|All eyes will be on Barkevious Mingo tonight to see if he can add to the Patriots cache of athletic linebackers (photo source: bostonglobe.com)|
Altough the likes of several key players such as Julian Edelman, Jamie Collins, Malcolm Butler, et al., will likely not see the field tonight in the preseason finale in the Meadowlands vs. the Giants, several position battles are still not determined. In some cases, a case can still be made for for two or three players fighting for the same position.
The following are some key battles for roster spots to watch tonight:
Wide Receiver: After the Aaron Dobson trade rumor was leaked earlier this week, it's pretty clear that the team has seen enough of him (the media and fans were tired of him a few years ago). The health of Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell will determine whether there is a spot for Keshawn Martin, who performed well at times last season.
Tight End: The remaining battle is between youngster A.J. Derby and veteran Clay Harbor. Ironically, Harbor seems to be the one that needs to prove himself tonight. Let's just say that the "Martellus-Bennett-may-be-cut" rumor is complete bunk.
Offensive line: This is where it gets interesting. When the team put Tre Jackson on the PUP, it was a blessing in disguise since it gave the team a chance to better evaluate other players. If the team decides to carry just eight lineman the final decision at swing guard/center will be between Josh Kline and Ted Karras. Right now Karras seems to have the edge due to performance and salary cap impact. At tackle, LaAdrian Waddle is significantly ahead of Cameron Fleming. No one has surprised in this group in the preseason more than Marcus Cannon and he will be the opening day right tackle as a result. Jonathan Cooper? He certainly has a lot to prove tonight but he may be safe. The team may be forced to risk putting Karras on the practice squad if they want to keep Cooper if they choose to go deeper at another position.
Running Back: While LeGarrette Blount and James White are locks, with Dion Lewis opening the season on the PUP, there is much discussion whether Brandon Bolden and Tyler Gaffney are fighting for a spot. Unless you see Gaffney as a core special teamer tonight, that is probably a false alarm. Bolden is arguably the 2nd or 3rd best special teamer on the squad. Since the team places more bottom-of-the-roster emphasis on special teams performance on other (dumb) teams that would rather carry a 2nd fullback (Hi, Rex!), a 6th receiver, or a 3rd running back that mostly sits on the bench, unless there is an injury. Look for D.J. Foster to begin the season on the practice squad. The question is whether the Patriots will risk dangling Gaffney on the shelf for an opponent's plucking.
Defensive tackle: Considered by many to be a position of weakness before the season, some strong performances in live action made this instead an area of strength. Since Trey Flowers showed he can also play inside, the real decision here is between camp surprise Anthony Johnson and veteran Markus Kuhn. The latter has a ways to go to outperform the X-factor Johnson at this point. In fact, it may take an injury to secure him a spot since Bill Belichick typically only carries three big bodies inside.
Defensive end: Despite the PUP status of Rob Ninkovich, there is tremendous depth at this position. The final battle may be among the injured Shea McClellin, Geneo Grissom, and Barkevious Mingo. With Dont'a Hightower moving to right end on some passing downs, it's hard to believe that the team would carry this many players. Mingo is probably the player to watch, period, for the Patriots tonight. If he flashes tonight he may land a spot over McClellin, who would either land on the PUP or be released. Grissom's special teams participation gives him an edge, but he is by no means a lock.
Linebacker: With Jonathan Freeny getting his contract extended this past week, Elandon Roberts, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Rufus Johnson still reside in purgatory. Like he did in college, Roberts has shown a fearless tackling ability in preseason. He played with the first unit last week and look for that again tonight. Last season, when Hightower went down, the team immediately struggled against the run as Freeny had trouble shedding blockers so a player like Roberts gives the coaching staff an insurance policy to prevent teams from running the ball down their throats.. It may be safe to store Grugier-Hill on the practice squad. Mingo will likely see snaps at LB tonight too so that he can show his athleticism and flexibility, especially on passing downs.
Cornerback: Recall that last season the team broke camp with only three CB's. That decision ended up backfiring after Justin Coleman got hurt. This season, with rookie Cyrus Jones, the team already has three really strong covermen. Cre'von LeBlanc looks like number four. Coleman has had a rough preseason and probably needs to show a lot tonight to secure a spot. In fact, rookie Jonathan Jones and sophomore Darryl Roberts may be ahead of him for final roster consideration as it stands today.
Safety: The only concern here is that Jordan Richards has had an awful time in preseason covering anyone. Would the team carry Richards and Nate Ebner and use them as mostly special teamers? Perhaps the team will be forced to choose among the latter two and Brandon King for just two spots. Let's hope not, because all three can play in this league.
While Belichick almost always offers some surprise-veteran axings on the final-cut-down day, there often is an indicator, which will be on display tonight. For those hardcore fans that are still watching the game in the last half of the final quarter take a look and see if you notice any veterans still on the field. If so, there's a good chance those players won't be Patriots by 4pm EST on September 3rd. Besides, tomorrow is Friday so live a little and stay up late to watch the roster drama unfold!
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