Taylor McCloud — Pats Militia
The NFL’s cut weekend is the most brutal two day stretch in all of sports. Teams have just a couple of days to trim their rosters down to 53 players. Guys who have worked their tails off all summer are sent home. Guys who probably shouldn’t make the team end up with a roster spot. None of it is fair, but in the National Football League, that’s just how it goes.
In the case of the Patriots, thirty-six players were released.
Here’s who the team let go:
RB Brandon Bolden
RB LeShun Daniels Jr.
RB D.J. Foster
FB Glenn Gronkowski
WR Austin Carr
WR Cody Hollister
WR Devin Lucien
WR K.J. Maye
WR Tony Washington
TE Sam Cotton
TE Matt Lengel
TE James O’Shaughnessy
OL Jamil Douglas
OL James Ferentz
OL Ted Karras
OL Jason King
OL Conor McDermott
OL Max Rich
DL Josh Augusta
DL Michael Bart
DL Geneo Grissom
DL Woodrow Hamilton
DL Darius Kilgo
DE Kony Ealy
DE Caleb Kidder
LB Trevor Bates
LB Brooks Ellis
LB Jonathan Freeny
LB Christian Kuntz
LB Nick Usher
DB David Jones
DB D.J. Killings
DB Will Likely
DB Kenny Moore II
DB Jason Thompson
DB Damarius Travis
For a team coming off a Super Bowl championship, though, certain personnel decisions sting a little less. Because a large majority of last season’s roster is returning for 2017, only a handful of roster spots were up in the air. Consequently, only a handful of cuts came as a surprise. I did not expect for guys like Brandon Bolden, Ted Karras, Geneo Grissom and Jonathan Freeny to get the axe, but as I wrote earlier, that’s just how it goes. The NFL is a business. Players are going to get cut.
Not all players, though. There are 1,696 active players in the National Football League, and 53 of them play for the Patriots.
Here’s a look at the team’s current depth chart(s):
Unlike last season, the Patriots are beginning the 2017 season with only two quarterbacks. Luckily, the two guys they’ve got are pretty good. Tom Brady is, you know, Tom Brady, and Jimmy Garoppolo is arguably the best backup QB in the league. The Pats are in good shape under center.
They’re pretty solid at running back, too.
Coming into training camp, it was unclear how the running back situation would shake out. Returning players James White, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden and D.J. Foster, along with newcomers Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee were all looking to split preseason carries. Now, following the release of Foster and Bolden, only four guys will look to share runningback responsibilities.
If I had to guess, I would say that James White will be the opening night “starter.” I put “starter” in quotations for a reason, though. As Patriots fans know, there’s no real starting RB in New England. As gameplans change, so does on-field personnel. While James White may get the lion’s share of carries against Kansas City on Thursday night, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee could split time the following week in New Orleans, and Dion Lewis could shred the Buccaneers the week after that. No one outside of Foxborough knows which RB will be featured from week to week, but with the group of guys they’ve got heading into 2017, I think the Duke will be in good hands.
On the outside, the Patriots will feature their strongest group of wideouts since 2007.
If you look at their returning players alone, you’ll find a strong core. Chris Hogan has turned himself into one of the league’s best deep threats. Danny Amendola has ice in his veins. Malcolm Mitchell is primed to take a step forward after a solid rookie season and understated, but crucial Super Bowl performance.
And, if you look at their two newcomers, you’ll find two pieces that transform that strong core into a multi-headed monster. Both Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett ran 4.33 second 40-yard dashes at their respective draft combines. If you’re not familiar with 40 times, I’ll put it simply: these dudes can absolutely FLY. Josh McDaniels will be able to put them anywhere on the field and they’ll be able to take the top off any defense. Cooks is a much stronger, and more complete player, but Dorsett is no slouch. Tom Brady’s going to need to be as pliable as possible to keep up with these two.
Speaking of Brady, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his favorite target — Julian Edelman.
We all know the deal, Edelman is out for the season. There’s not much to say about the situation except to say that it’s shitty. After Brady, he’s the most important player on the Patriots. In any game, any quarter, on any play, I’m confident he’ll do whatever is needed to ensure victory. Not having him out there is going to suck. Yes, the receiving corps is chock full of talented guys and yes, this team always makes do with whatever they have, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous because of this injury. When Edelman went down in the second half of 2015, the Patriots struggled to get it going offensively. My fingers are crossed they don’t run into the same problem this season.
They’re also crossed for Rob Gronkowski.
The season-ending back injury he suffered last year was no joke. If you read anything I wrote during that whole sage, you’ll remember how afraid I was for him. He’s been through the wringer when it comes to injuries and that spinal injury was the worst. At one point, I wrote that he should consider quitting football.
Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen. Gronk is a machine. He had spinal surgery, rehabbed all offseason, and saw actual gametime this preseason, something that happened since 2012. Based on all accounts, he’s ready to go for 2017. He’s going to catch footballs, smash defenses, spike said footballs into the depths of hell and by God, I’m ready for it. I’m also ready for newcomer, Dwayne Allen and UDFA, Jacob Hollister to contribute as tight ends, too.
When it comes to the offensive line, I care about one thing: performance. A lot of people get caught up in underdog stories and other things of that nature, but if Tom Brady’s on his back, guess what? None of that stuff matters. Nate Solder, LaAdrian Waddle, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Marcus Cannon, Cam Fleming and UDFA Cole Croston have one job — protect TB12. That’s it.
When Chris Long left for Philadelphia, the Patriots lost a solid defensive end. When Rob Ninkovich retired, the Patriots lost a solid defensive end. When Derek Rivers tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve, the Patriots lost a solid defensive end. If you’re keeping track, that’s three solid defensive ends lost. Two words: not great.
All offseason long, the weakest position on the Patriots’ roster has been defensive end. On the current depth chart, Lawrence Guy and Trey Flowers are listed as the starting defensive ends. Behind them are rookie Deatrich Wise and newcomer, Cassius Marsh.
Flowers is somewhat proven, but has only played one full season. If you Google Lawrence Guy, you’ll notice that every article refers to him as a defensive tackle. Deatrich Wise is a rookie, and also injured. Cassius Marsh has been a Patriot for like, twenty hours. Pardon me, but I think this motley crew might need some help. It’s been rumored that Shea McClellin will be playing more edge this year, and Dont’a Hightower has been running with the defensive ends quite frequently, but I can’t help but feel uneasy about the situation.
Fortunately for me, I feel the exact opposite way about the depth at defensive tackle. Alan Branch might just be the largest human being in the world and Malcolm Brown isn’t far behind. Both guys have proven themselves at the professional level and I expect them to continue to do so, and I expect two young players, Vincent Valentine and UDFA Adam Butler to be able to back up Branch and Brown sufficiently. Valentine has a year’s worth of playing time under his belt and Adam Butler did this two weeks ago:
Vanderbilt product and Patriots undrafted rookie Adam Butler going to town through the A-gap. pic.twitter.com/aaSctcJ8JC
— Oliver Thomas (@OliverBThomas) August 26, 2017
I’ve watched a lot of football in my nineteen years. There have been few times I’ve been as entertained by a football play than I was by that Butler tackle. To watch a 300LB man smash through a line of other 300LB men trying to stop him from doing so was incredible by itself, but to see that same 300LB man chase down a much smaller, much faster man and jump on his shoulders like a spider monkey was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I know Theo Riddick got up and continued playing after that tackle, but there isn’t a soul on this Earth who can tell me he won’t be feeling the effects from that for the rest of his life. In summary, I love Adam Butler.
I also love Dont’a Hightower. If you’re a Patriots fan, you do too. And, because you’re a Patriots fan and you love Dont’a Hightower, I won’t tell you about how good he is. However, I will tell you about the other linebackers on the Patriots’ roster.
Flanking Hightower on the Pats’ starting defense will be Shea McClellin and David Harris. McClellin has a strong nose for the football and is looking to build on a solid 2016 season. Harris will be looking for revenge. After spending ten years in New York, Harris was cut by the Jets. He is 33 and angry. Normally, that’s not a great combination, but normally, Jets’ castoffs don’t get paired with a coach who hates them more than anything in the world. Ever since he resigned with a note on a napkin, Bill Belichick has wreaked havoc on the New York Jets. If David Harris has any desire to get back at his old team in any way, BB will find a way to get the maximum out of him. Likewise, he’ll have to put backup linebackers Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy and UDFA Harvey Langi in the best positions to succeed. (Expect newcomer Marquis Flowers to play some linebacker this year, but primarily play a more Barkevious Mingo-ish special teams role.)
Behind the linebackers, you’ve got what could be the best secondary in the NFL. The Seahawks’ Legion of Boom would have something to say about that, but there’s a legitimate case to be made for this Pats’ secondary.
In Athlon Sports’ 2017 Cornerback Rankings feature, Malcolm Butler was ranked as the sixth best cornerback in football, and his counterpart, Stephon Gilmore, came six places later at twelve. Behind those two, you can expect to see Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones and Johnson Bademosi, another predominantly special teams guy.
To complement the tandem of Butler and Gilmore at corner, the Patriots have Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. Last season, the Patriots gave up the fewest YAC in the NFL. McCourty and Chung are largely responsible for that. While safeties are expect to tackle well, few safeties tackle as well as these two. The second a receiver lays hands on the ball, they’re being dragged to the ground. Stuff like that goes unnoticed by the casual fan, but anyone who’s paying attention will tell you that the plays in which receivers shake a tackle or two and gain an extra five-to-ten yards hurt the most. With McCourty and Chung patrolling the field, though, those types of plays are a rarity.
Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner and Brandon King will be backups at safety, but look for Richards, Ebner and King to contribute most on special teams alongside team captain and wide receiver, Matthew Slater.
But there will certainly be a few more important special teams’ guys in 2017. Longsnapping for the Pats this year will be U.S. Navy member, Joe Cardona. Ryan Allen has a left foot and is relatively good at kicking the shit out of a football, so he will be punting for the team. And, Stephen Gostkowski, the marksman turned human roller coaster ride will be doing the kicking for the twelfth consecutive year in New England.