New England Patriots

Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey (83) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants during the second half of a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

  • Lil’Jordan Humphrey arrived in New England with minimal fanfare. After failing a physical with the New Orleans Saints – where he’d spent the first three years of his NFL career – in March, he remained unsigned through OTAs and minicamp. He didn’t join the Patriots until shortly after joint practices in mid-June.

    Even in the first couple of weeks of training camp, Humphrey didn’t do much to stand out. Through two weeks, it was Tre Nixon who appeared to be the favorite for a potential sixth receiver spot on the roster.

    After a few weeks to shake the rust off though, Humphrey started to really surge. He led the team in catches the final two practices before the preseason opener, then caught six passes for 62 yards and a score in the game itself against the Giants.

  • Humphrey followed that up with a solid performance during joint practices against the Panthers. He capped that week with a five7 catch, 71 yard performance in the second preseason game.

    The 24-year-old also made a highlight play downing a punt in the fourth quarter. His overall special teams performance may actually be more notable, given the fact he’d only played 52 total special teams snaps over the course of his three year career prior to joining the Patriots. Given special teams is where bubble players and win or lose a roster spot, that development stands out.

  • When asked about Humphrey after Friday night’s game, Bill Belichick couldn’t help but smile. “He’s made some plays for us since he’s been here. He’s a big kid that is tough and has very good hands and is kind of a big receiver, tight end-ish type of guy, has a good feel, very good instincts in the passing game, handles himself well in the middle of the field with linebackers under him, over him, in between him,” Belichick noted. “He gets some tough yards after the catch. Did a decent job blocking on some of the perimeter plays. Then he showed up in the kicking game.”

    “He’s come in, really worked hard and made a very positive impression here,” Belichick continued. “We’re glad we have him.”

  • As is always the case in training camp and the preseason, it is important to put a player’s success in context. It’s not as if Humphrey is out there beating All-Pro corners in a snap-after-snap basis. What he’s done is show that when he’s on the field with borderline roster players, he’s clearly a step or two above. He’s a player that belongs on a 53-man roster, offering depth at wide receiver and can contribute snaps in the kicking game.

    So where does that all leave Humphrey with just over a week to go until final roster cuts? Ironically, Humphrey is the kind of player the Patriots waited five years for while their receiving group was going through turnover – a big-body bully ball receiver that could offer competitive rotational snaps. Now that he’s here though, finding a spot for him is tough with the depth ahead of him at the wide receiver position.

    When NFL teams put together their initial 53-man roster, it’s not necessarily the best 53 overall players that make the team. Teams must also consider things like depth and positional minimums as well.

    Think about it like the March Madness bracket. There are 68 teams picked to go to the tournament every year, but they’re not necessarily the best 68 teams in the country. Certain spots are held for automatic bids from conferences. Then, there’s the ‘at-large’ bids that can be won by any team.

    Back to football – let’s say a team’s backup quarterback isn’t outright one of the 53 best players on the roster. That QB is still going to make the team, because carrying any less than two quarterbacks just isn’t realistic. That then pushes a player in the top 53 off the roster.

  • Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey (83) runs the ball as Carolina Panthers cornerback Madre Harper (36) closes in during the second half of a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey (83) runs the ball as Carolina Panthers cornerback Madre Harper (36) closes in during the second half of a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

  • Belichick went further in depth on this topic while speaking with the media Saturday morning. “The process [of roster cuts] is really simple – put together the best team that you can and that’s a lot of things can go into consideration there, but in the end, you just try to balance your team out and put the best group you can out there,” he explained. “A lot of times it comes down to you want to carry a player at a certain position for depth, to have a certain number of players at a particular position, but you have a player who’s just maybe has out performed as just a total football player which is an extra guy at another position that you – it’s an extra guy. But he’s played better than the player you’re considering at a position of numbers need and depth. So that’s always a tough decision. Do you let the better player go, or do you let the player go and lack depth at a position?”

    Based on average positional minimums over the last 10 years, NFL teams have about 13 roster spots that are truly up for grabs each year, regardless of position (although that number may grow in the future as teams get creative with the newly-instituted practice squad elevation rules). That number shrinks further though when roster locks extend beyond those positional minimums. To use the Patriots as an example, they have five wide receivers that project as roster locks (pending any trades) in DeVante ParkerNelson AgholorKendrick BourneJakobi Meyers, and Tyquan Thornton. That takes away an at-large roster spot given the average minimum at the receiver position is four players.

    This is where Humphrey comes back in. Pending a trade or injury, he’s not going to eclipse any of the above wideouts for one of the wide receiver spots. He’s going to have to win an ‘at-large’ roster spot.

    Based on positional minimums and projected roster locks, the Patriots five or six total at-large spots open on the roster this year. Other players that project to be in the running for those spots along with Humphrey include Nixon and Wilkerson, running back Kevin Harris, offensive linemen Kody Russey and Arlington Hambright, defensive linemen Sam Roberts, LaBryan Ray, Henry Anderson, and Carl Davis, linebackers Ronnie Perkins and Cameron McGrone, cornerback Shaun Wade, safety Joshuah Bledsoe, and special teamers Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell. When people talk about the ‘roster bubble,’ this is essentially that concept, qualified. This same roster path can, for the most part, be applied to any of those players as well as Humphrey.

  • Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots special teams Lil'Jordan Humphrey (83) keeps the ball in bounds on the kickoff against the Carolina Panthers in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots special teams Lil’Jordan Humphrey (83) keeps the ball in bounds on the kickoff against the Carolina Panthers in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

  • For Humphrey to make the team, he basically needs to prove to the coaching staff he is one of the five or six best players in that group. Right now, he seems to be on pace to do that, especially with his special teams contributions.

    Thornton’s injury could end up being a deciding factor here. Without him available to start the season, the Patriots may be more inclined to keep added wide receiver depth. That would make Humphrey a more attractive candidate, as the spot becomes more about depth.

    Keep in mind though, the Patriots have to first keep Thornton on the initial 53-man roster before moving him to IR for him to be eligible to return this year. That would mean keeping six wide receivers initially, as Humphrey has likely done too much this summer to pass through waivers unclaimed.

    Really, there’s still a lot of moving pieces here. But right now, the numbers seem to indicate Humphrey has a good shot to be with the Patriots come Week 1.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.