Patriots Preseason

Patriots 53-man roster projection: An alternate path for Cunningham?

The Patriots may have to get creative if they want to keep a trio of promising rookies in Foxboro.

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Here's our latest stab at how the Patriots' active roster will look following this summer's cuts. Remember, teams will trim their rosters from 90 to 53 all in one fell swoop this year. Those moves have to be made by Tuesday, Aug. 29 at 4 p.m. ET. 

Quarterback (2): Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe

Malik Cunningham is a difficult omission here for yours truly. He's fun to watch. He's grinded behind the scenes to learn his responsibilities at quarterback, receiver and as a gunner (he also returned a kick the other night in Green Bay). But at this point, based on indications I've been given, the thinking seems to be he may be able to clear waivers and land on the Patriots practice squad.

Perhaps not getting an opportunity to play much quarterback against the Packers -- he was targeted five times as a receiver and didn't have a catch -- helps prevent other clubs from being willing to use a waiver claim on him when cutdown day comes and goes.

Running back (3): Rhamondre Stevenson, Ezekiel Elliott, Pierre Strong

Is it a thin group? It is. But the Patriots should be able to get both Kevin Harris and J.J. Taylor on their practice squad if they so choose. Taylor is of particular interest because he has the ability to make defenders miss in tight spaces. And he got a nice shoutout from Bill Belichick this week.

"J.J. has just gotten better every year," Belichick said. "He works extremely hard, very diligent guy. Had a couple good things in pass protection, which with his size is always a little bit of a challenge, but he’s a tough kid and strong for his size... I thought he did a good job with the screens and some of the catch-and-run opportunities. He’s always been a good ball carrier and physical runner for his size. I mean he’s not little, he’s short, but he’s a thick, strong kid." 

Still, three feels like the right number here this year.

Wide receiver (6): DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kendrick Bourne, Demario Douglas, Kayshon Boutte, Tyquan Thornton

They're not releasing Tyquan Thornton. But I wonder if he's missed enough time this spring and summer to warrant a slower start to the regular season. Perhaps the Patriots keep him on the initial 53-man roster and then -- if he's still banged up -- place him on a reserve list to begin his second year.

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The three veterans listed above feel like locks, as does rookie camp sensation Pop Douglas. Boutte hasn't been as consistent as his Year 1 counterpart, but he has flashed good hands and excellent coordination in camp. He even showed a little burst on his preseason touchdown from Bailey Zappe.

He had a lot of promise at LSU. He looks healthy, which he didn't seem to be during a poor showing at this year's combine. There may be teams now interested in grabbing him with a waiver claim if released. Want a promising young wideout for your future? So do most other clubs. Better protect him.

Tight end (3): Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki, Matt Sokol

I go back and forth on Sokol because he doesn't offer all that much as a receiver. He started the summer hot with a couple of impressive grabs early in camp, but we've seen him stand out in that area very seldomly since then. But as a blocker? He's not afraid to stick his nose in there, as he did for Rhamondre Stevenson's goal-line run in Green Bay.

Because it seems to be a relatively thin position across the league -- especially when it comes to blockers at that position -- Sokol's tape may get him claimed. With only Henry on the roster as a true tight end, my guess is Bill Belichick and Bill O'Brien don't want to be limited to Gesicki and no one else at this spot.

Offensive line (8): Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Mike Onwenu, Riley Reiff, Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow, Atonio Mafi

We included a player who wasn't even on the roster in our last projection, and that ended up working out pretty well. Trying to project a tackle addition here is a little tougher, though they absolutely should be asking old pal Monti Ossenfort (now general manager of the Cardinals) about the availability of Josh Jones.

McDermott feels like a player who might make it through waivers, especially now that he might be a bit banged up (he didn't play in Green Bay). Mafi has gotten enough time to warrant keeping him around. Jake Andrews really hasn't, but he's their highest-drafted lineman in this rookie class and it's hard to see Belichick letting him go. 

Specialists (8): Chad Ryland, Bryce Baringer, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Brenden Schooler, Chris Board, Ameer Speed, Calvin Munson

Calvin Munson, come on down?

He could very well get through to the practice squad. But he's played all four core special teams units for the Patriots. He's a veteran. He's described as a pro's pro. And for a team that still values special teamers highly -- particularly after some high-profile struggles last season after injuries to key contributors -- he's the kind of core depth piece who could be a surprise 53-man player.

Defensive tackle (5): Davon Godchaux, Christian Barmore, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis, Daniel Ekuale

No stunners here. It was noteworthy to see Guy playing late-ish into preseason game No. 2 and get moved by rookie tight end Luke Musgrave at one point, but it makes sense for the Patriots to lean into their run-stuffing tackle depth.

If they're going to play more two-high safety coverages, they're going to have to make up for having one fewer body in the box against the run somehow. Big fellas on the interior of the defensive line, guys who can handle multiple gaps, would be one way to do it. 

Edge defender (5): Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, Keion White, Anfernee Jennings, Deatrich Wise

This group is deep and talented. They have a variety of different body types, which allows them to handle a multitude of responsibilities, and it should make them effective against the myriad week-to-week matchups awaiting them in the regular season.

Linebacker (4): Ja'Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai, Mack Wilson, Marte Mapu

We still haven't seen Mapu in a live full-contact setting -- perhaps that's coming in the preseason finale -- but his play speed at the second level looks legit. And he has the reputation of a big hitter.

Combine that with the impression he's made on veteran teammates behind the scenes because of the types of questions he asks? Feels like he could have a role as a sub linebacker right away.

Safety (4): Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jalen Mills, Jabrill Peppers 

Steady unit here. Joshuah Bledsoe has had moments in camp. And he would be a special-teams regular if kept. But he hasn't been so consistently effective that he has to be kept on the active roster in order to keep him in Foxboro. Feels like a perfect p-squad candidate.

Cornerback (5): Christian Gonzalez, Jack Jones, Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant

Isaiah Bolden was on our last 53-man projection, but it's hard to say what his availability will be after he suffered a scary concussion against the Packers. If healthy, I could see the Patriots wanting to hang onto him because of his rare combination of length and speed. Until we get a better sense of how he's doing, we'll go with five here.

Bryant could be listed as a safety since he's been playing a number of spots in the secondary, but he played well in preseason game No. 2 even if he doesn't wow you with physical traits. Feels like he's a very strong bet to make the active roster once again out of camp.

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