By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The New England Patriots are getting ready for their big rehearsal against the Carolina Panthers. Much of the 53-man roster is already settled. For the starters, it’s a matter of getting a good-enough simulation of regular season action as the Houston Texans await in Week 1.
But for many others on the roster, it’s still about simply competing for a job. There are key positions with still-unanswered questions, some of which could take a step toward answers on Friday in Charlotte.
Several players have looked strong in training camp and/or the preseason so far, but remain vulnerable when it comes to cut-down time. It’ll be on those players to continue building momentum toward earning their place on the Patriots. Others, ranging from rookies to seasoned veterans, are running out of time to prove themselves.
Here’s a quick look at some ongoing positional battles on the Patriots roster, and 10 players within those groups to watch for against the Panthers on Friday.
WRs Eric Decker, Riley McCarron, and Braxton Berrios
Excluding the suspended Julian Edelman, the Patriots have four players all but assured roster spots at wide receiver: Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Matthew Slater. That means that Decker, McCarron, and Berrios could be battling for a single spot. Kenny Britt also belongs on that list, but he’s still battling a hamstring injury and hasn’t participated fully since minicamp. The Patriots could still stash him on the PUP list for the first six weeks of the regular season.
Decker has had trouble holding on to the ball and hasn’t stood out compared to his younger counterparts. McCarron could have the inside track, based on his occasional usage with the starting offense in training camp. He and Berrios also contribute as punt returners, which could give them an edge over veterans like Decker and Britt.
RBs Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee, and Brandon Bolden
Hill has looked better overall than Gillislee in the preseason, but the latter is getting a fair shot at earning what looks to be one open spot as an offensive running back. Bolden still has a good chance of staying due to his special teams prowess, but Hill and Gillislee have also been used in special teams situations.
Undrafted free agent Ralph Webb remains a long shot to make the roster, but could be a practice squad candidate. If Hill can continue to play as well as he has so far, he should be considered the favorite to beat out Gillislee. With James White, Rex Burkhead, and Sony Michel guaranteed roster spots, the aforementioned group of four appears to be fighting for two open roster spots.
TEs Dwayne Allen and Will Tye
The longer that the summer’s gone on, the more apparent it’s become that Allen and his $5 million price tag will end up making the roster. He’s played a lot on the line as a blocker for the running game, and has worked hard to improve as much as he can offensively.
Second-year tight end Jacob Hollister looks close to a guarantee to make the team as the No. 2 receiving option at the position behind Rob Gronkowski. So it’s likely that Allen and Tye are competing for one more spot. Rookie seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo is also in the mix, but had to miss practice this week due to non-injury reasons. There should be a chance that he sees the field over the next two weeks as well, but he hasn’t appeared to show enough to get beyond the practice squad this season.
UPDATE (Friday, 1:33 p.m.): Hollister is not expected to play Friday night due to a minor health issue, nor is Izzo. So that should mean more of an opportunity for Tye to catch up to Allen.
DT Vincent Valentine
The Patriots do seem locked in with Malcom Brown, Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, and Danny Shelton as their four interior defensive linemen. But if Brown becomes a surprise trade chip, or Belichick wants to go deeper at DT, that could give Valentine a better chance of sticking around. He missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury and it could be too early for the Pats to give up on the 2016 third-round pick.
DL Keionta Davis
The second-year defensive lineman out of Tennessee-Chattanooga is getting his first real shot at making an NFL roster after spending his entire rookie season on the non-football injury list. He’s been working his way back from a bulging disc in his neck that was discovered at the 2017 Combine. The diagnosis knocked Davis from a mid-round pick to off draft boards altogether.
But after getting a fresh, roadblock-free start with the Patriots in 2018, Davis has turned heads as an edge rusher. He impressed in last Thursday’s preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Even with a deeper, improved pass rush, the Patriots may need to make room for Davis if he keeps standing out.
— Any cornerback not named Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, or Duke Dawson shouldn’t feel safe right now. It’s possible that seven players – Jason McCourty, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz, and rookies Keion Crossen & J.C. Jackson – are fighting for only two open spots. Gut says they go to Jonathan Jones and Jackson, but McCourty and Cyrus Jones will get fair shots if they can both get on the field.
— With Isaiah Wynn likely ending up on injured reserve for the entire season, that gives other offensive tackles to seize their opportunities for his open spot. Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon, and LaAdrian Waddle are roster locks. That leaves a spot that’s likely to go to Cole Croston or free-agent signing Matt Tobin.
— Safety is a deep, secure spot with Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon atop the depth chart. But Jordan Richards could find himself in danger of a spot in his fourth season with the Patriots, facing a push from veteran special teams safety Eddie Pleasant. Damarius Travis is a long shot, but Pleasant should be considered a legitimate candidate to overtake Richards.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.