Lazar: Examining the Patriots’ Initial 53-Man Roster and Practice Squad Candidates

The Patriots' initial 53-man roster is set as the team released 24 players to get down to the league-imposed limit.

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The Patriots’ initial 53-man roster is set as the team released 24 players to get down to the league-imposed limit by Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline. 

The keyword here is “initial” because Bill Belichick’s roster is always changing, and a player making it through cuts is not an indication that they have a long-term future in New England. 

The Patriots' initial 53-man roster is set as the team released 24 players to get down to the league-imposed limit by Saturday's 4 p.m. deadline.  The keyword here is "initial" because Bill Belichick's roster is always changing, and a player making it through cuts is not an indication that they have

Initially, the Patriots don’t have a kicker on the team, which we know will change, and initially, New England’s streak of an undrafted rookie making the roster ends at 16 consecutive seasons. 

The Pats also have ten offensive linemen on the roster and only two traditional off-ball linebackers; Belichick went with experience and talent at the expense of depth at certain spots. 

Below, we’ll go through the roster position-by-position to discuss where the team is heading this season and players that were released that could return in some capacity down the road:

QUARTERBACKS (3): Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer

Cuts: Brian Lewerke

There are no major surprises at the quarterback position. Lewerke, a camp arm, who spent most of his time working with the scout team and aiding the defense in drills, is the lone casualty. The year after Tom Brady’s departure, the Pats keep three quarterbacks with Stidham and Hoyer providing depth behind starter Cam Newton. It wouldn’t surprise me if Stidham spends part of the season on the short-term injured reserve where he can come back after three weeks and free up a roster spot at another position. As for Hoyer, his veteran knowledge of the playbook will be a beneficial aid to Newton and gives the Pats two layers of COVID-19 insurance at the most important position. For many, the QB depth chart is what we predicted. 

RUNNING BACKS (4): James White, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris

Cuts: Lamar Miller, J.J. Taylor (UDFA)

Miller was the surprise cut of the day for the Patriots other than at kicker. The veteran running back could be back later once his surgically repaired knee is closer to game-ready, a source says. Miller is a year removed from suffering a torn ACL in the 2019 preseason, and although he’s healthy enough to come off the PUP list, he’s still gearing up to full speed. The Pats UDFA streak officially ended when news of Taylor’s release broke. The undrafted rookie had a great camp, showing off his versatility and elusiveness, but it was very unlikely that he’d play over the four backs that made the team. The only question that remains at running back is who will be healthy enough to carry the football in next week’s season opener against Miami? Harris suffered a hand injury during practice that could cause him to miss the season’s first game. The Pats will likely roll with their carryovers from last year in White, Michel, and Burkhead.

WIDE RECEIVER (5): Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszweksi, Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd

Cuts: Jeff Thomas (UDFA), Devin Ross, Isaiah Zuber (UDFA), Andre Baccellia 

Byrd is the only new face to a wide receiver corps that is undoubtedly lacking excitement. Along with Byrd serving as an upgrade over Phillip Dorsett, the team is hopeful that Harry, Olszweki, and Meyers are prepared to make the leap in year two. The Patriots desperately need Harry to play like a first-round pick. His release work this offseason did improve his technique at the line of scrimmage, which helps him get downfield and use his size in contested catch situations. Harry’s ability to create free releases for himself and his YAC abilities we saw in his rookie season, will hopefully yield better results. Olszweki showed significant improvement during camp with better explosiveness and route-running compared to his rookie season. The Patriots are hopeful that Thomas, a potentially game-breaking speedster and training camp standout Devin Ross will return on the practice squad. Until a team claims them, that’s the plan on both. The Patriots don’t seem eager to spend big-money and assets during a pandemic. But it would be nice to see an upgrade of some sort at wide receiver, even if it’s taking a chance on a high-upside player that was waived such as Buffalo’s Robert Foster. 

TIGHT ENDS/FULLBACKS (4): Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Jakob Johnson

Cuts: Paul Butler, Jake Burt, Rashod Berry, Paul Quessenberry 

We had Izzo off the roster on our projection, but his improvements as a run-blocker in his third season were notable during camp. Izzo might never develop into a difference-maker in the running game, but he wasn’t getting ragdolled at the point of attack due to improved play strength. Still, even with Izzo on the roster, the Patriots counting on rookie tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene to make an immediate impact. Based on training camp, Asiasi’s route running and skill as a receiver should translate right away, while Keene can be more of a utility H-back that blocks effectively and makes some plays after the catch. The Pats also hang onto a traditional fullback in Johnson, just in case they want to go back to their under center smash-mouth running game that was successful in the last two seasons. Although we are clamoring for some more firepower in Cam Newton’s arsenal, it’ll probably be up to the rookie tight ends to become playmakers quickly. Asiasi is our best bet. 

OFFENSIVE LINE (10): David Andrews, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Isaiah Wynn, Jermaine Eluemunor, Yodny Cajuste, Korey Cunningham, Hjalte Froholdt, Michael Onwenu, Justin Herron

Cuts: Tyler Gauthier, Ben Braden

The Patriots keep an army of offensive linemen after the group was terrific throughout camp. New England needs to win upfront to get their bully ball strategy with Newton at quarterback rolling. The inclusion of ten offensive linemen on the initial roster reflects that strategy and the depth at the position. Eluemunor is penciled in as the starting right tackle, and the Pats got significant improvement from him, Cunningham, and Froholdt in their second seasons in the system. Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron had strong rookie camps too. Onwenu’s play strength immediately translated to the NFL level and is a future starter trait, while Herron is a decent pass protector and has guard-tackle versatility. The Patriots need a big season from one of the deepest positions on the roster and have a wave of first and second-year players developing behind the starting five; it’s a good group. 

DEFENSIVE LINE (5): Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, Byon Cowart, Beau Allen

Cuts: Xavier Williams, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray (UDFA)

New England keeps the projected group along the defensive line with Allen as the wildcard. The Pats free-agent addition hasn’t practiced yet this summer and could be in for a stint on injured reserve. If Allen is placed on IR, the Patriots could use his roster spot to sign a kicker or add another position player while Allen recovers. Without Allen, they’re counting on significant improvements out of Butler or the emergence of Cowart in run defense. Cowart is an explosive player that can clog things up as either a one-technique penetrating nose tackle or a B-gap defender. On passing downs, Butler and Wise will be significant factors, and Wise’s added muscle could help him hold up inside with more regularity. Although they’re a bit thin, the Patriots have five solid role players for their scheme in the trenches. 

EDGE DEFENDER (6): Chase Winovich, John Simon, Anfernee Jennings, Shilique Calhoun, Derek Rivers, Brandon Copeland

Cuts: Teshawn Bower 

The Patriots don’t have the same name recognition on the edge as last season, but it’s a good mix of young talent and experience. Winovich and Simon project as full-time starters with the veteran, Simon, potentially giving way to Jennings later this season if the rookie develops quickly. Jennings, and veteran Brandon Copeland, also offer hybrid versatility to play both on or off the line, which is probably why Copeland made the team. Calhoun makes it mainly for special teams and experience in the system, while Rivers is a great comeback story. The 2017 third-round pick missed two of his first three seasons due to injury and has struggled to get on the field. However, he’s blossoming in his fourth season after attacking his offseason rehab and workout regimen to bring improved play strength and explosiveness to the table. With the offseason departures and opt-outs, the Pats need Winovich and Rivers to make significant contributions in the pass rush. Again, the Patriots don’t have the proven playmakers they had last season. Still, there’s a lot of intriguing young talent here. 

LINEBACKERS (2): Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche

Cuts: Terez Hall, Caash Maluia, Scoota Harris (UDFA)

Only two traditional off-ball linebackers make the initial roster, and although that number seems surprising, it was the correct move by Belichick. For starters, Hall and Harris weren’t top-53 talents on the roster during camp, while Maluia is still a year away from contributing due to his slow mental processing against the run (he looks lost at times). On Friday, Belichick spoke about the unique practice squad rules this season that will allow more fluidity from the active roster back down to the practice squad. The feeling is the Pats could stash all three linebackers they released on the practice squad for added depth. As for the two that made it, Bentley is a first-time captain, and the Patriots need him to be a massive physical presence in the middle of the defense. Uche made some splash plays both off the line and at edge rusher during camp but was inconsistent, and more boom or bust. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. If Uche can make plays behind the line of scrimmage, something the Patriots lack in the front seven, they’ll live with the rookie mistakes. Expect a lot of safeties in linebacker spots this season. 

CORNERBACKS (5): Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Joejuan Williams

Cuts: Michael Jackson, D’Angelo Ross, Myles Bryant (UDFA)

The best position group on the roster stays in-tact. There isn’t much to say about this group that we haven’t already said; Gilmore is the leader, and the rest are pretty darn good too. Although he struggled at outside cornerback, New England is hoping to retain Bryant on the practice squad this season. As a nickel or slot defender, Bryant fared much better than on the boundary. He has good feet and anticipatory skills to make plays on the ball, but his lack of size and long speed saw him struggle against NFL competition at times. A year on the practice squad learning the Chung role makes sense for Bryant. Jackson, who was waived with an injury designation, is another player that could be back once he’s healthy. 

SAFETY (5): Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks, Adrian Phillips, Cody Davis

The Patriots keep every safety on their 80-man roster as it appears they have a plan to use all five. The lack of depth looks bad at linebacker, but terrific versatility in their safety group mitigates some of those issues. McCourty, Dugger, Brooks, and Phillips all have experience playing in the box and hold up well against the run for their size. With a healthy dosage of mobile quarterbacks on their schedule, the Patriots might opt for speed on the second level by playing defensive backs in linebacker spots. New Enlgand only needs one or two early-down run-stuffers to emerge at linebacker, while on passing downs, the safeties will take over to cover tight ends and running backs and chase the mobile QBs. The Pats’ positional flexibility in their secondary, and their high-end pass coverage, has to cover up some of their holes in the front seven, and there’s reason to believe it will. Davis makes the team as an Ebner-like special teams ace and reserve free safety. 

SPECIALISTS (2): Jake Bailey (punter), Joe Cardona (long snapper)

Cuts: Nick Folk, Justin Rohrwasser 

The Patriots don’t have a kicker, but they have options. The most obvious choice is that they place a position player on injured reserve and re-sign Folk once the roster spot opens up. There’s also a chance that the Patriots put Folk, assuming he won the job, on the practice squad, and utilize the 55-man game-day roster rule to have a kicker on Sunday’s while trying out other players on the 53. Could the Patriots bring in a free-agent kicker? Sure, and there are candidates such as former Colts kicker Chase McLaughlin or recently released Bills kicker Stephen Hauschka, who both lost their jobs to rookies. Selecting Rohrwasser in the fifth-round over Rodrigo Blankenship and Tyler Bass, who both made their respective teams, is as head-scratching now as it was on draft weekend. Still, the Pats will be fine at kicker. Folk is solid, and there’s plenty of ways to get him active on game day. There’s no reason to lose sleep over a fifth-round pick, even if we disagree with the Rohrwasser pick. He’s far from the first fifth-round pick to get cut as a rookie.

COVERAGE ACES (2): Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel

New England keeps both of its coverage aces as they continue to focus on dominating field position. Classic Belichick.