Random thoughts heading into Wednesday night’s final exhibition game against the Giants while trying to piece together the Patriots’ final 53-man roster (it must be set by 9 p.m. Friday).
First off, predicting the roster is almost a fruitless exercise because the Patriots have about 95 percent more information than we outsiders do. The biggest piece of the puzzle is the medical reports. Who knows how bad tight end Visanthe Schiancoe’s knee is?
Medicals likely came into play with the release of receiver Jabar Gaffney, who hadn’t practiced since pulling his quad Aug. 15. Evidently the Patriots didn’t think he’d be ready for the opener Sept. 9, and they didn’t want to hold the roster spot.
Why didn’t they? In my opinion, it’s because they have so many other valuable and more versatile weapons at running back.
The lowest number of offensive linemen you want to keep is eight, and that’s the number we went with (Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Brian Waters, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer, and Marcus Cannon). The Patriots would have shown Koppen respect by cutting him Monday if he wasn’t on the 53. And until there’s an announcement on Waters, I’m going with my gut that tells me he shows up after the Giants game.
Don’t see the Patriots parting with either of the backup quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. However, you can’t rule it out. So that leaves about 14 spots for offensive skill players.
Running backs Stevan Ridley and Jeff Demps, receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Matthew Slater, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Daniel Fells are eight locks.
Before the release of Gaffney, the Patriots were one heavy among Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Gaffney, and Shiancoe.
That had me looking very hard at the running backs. One of the biggest indicators of where players rank on the depth chart after the starters comes from special teams. Vereen and Bolden have both shown up there from the start of camp, all the way through the third exhibition game. Woodhead has not, and his inability to crack special teams was the biggest reason he was released by the Jets.
That got me thinking about Woodhead’s value to the team. Love the guy. Tough, hard-nosed, good player. But if Demps and other assorted people (the cornerbacks got a chance against the Bucs) were going to return kickoffs, Demps and Vereen would be more dangerous out of the backfield along with Hernandez showing up there . . . how many snaps was Woodhead going to play?
With the release of Gaffney, a spot opens up, and that should be for Woodhead. If Vereen was in his third season after being a second-round pick, I think he would be in more danger. Vereen is going to have to show durability and toughness — calling cards of successful backs here and around the league — to be successful.
Right now, I’d feel better about Bolden, who also can play fullback, than Vereen. The speed he was supposed to have hasn’t flashed, and his big moment came against Saints reserves in the first exhibition game. I think Vereen is talented; the Patriots just have to find a way to bring it out. For some players, it takes more time than others.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Gaffney is back once he’s healthy and after a veteran’s salary isn’t guaranteed after the first game. The Patriots already gave him a $250,000 signing bonus, and I’m sure Gaffney is mindful of that. He could have signed elsewhere for more money after his release from the Redskins, but he wanted to come here and play with Tom Brady. Doubt things have changed.
On the defensive side of the ball, there are a few spots up for grabs.
I think the Patriots keep six linebackers, with Niko Koutouvides and Jeff Tarpinian joining Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, and Bobby Carpenter. Tracy White, who had been hurt for a while, could be kept over Koutouvides and Tarpinian. But we don’t know how bad White’s injury is.
Neither Koutouvides nor Tarpinian has impressed in game action — especially against the Bucs — but they are all over special teams. Koutouvides is on kickoff returns, punts, and punt returns. Tarpinian has taken Dane Fletcher’s spots on kickoffs, punts, and punt returns.
The secondary is just about set with cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, and Sterling Moore, and safeties Steve Gregory, Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson, James Ihedigbo, and Nate Ebner.
The last spot is a battle between Marquice Cole and seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard. Do I like Dennard’s potential? Yes. That physical, squat body has me intrigued as a cornerback/safety hybrid. But he was hurt all of training camp, and there’s so much we don’t know about what kind of player he is. Plus, he is on zero special teams, while Cole is one of the top players in that unit and took many of the roles that used to be handled by Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett (who isn’t on the roster).
If Dennard is not playing special teams — and his body type indicates he should — I don’t know where you steal a spot to keep his potential. You’re going to have to make a surprising cut.
Speaking of that, with 10 players in the secondary and six at linebacker, that leaves us with nine defensive linemen. Seven are locks or near-locks: Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork, Ron Brace, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Chandler Jones, and Jake Bequette. That leaves two spots for three players: Jermaine Cunningham, Trevor Scott, and undrafted Justin Francis.
Team sources have indicated that Francis has really impressed throughout the evaluation process. His end/tackle versatility is something the others don’t have, and he has practiced better (7-5-2 in one-on-ones) than he has played. I would release Francis and take my chances that he passes through waivers, but I think the Patriots keep him and he makes the roster.
That leaves Scott and Cunningham. Scott is on special teams, and Cunningham has not been as of late. Scott has been just as productive as, if not more than Cunningham in the exhibitions. And Scott (8-5-3) was much better than Cunningham (5-10-2) in one-on-one pass-rush drills in camp. For that reason, I think Scott has the edge.
One special teams note: long snapper Danny Aiken has been inconsistent in this camp. You have to wonder whether the team will take a look at former Patriots long snapper Lonie Paxton, who was released by the Broncos.
Of course, these are all shots in the dark. Just trying to read the tea leaves. And you better believe the injury report coming out of Wednesday night’s game will play a huge factor in the roster. And that’s more information we just won’t have.