year-old Branch is still effective in short space, dependable, and a great teammate; it was believed that after New England cut Jabar Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth earlier in the week that Branch had a chance to stick, but for now at least that isn’t the case.
The Patriots now have just four wide receivers on the roster — Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Matthew Slater — and Slater is almost strictly a special teams player.
Coach Bill Belichick indicated on Thursday that the players on the roster Friday night might not be the same ones come the Sept. 9 opener against Tennessee, which is really nothing new. Last year, for example, the Patriots signed guard Brian Waters and claimed long snapper Danny Aiken off waivers eight days before the opener.
New England was looking for a fullback on Friday, and two better ones were released: Ovie Mughelli and Jacob Hester.
Mughelli was with the Rams in camp, but has spent the last five seasons with the Falcons; a 2010 Pro Bowler, he missed nine games last season because of a knee injury. Hester was a third-round pick of the Chargers in 2008. It would not be unexpected to see either end up with the Patriots.
They also are likely in the market for another receiver.
The release of Hoyer, who is beginning his fourth season, was something of a surprise, primarily because it means that second-year Ryan Mallett is the safety net in case something happens to Brady.
Hoyer was a restricted free agent, and the Patriots had tendered him at the second-round level, meaning he was due to make a guaranteed $1.927 million.
New England was pleased with his development, particularly his footwork, and Hoyer remained an accurate passer.
Though he was not impressive in his preseason appearances, Mallett has shown growth since his rookie year, and apparently showed enough to make the Patriots comfortable with the move to jettison Hoyer.
As for Koppen, he was another player who seemed to be in the clear once he made it through Monday’s round of cuts, though he has been on the bubble since camp began. It is believed that Ryan Wendell had outplayed him.
The release of Branch and Koppen means there are just two players on the Patriots’ roster who won Super Bowl rings with the team: Brady and Vince Wilfork.
Currently, New England has just 22 players on offense and 27 on defense, plus its three specialists.
Other veteran players released included safety James Ihedigbo, who played in all 19 games last season (including playoffs), starting 15, despite a shoulder injury that required surgery after the season. Ihedigbo did miss some time in camp, which could have hurt his chances; also, rookie Tavon Wilson proved to be a versatile addition to the secondary.
Linebackers Niko Koutouvides, who played in eight games, and Jeff Tarpinian, who made the roster as an undrafted rookie and played in seven games last season, were cut.
Also released: DBs Derrick Martin and Malcolm Williams, DE Aaron Lavarias, OL Matt Kopa, FB Eric Kettani, TE Alex Silvestro, WRs Jesse Holley and Kerry Taylor, and DL Marcus Harrison; as well as rookies Jeremy Ebert, a seventh-round draft pick; Darrion Weems, Derek Dennis, Dustin Waldron, and Jeremiah Warren, all offensive linemen; and TE Tyler Urban.