Tom Brady was the obvious lock, but Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer were battling throughout the preseason for the primary backup job. Neither fared particularly well as Mallett completed just 49.3% of his passes for 4.5 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and an interception, while Brian Hoyer completed just 46.8% for 4.2 YPA, 1 touchdown, and an interception. Rather than keeping both, as they did last year, the Patriots went back to a roster with just two quarterbacks and made a somewhat surprising cut of Brian Hoyer.
Hoyer, frequently regarded as one of the better backups in the league before this offseason, was popularly thrown into trade talks with quarterback needy teams by members of the media, but it appears that the media was overrated him. He generated no interest in trade talks and, heading into a contract year owed 1.927 million, he was seen as too expensive for a backup by the Patriots. It’s definitely possible that Mallett won this battle because of his draft status (3rd round pick in 2011), age (24 vs. 27), contract length (3 years instead of 1) and salary (Mallett is owed just $509,000 this season).
Hoyer will catch on somewhere either as a primary or a 3rd quarterback and while Belichick is saying that Mallett earned the backup job, he shouldn’t feel confident if Mallett has to see extended playing time in the absence of Brady this season, based on the 2nd year player’s shaky preseason. Julian Edelman, the team’s swiss army knife, will serve as the team’s emergency 3rd quarterback. Edelman, a wide receiver and return man, was a collegiate quarterback and also saw snaps at defensive back last season.
Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead were all safe. Ridley and Vereen were 3rd and 2nd round picks respectively last season, though their current standing on the depth chart does not reflect their draft status, while Woodhead will continue to serve in a specialized 3rd down role and contribute on special teams as a return man. The only question here was whether or not the Patriots would keep 4 backs or 3 and the answer was 4 as undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden won a roster spot with strong play on special teams in Training Camp and the preseason.
The Patriots did not cut a single running back, but they did put Jeff Demps on IR with a leg “injury.” It’s very likely that the Patriots just did this so they wouldn’t have to cut him and so they could keep him around for 2013. The undrafted free agent signed very late in the offseason after competing in the Olympics so he doesn’t know the system well, but his athletic gifts were too good for the Patriots to let go.
One thing that does stand out is that the Patriots did not keep a single fullback. Eric Kettani, a 2009 undrafted free agent who spent the last 3 years in the Navy, was the only fullback on the 75 man roster and he was cut as part of final cuts. Bolden, a bigger back at 220 pounds, could play some fullback, as could Aaron Hernandez, who had success late last season as a ball carrier and spent time after practice taking carries from Tom Brady during Training Camp. Hernandez will also see action at wide receiver, in addition to tight end and full back. The Patriots’ depth at tight end (4), makes up for their lack of a true fullback.
Perhaps the most surprising cut by the Patriots was their release of Dan Koppen. Koppen, their long time starting center, missed all of last season with injury, but had been working as the team’s 1st team center throughout most of the preseason, with Dan Connolly, the incumbent, working at right guard in place of the still MIA Brian Waters. However, it appears that Koppen has been beaten out by Ryan Wendell, who has played very well in limited action over the last 2 seasons. Still, he’s inexperienced and it’s unknown how undrafted free agent would handle full season as a starter.
Dan Koppen’s salary was reasonable for a backup at $850,000, but the Patriots opted to cut him anyway and replace him with Matt Tennant, waived by the Saints as part of final cuts. Tennant is a 2010 4th round pick and will serve as Wendell’s primary backup unless Brian Waters reports and moves Dan Connolly to center.
The Patriots are obviously hoping that Brian Waters reports sometime between now and Wednesday, their first full regular season practice. Not only would they be getting back a deserving 2011 Pro Bowler, but that would allow Connolly to move to center if they wanted him to. Connolly wasn’t great last season, but he obviously has the experience edge. Waters is currently contemplating retirement. The Patriots have left a roster spot open for him. If he doesn’t, center and right guard are major problem areas for the Patriots.
Left guard is more secure with Logan Mankins continuing to start there. Donald Thomas will be his primary backup as Nick McDonald is on the right side. At offensive tackle, the Patriots will start Nate Solder on the left side and Sebastian Vollmer on the right side and Marcus Cannon, a 2011 5th round pick who is healthy following a cancer scare last season, will serve as the swing tackle. The Patriots kept 9 offensive linemen in all.
Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd were the obvious locks, but the Patriots cut just about every other veteran wide receiver with Chad Ochocinco and Anthony Gonzalez getting cut before Training Camp, Donte Stallworth getting cut before final cuts and both Jabar Gaffney and Deion Branch getting cut at final cuts. Gaffney got a signing bonus of $250,000 when he signed earlier this offseason and has familiarity with both Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels, playing for the Patriots from 2006-2008 and the Broncos from 2009-2010.
However, an injury led to his release. He was expressed interest in returning when he’s healthy and his salary will not be fully guaranteed. The soon to be 32 year old was Washington’s leading receiver last year and would probably find work somewhere if the Patriots were not interested in bringing him back. As for Deion Branch, he is heading into his age 33 season and looked to be close to done down the stretch last season. Never a great athlete, Branch’s best attribute was his route running and timing with Tom Brady. If the Patriots, who he was most valuable to, cut him despite a veteran’s minimum salary, he won’t get a lot of looks around the league and may have to retire.
In place of the veteran receivers, the Patriots kept Julian Edelman and Matt Slater, two young receivers, age 26 and 27 respectively, who play special teams and also played on defense last season. Jesse Holley, another young receiver, was let go. The Patriots also traded a 2015 conditional late round pick to the Rams for Greg Salas, who was drafted in the 4th round just last year when Josh McDaniels was with the Rams as offensive coordinator. He’s got some nice upside, but will start the season as the 5th receiver.
At tight end, the Patriots kept 4 which is rare. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were obvious, but it was believed that Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe were competing for one spot and that Fells would win because Shiancoe was hurt. However, they kept both and now not only have the most talented top-2 tight ends in the league, but the deepest tight end position. Their depth at tight end will help counteract their lack of depth at fullback and, to a lesser extent, at wide receiver. It’s also possible that the Patriots will cut Fells when Shiancoe is healthy and used the added roster spot elsewhere. They could also do that if Brian Waters does not report.
On the defensive line, Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette were locks because of their draft status, 1st and 3rd round rookies respectively. Vince Wilfork was a lock for obviously reasons, while the Patriots were very impressed with the progress of Rob Ninkovich converting from linebacker to defensive end. He’ll start opposite Jones. Kyle Love will start opposite Wilfork so he was a lock. Everything else was kind of an unknown here. Brandon Deaderick, an inside/outside guy, looked like he’d probably stay on the roster, as would Trevor Scott, a situational pass rusher that the team likes. Deaderick will serve as the #3 defensive tackle as Scott will be the #3 defensive end ahead of Bequette.
The big question marks were undrafted free agents Marcus Forston and Justin Francis and former 2nd round pick busts Ron Brace (2009) and Jermaine Cunningham (2010). As it turns out, all 4 of them made the final roster as the Patriots will keep 11 defensive lineman. Cunningham and Brace are actually listed as the 4th string defensive end and defensive tackle respectively, so they must have had good Training Camps as both looked like they would not make the roster. Forston and Francis will probably be gameday inactives for most of the season, but the Patriots did not want to cut them and risk someone else picking them up before the Patriots could put them on the practice squad. Bequette, the Patriots’ #5 defensive end, could also be a frequent gameday inactive as a rookie.
While the Patriots kept 11 defensive linemen, they actually only kept 5 linebackers. If Waters does not report or they cut Fells after Shiancoe returns, adding another linebacker would likely be what they do with the open roster spot. Bobby Carpenter was the notable cut here. A former 1st round pick bust of the Dallas Cowboys, Carpenter opened the offseason as the Patriots’ 1st string linebacker. He was pretty quickly beaten out by 1st round rookie Dont’a Hightower, but he was expected to sting around as a reserve. He did not. The Patriots also had to put Dane Fletcher on IR earlier this month with a knee injury. Clearly Niko Koutouvides and Jeff Tarpinian were not good enough because neither of them made the roster despite their lack of depth, though Tarpinian was added to the special squad and could be called up if a roster spot opens up. He saw a little bit of action for them last season when injuries hit.
Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes will start for the Patriots at linebacker. Spikes will likely come off the field on passing downs. Hightower also has struggles in coverage, which is why many thought he could move to the defensive line and rush the passer on passing downs, as he did in college. However, without Carpenter and Fletcher, the Patriots don’t have the depth for that kind of move to make sense and it’s not like they need another defensive lineman. Hightower will have to drop into coverage more than maybe he’s comfortable with. Spikes and Mayo also had injury problems last year, so their lack of depth here is concerning. Tracy White and Mike Rivera are the two reserves, listed at outside linebacker and middle linebacker respectively.
Starters Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington were locks at cornerback, as was 2011 2nd round pick Ras-I Dowling, while starter Patrick Chung and 2012 2nd round pick Tavon Wilson were locks at safety. Dowling, who missed most of last season with injury, which he also did his senior year at Virginia in 2010, finally seems to be healthy and will be the nickel back. Tavon Wilson will serve as the backup behind veteran Steve Gregory at safety. Gregory, a free agent acquisition who really struggled last season in San Diego, won that job over incumbent James Ihedigbo.
Ihedigbo didn’t play much better last season and was deemed expendable, even at the veteran’s minimum salary, because of the play of 6th round pick Nate Ebner in the preseason and Training Camp. Ebner won’t see much action at safety this season as the 4th safety, but the special teams and rugby star at Ohio State will contribute heavily on special teams and has upside for the future because of his athleticism. Wilson will begin the season as the 3rd safety and step into the starting lineup if Gregory struggles or Chung gets hurt, both of which have pretty strong probabilities.
At cornerback, Sterling Moore, Alfonzo Dennard, and Marquice Cole all made the playoff roster as the Patriots made the surprising decision to keep 6 cornerbacks. This might have been so they move a cornerback to safety if they need to. They could also cut another cornerback soon to make room for another linebacker, which they need more. Cole would be the most likely to go in that situation. Moore was their postseason hero last year after injuries struck, while Alfonzo Dennard was a 7th round rookie who only fell because of legal troubles.
Zoltan Mesko and Sebastian Janikowski will return as the starting punter and place kicker respectively, which is not a surprise. Those are their only two kickers. Danny Aiken will return as the long snapper. Julian Edelman will return punts and be the backup kick returner behind Danny Woodhead. Wes Welker will serve as the 2nd string punt returner and only really come in when they need someone more sure handed for fair catches.
G Austin Thomas
FB Eric Kettani
WR Sam Kirkland
OT Matt Kopa
TE Alex Silvestro
OLB Jeff Tarpinian
CB Malcolm Williams