By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The longer Patriots training camp went on, the harder it became to project who stays and who goes on the main roster.
Besides perhaps tight end and left tackle, pretty much every positional group on the team has shown impressive depth. Arguably all of them contain a player or two who have played well and would be tough to release before the season, or could even be part of a late trade. It's a hell of a problem for Bill Belichick to have.
There are certainly some bold predictions and hard cuts in the below projection for the Patriots' 53-man roster. But it also illustrates how hard it will be to spot weaknesses on the team. And if Isaiah Wynn takes off at left tackle and the likes of Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse pan out at tight end over the course of the season, this team may very well be bulletproof.
Check out our third roster projection below. The Final 53™ has become a trilogy. There will be more installments to this blockbuster franchise as the preseason rolls along.
Quarterbacks (3): Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Jarrett Stidham
Nothing to see here. The only question is whether Stidham would be ready to be the full-time backup, which would allow the Patriots to move on from Hoyer and retain depth elsewhere. Doesn't appear likely, especially considering how good Hoyer looked last Thursday.
Running Backs (6): Brandon Bolden, Rex Burkhead, James Develin (FB), Damien Harris, Sony Michel, James White
The only question mark here is Burkhead, who has been up and down in terms of health and participation during camp. But if he's healthy he's probably in. Everyone else is a virtual lock. The returning Bolden should be a sneaky-good addition since he can help the team in terms of RB depth and special teams, both areas where they had issues last season.
Wide Receivers (5): Phillip Dorsett, Julian Edelman, Maurice Harris, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers
Here's where the first tough cut comes. Braxton Berrios is left off here in favor of Harris, a bigger receiver with a wider catch radius who appears to have earned every bit the same amount of trust from Brady. Berrios has practiced and played well of late, but he also seems like a receiver who carries much more value to the Patriots than any other team. He's not a plug-and-play kind of receiver at this point in his career.
For that reason, my first bold prediction is Berrios clears waivers and stashes safely on the practice squad with a chance to elevate to the main roster later in the season. Everyone else is a lock at this point. Meyers would have to drop off massively not to be on the team, let alone not be a Week 1 starter.
Tight Ends (2): Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo
With Ben Watson out for weeks 1-4, Izzo gets the nod to start the season. Then, we'll see. The newly acquired Eric Saubert might throw a wrench into those plans, but the former Falcons TE is probably a special teamer at best. For now he's on the outside looking in, as are Lance Kendricks, Andrew Beck, and Stephen Anderson.
Offensive Line (8): David Andrews, Marcus Cannon, Hjalte Froholdt, Ted Karras, Shaq Mason, Dan Skipper, Joe Thuney, Isaiah Wynn
Rookie OL Yodny Cajuste would be in here somewhere if he were on the field at all, but he's still on the reserve/non-football injury list. So for now he's projected to have a redshirt season on IR. Skipper is now splitting more starter reps at left tackle with Wynn, so he's still on the team but ideally as the third tackle. Froholdt may not play much as a rookie, but he looked solid in his preseason debut and should make the team barring an injury.
Defensive Line (8): Michael Bennett, Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, Mike Pennel, Derek Rivers, Danny Shelton, John Simon, Chase Winovich
Deatrich Wise continues to be one of the harder-working Patriots as he grinds toward refining his skill set. But for now he's being left off in favor of 2017 draft classmate Rivers, who has flashed his pass-rushing speed in camp and the preseason. It does feel like those three are vying for one open spot in this positional group. Bennett, Butler, Guy, Pennel, and Shelton will rotate as the down linemen in the 3-4 looks we've seen a lot of this offseason, while Rivers, Simon and Winovich are more outside linebacker types who will come off the edge.
Linebackers (6): Ja'Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun, Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Brandon King, Kyle Van Noy
There are a couple of tough cuts coming at this position. It's just inevitable. Calhoun is getting starter reps and has played too well to leave out. Bentley is a lock as long as he's healthy, as are mainstays Hightower and Van Noy. Collins has played with the starters pretty much the whole time and looks like he could be in for a renaissance season in his second stint with the Pats. For now, King remains as a core special teamer and squeezes out Calvin Munson. Elandon Roberts hasn't looked bad by any means, but there simply may not be enough room for him.
Safeties (5): Terrence Brooks, Patrick Chung, Nate Ebner, Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty
It's hard to believe that any of the above names would be cut or traded. But if that happens, Harmon would be a candidate to carry real trade value around the league. They've given Melifonwu a long, hard look as a deep safety, but for now I still have Harmon in over him. Ebner returned from the PUP list this week and resumed his regular practice routine as a special teams cornerstone, working to the side with Matthew Slater. Brooks has gotten reps on defense as well as special teams, while veterans Chung and McCourty are locks.
Cornerbacks (6): Keion Crossen, Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Joejuan Williams
Would Belichick really move on from Duke Dawson before giving him a second full season? He's never done it with a second-round pick. But this is becoming a unique situation. Dawson has not played particularly well in camp and stood out with his subpar play in the preseason opener. And at the same time, the Patriots have incredible depth of talent at this position. Even rookie Joejuan Williams has come on of late and started to make plays in practice after a sloppy start.
If Belichick insists on sticking with Dawson, he'd probably have to decide between Crossen and Jones for a trade. That just doesn't appear as likely as cutting Dawson at this point.
Specialists (4): P Jake Bailey, LS Joe Cardona, K Stephen Gostkowski, Matthew Slater
Bailey could still lose out to veteran Ryan Allen at punter and go to waivers, but it's hard to believe the Patriots would target him so aggressively at the draft only to release him a few months later. The others don't have any competition for their spots.
There will be another projection next week, and one last installment of The Final 53™ just before the Patriots make their final roster cuts.
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 protected].