Cre'von LeBlanc could be this year's surprise rookie free agent to make the Patriots (photo source: Twitter @MikeReiss)
While it's way too early to make accurate projections on the Patriots final 53 after just one preseason game, several players at the bottom of the roster did themselves a favor, while some others did not do enough in the exhibition opener to warrant a roster spot at this point. A few others demonstrated their flexibility to the coaching staff that is necessary for a team loaded with talent but not nearly enough roster spots. Several key players didn't play due to injury and a few others sat merely as a precaution to prevent injury (see Gronkowski, Rob). That provided an opportunity for under-the-radar players to catch the eye of the coaching staff in live-game action. However, due to the team's youth and some successful rookie crops in the past few years, there will be fewer spots available for first year players to make the final cut.
As we know, outside of the untouchable status of such superstars on the team such as Tom Brady, Gronk, Jamie Collins, et al, Belichick doesn't cater to veterans and coddle high-round draft picks. Instead, he uses training camp to foster competition among his players in order to create an opening-day roster that provides the team the best possible balance and depth, while also taking the salary cap into consideration. Because of these factors, over the years, several undrafted-rookie-free agents made the club and contributed immensely such as Malcolm Butler, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stephen Neal, and Ryan Wendell. Over Belichick's tenure such a dark horse has made the team so often it would be surprising if an URFA did NOT make the final 53 man roster this year.
After the first preseason game, one such candidate to grab a roster spot is cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc. The rookie corner's athletic one-handed interception in the end zone opened many eyes. Not only did he pick the pass and take Sanits' points off the board, but his presence of mind to turn his head and play the ball allowed him to make the physically compete for the underthrown pass. A less heady player may have allowed the receiver to come back to the ball and draw contact from the defender not playing the ball, thereby drawing a pass interference penalty. With Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Cyrus Jones as roster locks (and I can't wait to see that trio on the field together), it's possible that only one more roster spot at that position will be available given the depth and needs at other positions. LeBlanc will have to battle second-year-man Justin Coleman and veteran free agent E.J. Biggers if he hopes to make the cut. Since Coleman struggled at times last season, especially down the stretch, LeBlanc might prove to be the better fit against pass-happy offenses if he continues making not only the big plays, but the routine ones as well. It wouldn't be surprising to see the coaching staff give him a role on special teams to make sure he can compete in that part of the game.
On the defensive line, while no rookies cast themselves into the spotlight last Thursday night, a few second year players continued to show the development and diversity needed to create better roster flexibility. Indeed, if second year defensive lineman Trey Flowers continues to make plays like he did against the Saints, he will be in the regular rotation at both end and on the inside. Moreover, it was interesting that his strip sack and fumble recovery for a defensive score occurred when he was playing on the inside. If he plays on 3rd down as an interior rusher as Dominique Easley did (when healthy) then he'll make life more difficult for some of the bigger bodies that are competing for a spot. If both Flowers and Jabaal Sheard can both play inside rusher, only one spot may be available between the two veteran free agent signees Pot Roast Knighton and Markus Kuhn. Since both Flowers and fellow sophomore Geneo Grissom were also prominent on special teams against New Orleans, their contributions on these 4th down units will only prove to enhance their value in the tight numbers game.
The situation at linebacker is still a little muddled at this point. Shea McClellin did nothing to hurt his chances during his brief play at both linebacker and third-down-defensive end. There is a logjam for one or two positions among holdover Jonathan Freeny, free agent signee Ramon Humber, and rookies Elandon Roberts and Kamu Grugier-Hill. The difference between making the grade and getting cut will be special teams play, coverage skills, shedding blocks, and tackling ability. Although Freeny didn't play due to injury, no one in this group either distinguished himself nor hurt his chances in the first game. If Roberts and/or K.G. can both excel at special teams and also show the ability to cover tight ends and backs, it could help their cause in securing a spot on the squad over Freeny and/or Humber.
On the offensive side of the ball, the situation is even more complicated. Malcolm Mitchell's play with the first unit would have been the story of the game and if he continued on that trajectory, it's not unreasonable to think he'd assume the starting "X" role vacated after JoJo LaFell was released. The Mitchell injury temporarily allows Belichick to give more looks to the long-shot-logjam of able bodies competing for a final spot. Assuming Julian Edelman is healthy, he will be joined in Glendale by Keshawn Martin and Chris Hogan. Perhaps Belichick will choose the safe route and keep Nate Washington for his experience and special teams prowess. Since Danny Amendola's injury status is unclear at this point, Belichick will have to decide whether to scratch Amendola and Mitchell for the opener rather than opt for the PUP for either player since the team would lose their services for 6 weeks (note: in a huge surprise, Mitchell did return to practice today). Since the Cardinals were ranked 29th against the rush and 8th against the pass, it may make more sense with inexperienced Jimmy Garappolo at the helm in week 1 to go with a run-heavy roster and dress only four receivers just give the two injured receivers another week of rest.
As far at the rest of the receiving corps, no first year player stood out against the Saints enough to warrant any discussion of a roster spot. In fact, seeing Aaron Dobson on the field in the second half suggests he is trending in the wrong direction toward the unemployment line.
One of the most impressive debuts came from tight end A.J. Derby. While studs Gronk and Martellus Bennett will take two positions, perhaps the Patriots will carry four tight ends, if they indeed choose the game plan suggested above at Arizona. Clay Harbor was an underrated signing as their 3rd tight end but if Derby can continue to make tough catches, as well as block in the running game, he may just grab a spot.
At running back, 220 lb. Tyler Gaffney, returned to the field in impressive fashion after spending his first two years on IR. Gaffney impressed with his 44 yard touchdown run, which proved that he can hit the open hole with a burst. In the next three trial games, Gaffney will need to prove he can be the "meat tenderizer," as Corey Dillon once called his role of breaking tackles and wearing out the opposing front seven. If Gaffney wants to supplant the massive Legarrette Blount as the Patriots power back, he needs to prove he can play that role better than the veteran back. More than most coaches, Belichick emphasizes his backs excel at blitz pickup in passing situations . . . and, as he has stated numerous times over his career, the primary role of the runner is to take care of the ball. Dion Lewis and James White will get most of the touches, provided the former is healthy for the opener (reports suggest he will be). Brandon Bolden is one of the better special teams players in the league and he rarely disappoints when asked to play in the backfield, so his spot is assured. The return of James Develin at fullback adds to the crowded backfield mix.
On the opposite side of the ledger, Joey Iosefa hurt his chances by picking up a holding call on a Gaffney outside run and also was slow out of the backfield on his two runs for minus-1 yards. Newcomer veteran Donald Brown needs to get back on the field if he has any chance of making the squad because as the famous mantra goes, "you can't make the club in the tub."
Perhaps the most interesting training camp battles are being waged at several spots on the offensive line. Rookie Joe Thuney made the start at left guard, which proved that his reps with the first unit during training camp practices were no mere science experiment. He has the power and grit to excel at the position. His ascension into the starting role creates a crowded situation on the interior line. It came as a surprise to many, but not to this writer, that Shaq Mason started at right guard ahead of Tre Jackson and Josh Kline. Indeed, Kline's presence on the field well into the second half does not bode well for the veteran.
An even more interesting but subtle development took place late in the game when rookie Ted Karras took reps at both guard and center. His salary cap savings alone probably put him ahead of Kline, who also played both roles last Thursday. But Karras also played with the necessary fierceness required if the Patriots line wants to regain the attitude it sorely lacked last season. Is it possible that he could also supplant David Andrews as backup center? Since Andrews only plays center (not including a handful of plays in short yardage situations last season at both fullback and right guard) perhaps Karras is the better choice if only one roster spot remains. As a value added, The Hoodie would be able to share nostalgic conversations with another relative of a football legend. At this point, he may have exhausted all of the Jackie Slater stories with son Matt.
Of course, the continued health of center Bryan Stork and expensive-veteran-reclamation-project Jonathan Cooper will play a factor in determining who stays and who goes. Once again, the buzzards will be swirling over much-maligned-swingman Marcus Cannon. Cameron Fleming needs to prove he is more than a third tackle in the power packages against the Colts. LaAdrian Waddle has the size and strength to play tackle in the NFL, but there might not be a spot for him on this competitive roster.
So let the competition continue on Thursday vs. the Bears. On such a competitive roster the most versatile rookies of the bunch still have a ways to go if they want to earn a Patriots active-roster paycheck on September 11th. The good news for some of the cut players is that they will likely be active players on other NFL rosters as well when the season starts because the Patriots are just too loaded.