The Patriots will trim their roster to 53 players on Sept. 1. Until then, the undrafted rookies and aging veterans battling for those precious spots will continue to make their case to Bill Belichick. Some will inevitably feel their bubble burst when the final roster is announced, while others will become integral pieces in Foxborough going forward.
Here are five Patriots (for now) to keep an eye on Thursday night against the Eagles:
In the preseason opener, Danny Etling threw five passes for two completions and 21 yards as the Patriots ran out the clock. The rookie led three series in the fourth quarter after watching Brian Hoyer for much of the game.
“It kind of helped letting everything settle in the first three quarters,” Etling said. “But it was a pretty surreal feeling because you work your whole life for this one moment; to run out there and throw your first pass. It is an accumulation of a lot of hard work.”
Tom Brady will be back in action on Thursday night, which could cut into the already limited snaps available for Etling. The 24-year-old has flashed arm strength and accuracy thus far at camp, but Bill Belichick may decide the practice squad makes the most sense for Etling — even if it means taking the risk that another team picks him up off waivers.
The Patriots have shown a willingness to carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. They did so with Ryan Mallett in 2011 and again for Jacoby Brissett in 2016. If New England does so this year, Etling would be the first quarterback from outside the first two days of the draft to make the final roster since Brian Hoyer (undrafted) in 2009.
When the Patriots drafted Braxton Berrios, he was immediately pegged as a possible replacement for Danny Amendola. Then news broke that another slot specialist, Julian Edelman, had been suspended for the first four games of the year, and suddenly Berrios looked like the rare late-round selection with an excellent chance to make the team.
Berrios has shown off a flair for the highlight-reel catches Amendola and Edelman traded in. In one practice last week, he dove to corral one pass after Jordan Richards got his hand to the ball, leaped over Keoin Crossen for another, and kept cool fighting through traffic over the middle for a third. On Sunday, he reeled in a one-handed grab while spinning to the turf.
The rookie is most likely competing with second-year pro Riley McCarron for a single roster spot. McCarron is also a 5-foot-9, 190-pound wideout, though he has a year on New England’s practice squad under his belt. Both have taken reps returning punts during camp, and Berrios has taken care not to make any mistakes twice as he tries to carve out a role in Tom Brady’s offense.
“Don’t make the same mistake twice — exactly,” Berrios said. “And that’s the best thing about coming out here every day. You put it on film, you go back and watch it and figure out what you did wrong. Then, hopefully, the next day you’re that much better, you’re one step better. If you can keep doing that and putting days on top of days it’s a positive outcome.”
The other receivers on the bubble at the position heading into Thursday night are new addition Eric Decker, who’ll want to demonstrate his drops at practice won’t carry over into game action, and Devin Lucien, currently participating in his third Patriots training camp.
J.C. Jackson’s name has appeared on just about every report from the beginning of OTAs through the end of training camp. The undrafted rookie made another positive impression on Monday as he broke up three passes — including a late punch-out on a Chris Hogan deep ball — in addition to picking off Tom Brady in the end zone.
Jackson is one of several cornerbacks angling for a place on the depth chart behind Stephon Gilmore, along with familiar faces like Eric Rowe and Cyrus Jones and new ones such as Jason McCourty and Duke Dawson. Jackson’s performances at practice could lift him out of the crowded pack — there are 11 cornerbacks at the moment and the Patriots will likely carry no more than six into the season — and onto the 53-man roster.
Meanwhile, McCourty — who did not play in the preseason opener — is trying to keep his mind off the upcoming roster slimming.
“You know what? I’m trying not to put any thought process into it,” McCourty said. “One thing I really believe is control what you can control so for me, each and every day I get an opportunity, no matter what if I’m with the ones, twos, threes, fours. If your number is called and you get a rep, make the best of the rep.”
McCourty was initially expected to claim the No. 2 cornerback spot with ease, but the 31-year-old was left on the sidelines against the Redskins and only recently moved into larger role with the starting defense at practice.
If Devin’s brother is in fact the surprise cut some are speculating he will be, Jackson’s hopes of sticking around beyond Sept. 1 look even brighter.
Cyrus Jones, the Patriots’ second-round pick in 2016, has had a frustrating start to his NFL career. He had issues in coverage and catching punts as a rookie, then tore his ACL during the preseason last year. However, the 24-year-old is facing firmly forward as he tries to work his way back onto the 53-man roster.
“I’m still blessed to be able to play this game,” he said, per WEEI. “Have an opportunity to still put on a Patriots jersey…I’m not really worried about negative stuff right now — frustration. That’s in the past.”
Jones noted he used his time on the sidelines to study the game and hopes to take advantage of that extra film work now that he’s back on the field. He was removed from the Physically Unable to Perform list early in camp, and began 11 vs. 11 drills again this week.
“Playing football is better than rehabbing,’’ he said. “So it’s good to get back out there.’’
This time last season, before the injury, Jones was the primary punt returner for the Patriots — including one 60-yard return against the Caroline Panthers. His final roster ambitions could rely on that element of the game once more this year.
For Belichick to hand him one of the final spots, he’ll need to prove he still has his former explosiveness on special teams, without the ball security issues that plagued him during his rookie season. The punt returner position does appear up for grabs, however, with Edelman out and Jones the only player with significant experience fielding in games.
Even after his two-touchdown “dream come true” performance against the Redskins, Webb is a long shot to make the team. In that game, the undrafted rookie carried the ball 14 times and capped off his first appearance in a Patriots uniform with two two-point conversions. Bill Belichick liked what he saw from the former Commodore, who finished his collegiate career as the sixth-leading rusher in SEC history.
“That’s what he was like at Vanderbilt,” the Patriots head coach said. “He ran hard. He was tough. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s got good strength for his size and he runs hard. He got hit a lot down there. He showed us that in the spring and in training camp. He’s a tough kid that runs with good pad level, he’s got good speed, he catches the ball well.”
Webb is in the conversation for a spot past September because of his play last week and the status of the Patriots depth chart at the position. Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead have both missed time during camp, which has opened up opportunities for the players hoping to join those two and James White on the final roster.
Brandon Bolden’s case will rely on special teams contributions (271 snaps in 2017), while Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill look to be competing for a single spot. Hill had the edge after racking up 4.6 yards per carry against the Redskins, but he was limited in full squad drills Tuesday. If injury concerns keep Hill on the sidelines, the battle could swing back the other way. Or, provided the undrafted rookie proves himself again, the bubble could open up and allow Webb in.