During the last month, Bill Belichick has said his defensive tackles, tight ends, and wide receivers may be the deepest groups he’s ever coached. That depth is what will make his job difficult in the coming weeks, as he pares his roster down to 53.
Here’s the 53-man roster projection after the start of training camp and the first two preseason games.
Quarterback (2): Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett. (Tom Brady serves suspension.)
As Belichick has confirmed many times, the Patriots are fully committed to preparing Garoppolo, which seems to indicate they’re not interested in a veteran free agent, whose preparation would likely detract from Garoppolo’s. If Garoppolo continues to make progress, the quarterback room will stay as it is.
Running back (5): LeGarrette Blount, James White, Tyler Gaffney, Brandon Bolden, James Develin. (Dion Lewis to PUP).
Gaffney has been neither spectacular nor unspectacular. But Donald Brown got cut Tuesday, which could be a sign they have faith in Gaffney. The Patriots could also look to free agency.
Wide receiver (5): Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Nate Washington.
Washington is an iron man, who has missed only two games over the last 10 seasons. With so many injury concerns at the position, Washington’s history of health could be what will gives him the edge over Aaron Dobson and Keshawn Martin. Martin’s return to practice is a positive sign for him. Aaron Dobson’s one-catch performance with the starters on Thursday was not.
Tight End (3): Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, A.J. Derby.
There’s a chance the Patriots cut Derby for veteran Clay Harbor, and hope they can stash Derby on the practice squad. But Derby’s performance on Thursday may have eliminated that possibility. He’s likely turning heads around the league.
Offensive line (9): Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle, Cam Fleming, Joe Thuney, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper, David Andrews, Bryan Stork. (Shaq Mason to PUP, and Sebastian Vollmer to IR).
Despite some suggestions that Stork is in danger of getting cut, his ability to play center, guard and even tackle makes him invaluable. His skill set and versatility is unique, even if he struggles with injuries and has been ejected from a pair of practices. Cooper, Mason and Tre’ Jackson have all taken first-team reps, but have also also been dealing with injuries. It’s hard to predict how they will fit when they return from those injuries.
Defensive end (5): Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Shea McClellin.
Shea McClellin seems to be slightly on the bubble. But his ability to play linebacker and defensive end should be enough for him to hold onto a roster spot. Flowers appears to have solidified his spot on the roster with a consistent training camp and a pair of strong preseason performances.
Defensive tackle (5): Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Markus Kuhn, Vincent Valentine, Anthony Johnson.
Terrance Knighton and Geneo Grissom can’t make the cut. Both defensive tackles have been on the field in the fourth quarter, which is a bad sign. Grissom plays a number of positions in the front seven and in special teams, but he doesn’t seem to play any position particularly well yet. Johnson sneaks his way onto the roster as a third-down, change-of-pace interior rusher. Branch solidifies the middle of the defense in ways similar to how Knighton can.
Linebackers (4): Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jonathan Freeney, Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Hightower, Collins and Freeney have no reason to be worried about their rosters spots. And Belichick could have long-term plans for Grugier-Hill.
Cornerbacks (5): Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, Cre’Von LeBlanc.
LeBlanc and Jonathan Jones are competing for the last spot in the defensive backfield. They’re in a deadlock between their improving coverage play and special teams contributions.
Safety (4): Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards.
All former Patriots draft picks, the safeties all have solid roles in the defense. Richards is a special teams contributor, too
Specialists (6): Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen, long snapper Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King.
Belichick said during training camp that 90 percent or 100 percent of player’s value can come on special teams. These players fall in that category, with the exception of King, who plays some linebacker and safety.