FOXBOROUGH - It's the unpleasant side of the NFL this time of year for both players and coaches - cuts. Coaches know they have to make them. Players know they have to be made. But that doesn't make it any easier for either side.
"I just think that whether it's your 12th year in the league or your second, it's a pretty somber day just in a sense of there are guys that are potentially losing their jobs," said Patriots running back Sammy Morris.
Yesterday, the Patriots made their first NFL-mandated roster reduction, trimming from 80 to 75. The biggest surprise was the team's decision to part ways with veteran cornerback Jason Webster, who was signed in the offseason from Buffalo. A hamstring injury proved to be Webster's undoing. The veteran, entering his ninth NFL season, had been missing from practice since July 27 until he returned Monday. But he had run out of time to show the coaching staff what he could do.
The Patriots released only three players: Webster, running back Kyle Eckel, and rookie offensive lineman Ryan Wendell. They got down to 75 by placing right guard Stephen Neal on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, meaning he'll have to sit out the first six weeks of the season, and ending the season of backup right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan (shoulder), moving him to injured reserve.
Yesterday was just the precursor to the final round of cuts that must be made by 4 p.m. Saturday to get down to 53 players (teams are given exemptions for players who open the season on PUP).
With that in mind, here's a position-by-position breakdown of the decisions facing the Patriots:
Quarterbacks (3): Reigning league Most Valuable Player Tom Brady, who has not taken a snap in an exhibition game, and rookie third-round pick Kevin O'Connell are safe, so this comes down to whether to keep four quarterbacks or cut fourth-year backup Matt Cassel or second-year signal-caller Matt Gutierrez. Cassel has struggled in the preseason, failing to lead the team to the end zone in 15 possessions. Gutierrez has the best numbers of the QBs in the preseason, 24 of 36 for 293 yards with two touchdown passes and an interception. Best guess: Brady, O'Connell, and Gutierrez.
Running backs (5): They had only four on the final roster last year. Laurence Maroney is entrenched as the starter, and Kevin Faulk is invaluable as a situational back. Heath Evans is the lone fullback type and a good special teams player. That leaves Morris, who was the team's leading rusher last season when he went down with a sternum-clavicle separation, and preseason pickup LaMont Jordan, who is the team's leading rusher in the exhibitions with 19 carries for 76 yards, battling for a backup role. Best guess: Bill Belichick seems set on keeping those five.
Wide receivers (6): Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Jabar Gaffney are the receivers Brady trusts the most. Kelley Washington didn't catch a ball last year but is the team's top special teams player. Chad Jackson has too much potential to be just cast aside. The X-factor is whether special teams standout Sam Aiken, who hurt his knee in the opening preseason game, is sufficiently healed to occupy a roster spot or has to go on IR. Best guess: Moss, Welker, Gaffney, Washington, Jackson, Aiken.
Tight ends (2): As long as David Thomas stays healthy, he'll team with Benjamin Watson at tight end. The Patriots likely will put another tight end on the practice squad. That could be Jonathan Stupar or Tyson DeVree. Best guess: Watson and Thomas.
Offensive line (9): The play of this unit has been abysmal in the preseason, as injuries have robbed it of continuity and consistency. The line has allowed 10 sacks, and the Patriots are averaging just 3.3 yards per rush. Left tackle Matt Light returned to practice this week. Along with his fellow Pro Bowlers - left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen - Light anchors the line. Right tackle Oliver Ross is still on PUP. Veterans John Welbourn (right guard/right tackle) and Mike Flynn (center/guard) could be fighting for just one spot. Best guess: Light, Mankins, Koppen, Nick Kaczur, Russ Hochstein, Billy Yates, Wesley Britt, Welbourn, and Flynn.
Defensive line (6): The Patriots have a healthy Richard Seymour this season. Last year, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive end opened the season on PUP after a slow recovery from left knee surgery. With Seymour, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and defensive end Ty Warren, the Patriots have one of the top defensive lines in the NFL. If healthy, Mike Wright, who opened camp on PUP after suffering a season-ending foot injury in 2007, can play both nose tackle and end. Jarvis Green, who looks fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, would be a starter on most teams. Basically, one spot is up for grabs, and it comes down to Kenny Smith, Santonio Thomas, or Le Kevin Smith. Best guess: Le Kevin Smith gets the sixth and final nod because he can play the nose.
Linebacker (9): They have 12 linebackers on the roster. There is a lot of youth here and a lot of potential, led by first-round pick Jerod Mayo, who figures to open the season as a starter at inside linebacker, and outside linebacker Shawn Crable. The surprise could be that both veteran special teamer Larry Izzo and former Jets linebacker Victor Hobson, who has struggled to make the transition to 3-4 inside linebacker, get whacked in favor of undrafted rookies Vince Redd and Gary Guyton, who may be difficult to stash on the practice squad. Best guess: Tedy Bruschi, Mayo, Adalius Thomas, Mike Vrabel, Crable, Pierre Woods, Eric Alexander, Guyton, and Redd.
Defensive back (9): An injury has prevented Mike Richardson from playing in the exhibitions, making it tough to evaluate his play. The corners who are safe are starters Fernando Bryant and Ellis Hobbs and rookies Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite. At safety, Brandon Meriweather's leg injury is not serious. He'll join Rodney Harrison, James Sanders, and John Lynch. Safety Antwain Spann has been one of the team's best performers in the preseason, and is likely competing with Richardson for a roster spot. Best guess: Bryant, Hobbs, Wheatley, Wilhite, Richardson, Harrison, Sanders, Lynch, Meriweather.
Specialists (4): Stephen Gostkowski has been lights-out in the preseason, connecting on all five of his field goal attempts and drilling a 53-yarder. Chris Hanson has no competition at punter and Lonie Paxton is the long snapper emeritus. The fourth specialist would be rookie Matthew Slater, a fifth-round pick whom the Patriots like as a return man.