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With limited jobs, players on the spot

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / August 27, 2011

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DETROIT - Down the stretch they come.

Entering tonight’s third and most meaningful exhibition game against the improving Detroit Lions, the Patriots have a clear picture of their roster.

Whether they’ll clue us in on their plans remains to be seen.

The Patriots have seven previously injured players back in the fold: possible starters Albert Haynesworth (defensive tackle), Shaun Ellis (defensive end), and James Sanders (safety); second-round picks Ras-I Dowling (cornerback) and Shane Vereen (running back); and valuable reserves in receiver Brandon Tate and safety Josh Barrett.

It’s unknown whether any or all will play tonight. It’s not as important for the veterans. But it would be nice to have the younger players - Dowling, Vereen, Tate, and Barrett - get as many reps as their health will allow.

Coach Bill Belichick and his staff probably have around 50 of the 53 roster spots decided.

There will likely be some trades, and the most interesting decisions the Patriots will make are on how to distribute their personnel. Much of that centers on how many players they will keep on the defensive line, where the Patriots are loaded.

From the outside looking in, there is still much to be hashed out.

There appear to be 35 locks on the roster. There are another 11 who are virtually assured of their places, unless something unexpected happens.

In our view, there are 23 players battling for the final seven spots. Included in that group are veterans such as defensive end Mark Anderson; defensive tackle Gerard Warren; running back Sammy Morris; receivers Tate and Matthew Slater; offensive linemen Rich Ohrnberger and Thomas Austin; linebackers Tracy White, Niko Koutouvides, and Ricky Brown; and defensive backs Sanders, Barrett, Darius Butler, James Ihedigbo, and Jonathan Wilhite.

At 4 p.m. Tuesday, teams must trim their rosters to 80 players. This is not always about the weakest players being sacrificed first.

This is about the numbers needed to get through the final exhibition game, when the starters won’t play much, if at all.

The Patriots could move four players from the active physically unable to perform list to the reserve PUP list for the first six weeks of the regular season: running back Kevin Faulk, offensive lineman Marcus Cannon (non-football injury list), and defensive linemen Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick.

On Sept. 4, teams may sign up to eight players to their practice squad.

Players who have spent two seasons on a practice squad (at least three games) are ineligible, as well as players with one accrued season toward free agency (six games on the 53-man roster or injured reserved). Players who have spent fewer than nine regular-season games on the 45-man game-day roster during their accrued season are eligible.

Here’s a look at how the Patriots’ roster shapes up:

QUARTERBACKS (3)

2008-10 Week 1 average: 2.3.

Locks: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett.

Comment: It would be a shock if Belichick jettisoned Hoyer, leaving only Mallett behind Brady. Mallett isn’t close to ready. He is slow to recognize mismatches, even though he did improve after his interception against the Buccaneers. He’s got a long way to go. And now that camp is over, he needs to prove himself off the field. Hoyer, who is in the final year of his contract, is steady, although his long-term prospects as an NFL starter are still up for debate.

RUNNING BACKS (4 or 5)

2008-10 average: 4.7

Locks (4): BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Vereen, Stevan Ridley (injured).

Battling (1): Morris.

Long shots (2): Richard Medlin, Eric Kettani (injured).

Physically unable to perform list (1): Faulk.

Comment: Hopefully at some point, the Patriots will be able to assess Vereen. It’s unclear whether that will happen tonight. The big question is whether they keep four or five backs. Ridley is known for his short-yardage running, so Morris’s value is questionable. That the Patriots run so many one-back sets (73 percent last season) also doesn’t bode well. They almost prefer to put a lineman in the backfield.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5-7)

2008-10 average: 6.3

Locks (4): Wes Welker, Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Taylor Price.

Good bet (1): Julian Edelman (injured).

Battling (3): Slater, Tate, Darnell Jenkins.

Long shots (3): Jeremy Ross, Tyree Barnes, Buddy Farnham.

Comment: The Patriots usually keep six, so that means Slater, Tate, and Jenkins are fighting for one spot since Edelman is the only proven punt returner. They could steal one more spot from the offensive line or tight end, but it won’t help since Aaron Hernandez is essentially a receiver. Now that he’s healthy, Tate will need to get up to speed quickly. He needs to prove his second-half drop in kickoff production last season was a fluke, and that he can stay healthy.

TIGHT ENDS (3 or 4)

2008-10 average: 3.0.

Locks (2): Rob Gronkowski, Hernandez.

Battling (3): Will Yeatman, Lee Smith, Garett Mills.

Long shot (1): Carson Butler.

Comment: With as many three-tight-end sets as the Patriots have shown, you would think they’d keep three. It’s hard to tell if Smith’s lack of playing time against the Buccaneers was because of injury (he missed two practices this week) or because Yeatman is that much further ahead. Neither blows anyone away, but the Patriots don’t have another in-line player. Alge Crumpler, who is recovering from major offseason shoulder surgery, looms as a possible addition.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9 or 10)

2008-10 average: 9.3.

Locks (6): T Matt Light, G Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, T Sebastian Vollmer, G Dan Connolly, T Nate Solder.

Good bets (2): G/C Ryan Wendell (injured), T Steve Maneri.

Battling (2): G/C Ohrnberger, G Austin.

Long shots (4): G Mark Wetterer, G Jonathan Compas, G/T Corey Woods, G Mike Berry.

PUP list (1): G/T Cannon.

Comment: It will be tough for the Patriots to keep more than nine, and there doesn’t seem to be the need. Solder can play either side, and if the Patriots wanted to get their best five on the field, he could get a look at right guard. Wendell is by far the best swing interior lineman, if he’s healthy. Ohrnberger could just be warming a spot for Cannon, who hasn’t finished his chemotherapy treatments and could use a redshirt year. After a slow start, Ohrnberger has come on and has performed better than Austin. Maneri has shown enough to warrant more development.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9-12)

2008-10 average: 6.7.

Locks (5): DT Vince Wilfork, DT Haynesworth, DE Ellis, DE Andre Carter, DT Myron Pryor.

Good bets (4): DE Jermaine Cunningham (injured), DE Eric Moore, DT Mike Wright (injured), DT Kyle Love.

Battling (4): DE Anderson, DT Warren, DT Landon Cohen, DE Markell Carter.

Long shots (4): DT Kade Weston, DT Darryl Richard, DE Alex Silvestro, DE Clay Nurse.

PUP list (2): DT Brace, DT Deaderick.

Comment: This position and the secondary will receive the most attention by both Patriots coaches and other teams as cutdowns approach. How many the Patriots keep - and they can all play in the NFL eventually - will determine how many are kept at other positions. Anderson appeared to be sailing to a roster spot, but the versatility of Ellis and linebacker Rob Ninkovich could allow the Patriots to go light at end. But no one outside the Patriot coaches know what the plans are for Ellis. Will he be only a third-down interior rusher? Quite possibly. This position comes down to how many the Patriots want to keep, over going thin at other positions. And not many give much on special teams. It should be very interesting.

LINEBACKERS (5-7)

2008-10 average: 8.

Locks (3): WLB Jerod Mayo, MLB Brandon Spikes (injured), SLB Ninkovich.

Good bets (2): MLB Dane Fletcher (injured), SLB Gary Guyton.

Battling (4): WLB Tracy White, MLB Koutouvides, MLB Ricky Brown, WLB Jeff Tarpinian (injured).

Long shots (2): WLB Marques Murrell, SLB Aaron Lavarias.

Comment: There are some good players here who will contribute on special teams, but the Patriots usually keep about 15 players between the defensive line and linebackers (15, 13, and 16 the last three years). With a 3-4 scheme, they would carry more linebackers. With a 4-3, they will flip that. If they keep 10 linemen, it would be difficult to see them retain more than six linebackers. That means after the top five, one or possibly two will make it, and some good players are going to be cut. The Patriots really like Tarpinian, who was the highest-paid undrafted player the team signed.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (9-11)

2008-10 average: 9.3.

Locks (5): CB Devin McCourty, S Patrick Chung, CB Leigh Bodden, CB Kyle Arrington, CB Dowling.

Good bets (2): S Brandon Meriweather, S Sergio Brown.

Battling (6): S Sanders, CB Butler, S Ihedigbo, S Barrett, CB Wilhite, CB Malcolm Williams (injured).

Long shots: None.

Comment: So many players have been injured in the secondary there is much to evaluate and determine in the final two games. The Patriots have Dowling, Sanders, Barrett, and Ihedigbo in the mix, although perhaps not for tonight’s game. Williams (left knee) appears to be a ways off, but he was headed toward a special teams spot. After the first five, anything is possible between trades (Meriweather, Butler, Wilhite) and surprise cuts (Sanders).

SPECIALISTS (3)

2008-10 average: 3.

Locks (3): K Stephen Gostkowski, P Zoltan Mesko, LS Matt Katula.

Long shot (1): K Chris Koepplin.

Comment: Katula has the only tenuous spot. Long snappers can be dropped in a heartbeat.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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