With all the attention being paid to the scandal surrounding the Patriots, many have forgotten that the roster has changed significantly. The Patriots made 11 selections during the 2015 NFL Draft and they also have made changes in free agency. The team we saw hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February is history, and it's time to move forward and focus on the 2015 season and the chase for a fifth Lombardi Trophy. Let’s take a look at the current roster and try to decipher what Belichick is thinking headed into 2015.
2015 Depth Chart
With Tom Brady facing a suspension to start the year, third stringer Garrett Gilbert should have a strong chance to make the initial roster. If the Brady appeal wins and he doesn't miss a game, New England will most likely continue to go with two quarterbacks. Jimmy Garoppolo impressed last year, especially in the practices leading up to the Super Bowl, so the Patriots should be in good hands if the Brady suspension does happen to hold up.
This position is going to be interesting because there is no clear cut starter. LeGarrette Blount is the closest thing they have to a true starter, but other than Brandon Bolden, who see's carries in 2015? Can Tyler Gaffney emerge as a viable NFL back after the Patriots stole him from Carolina last season? Will James White handle third down duties like Shane Vereen did in 2014 or will free agent pickup Travaris Cadet shine if given an opportunity? There are a lot of question marks and we won't have answers until training camp at the earliest. New England could keep up to five backs, but they'll most likely have four. White, Cadet, and Lewis will be battling for one spot while Jonas Gray faces a battle against Blount, Bolden and Gaffney. Don't be surprised if another back is added before training camp; there are always a couple cap casualties that can still play.
Fullback: James Develin
James Develin is an interesting player because he's the only fullback on the roster and it doesn't look like the Patriots are bringing in any competition. Develin has proven to be an effective situational player for the Patriots and he'll most likely make the 53-man roster.
This may be the deepest the Patriots have been at tight end in a long time, but they are going to be forced to either trade or release a player they like. Michael Hoomanawanui and Fred Davis could be battling for a roster spot in training camp, and if AJ Derby isn't healthy by then, he could find himself on the PUP list or IR. Tim Wright should be considerably better after having a full offseason with the team, and Scott Chandler will add a dimension that will give defenses nightmares; imagine having to deal with Gronkowski and Chandler running routes together out of the ace set (two tight end)? They are going to be almost impossible to defend. Fred Davis is a talented player that had his career sidetracked by off the field issues. If he ever put together a full season and kept himself out of trouble and the training room, he could be very good in this offense.
In 2014, the Patriots wide receiver core was Edelman, LaFell, Amendola, and that's pretty much it. There weren't a lot of contributions from anybody else, but that should change in 2015. Aaron Dobson is in a make-or-break year; he needs to get out of the hot tub and get onto the field and show the same talent that allowed him to contribute as a rookie. Free agent pickup Brandon Gibson should also bring some playmaking ability to the lower end of the depth chart. Josh Boyce is also in a position where he needs to show something or he'll likely be released. Brian Tyms has shown flashes of being able to make big plays and he has a chance to make the roster. Matt Slater will be part of this crew but he should have his own special teams position assigned on the roster because he is the best special teams player in the NFL.
Early in 2014, Patriot fans were calling for the benching of Nate Solder, who was struggling terribly. Nobody, except for the Patriots organization, Solder's family and doctors, knew that Solder had battled testicular cancer in the offseason. As the year went on, Solder became noticeably better and ended up finishing the season strong. Solder should be back to his original form to start 2015 and could be in for a great year. Marcus Cannon is a good backup, and he was rewarded handsomely for it with a new contract during the 2014 season. Kevin Hughes has bounced around the league and will most likely be a training camp casualty.
Jordan Devey came out of nowhere last year, starting throughout the preseason. Devey wasn't quite ready for the big time though and ended up being a game day inactive all season. With Dan Connelly still unsigned, it appears that Devey will have another chance to win a starting position, but it won't be easy. The Patriots drafted guard Tre' Jackson out of Florida State, and I'm sure they fully intend on giving him an opportunity to win the job. Jackson started beside Patriots center Brian Stork on the 2013 National Champion Florida State Seminoles, and that should help ease his transition into the New England offense. Chris Barker could stick if he makes it through waivers, but if he isn't on the Patriots practice squad, he'll most likely not be on the roster at all.
The Patriots struck gold in the draft last year when they landed Bryan Stork, a center that appears to be a future Pro Bowler. New England also selected Shaq Mason in this year's draft, but he'll only play center if Stork gets hurt. David Andrews, a rookie free agent out of Georgia, has a legitimate shot to make the team. If Shaq Mason and Tre' Jackson prove that they can play right away, that will allow the Patriots to release players like Josh Kline and Chris Barker. If Andrews doesn't make the 53-man, the Patriots will definitely try to add him to their practice squad.
When Ryan Wendell moved back to right guard last year, the interior of the offensive line finally settled into a strong group and allowed the Patriots to do what they do on offense. Regardless, Bill Belichick knew he had to add reinforcements, and he did that in the draft. After addressing right guard with Jackson, it was Shaq Mason's turn to hear his name called to play left guard for New England. Mason also has the talent to play center, but he was drafted to be a guard that dominates in the running game. Josh Kline played well when Bryan Stork went down last year as Ryan Wendell went back to center. Kline will have a battle, but he should make the 53-man roster.
Sebastian Vollmer continues to be one of the better right tackles in football, so they are solid there. Cameron Fleming did get some playing time in 2014, but most weeks he was a healthy scratch. Fleming can play guard too so that gives him an in to make the 53-man roster. Caylin Hauptmann has bounced around from Cleveland to Seattle back to Cleveland and now to New England since coming into the league in 2013. He'll most likely be cut and is strictly a training camp body.
For the first time since 2003, the Patriots will open the season without Vince Wilfork manning the middle of their defensive line. Wilfork has moved on to Houston and the Patriots have moved on to Alan Branch, a 2014 in-season pickup that turned into the Patriots best defensive tackle in the Super Bowl run. Branch was brought back on a more lucrative deal, but his signing eases the loss of Wilfork and gives the Patriots more interior pass rush than they've had in some time. 2014 1st Round pick Dominique Easley will also play a big part in the 2015 defensive line rotation, as will rookie 1st Round pick Malcom Brown. Brown has the flexibility to play in the 3-4 or 4-3, a trait that is a must to flourish in New England. Sealver Siliga returns to add depth, and holdovers Joe Vellano and Chris Jones also may make the roster. Antonio Johnson and Vince Taylor are long shots to make the team, although Taylor will have a good chance of landing on the practice squad.
The Patriots found a diamond in the rough when they signed Rob Ninkovich away from New Orleans, but over the last two seasons, Ninkovich has played a ton of snaps. He's more effective when he's rested, and with the addition of rookie Trey Flowers, Nink will finally get the needed rest to be more effective and the Patriots won't feel any drop off in play when he comes off the field. Flowers is a well-balanced defensive end that plays with a strong motor. He gets into the backfield and makes plays on a regular basis. Jake Bequette, a 3rd Round pick in 2012, has found a way to stay on the roster without providing any production. The drafting of Flowers can't bode well for Bequette; the only way he makes the team is if he explodes in the preseason or due to injury.
Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio put their main focus on strengthening the pass rush, and this is where they started adding reinforcements. Holdover Chandler Jones remains the starting right defensive end, but Jabaal Sheard, the Patriots top free agent signing, was added to beef up a pass rush that struggled mightily at times in '14. Jones is a strong pass rusher, but sometimes he gets swallowed up in the run game and might be better off moving inside on third down plays. He is surprisingly effective when he plays inside, and that would allow Sheard to come in and provide a well-rested pass rush. Jones should always be on the field, but he's most effective when he's moved around. Sheard played on both sides and he also played a little outside linebacker, so his flexibility will allow the Patriots to mix and match their personnel packages. Rookie Geneo Grissom, a third round pick out of Oklahoma will be given the opportunity to play if he shows up strong in the preseason. Xzavier Dickson, a former defensive end for Alabama, is another 2015 draft pick that will be given a chance to make the roster because he can get after the quarterback. The Patriots are changing their philosophy, and now it is all about getting to the quarterback and being disruptive in the front seven.
With Jamie Collins, the Patriots possess one of the best young linebackers in football. Collins has the speed and instincts to makes plays in the running and passing game, and he's only headed into his third season. There is not a lot behind Collins on the depth chart though, and if he were to go down, his replacement would most likely be Jerod Mayo, not Freeny, Fleming or Johnson. Fleming and Freeny have a chance to make the team if they can contribute on special teams. Rufus Johnson is an interesting player because he's impressed so many coaches but hasn't been able to put it all together. He may not make the 53-man roster, but he has a good chance to stick on the practice squad, assuming he clears waivers. Although it may appear the Patriots are thin at this position, they are really all set because all their better linebackers are flexible enough to play in other spots. The return of Brandon Spikes at the mike helps the overall depth of the linebacking core.
Jerod Mayo missed basically his second year in a row in 2014, so he'll be looking to prove himself this upcoming season. The aforementioned Brandon Spikes returns after a one year run with the Buffalo Bills; when Vince Wilfork went down in 2013, Spikes play at mike linebacker was the main reason the Patriots could stop the run. He had some issues with Coach Belichick and was inactive for the AFC Title game, but it appears that is all water under the bridge and both parties have moved on. Spikes addition also allows the Patriots to use Mayo as an outside linebacker if an injury occurs. Rookie linebacker Matthew Wells is also listed on the depth chart as a mike linebacker, but he also plays outside and he has the athletic ability to play strong safety too, so his listing with the linebackers is questionable. If he makes plays on special teams, he will be on this roster.
Will Linebacker: Dont’a Hightower, Dekoda Watson, Chris White
Dont'a Hightower may not be 100% to start the season after having offseason shoulder surgery, but he thinks he'll be ready to go. If he isn't, Mayo will slide over and Spikes will start in the middle. Hightower emerged as the Patriots best player in their front seven last season, and his return to health will go a far way in telling how good the Patriots defense will be. Hightower not only sets the front seven, he also sets the tone with the plays he makes behind the line of scrimmage and the physical tone he brings to the game. Chris White is a strong special teams player, but with some of the additions on defense, it is going to be tough for White to stick on the 53-man. Jabaal Sheard also can play the outside linebacker positions and that will help the Patriots when it comes to deciding on roster cuts.
Well, this is not what any Patriot fan expected in early February, but after losing out on the Darrelle Revis sweepstakes and letting Browner go because he didn't fit after the Revis move, the Patriots were down two starting cornerbacks. Then the next series of moves- the release of Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington- were as shocking as Revis and Browner because it leaves the Patriots with Logan Ryan and Bradley Fletcher as their top corners; Robert McClain and Malcolm Butler appear to be the nickel and dime backs. Darryl Roberts, a rookie out of Marshall, has a good chance to make the roster. He should have been a combine invite but he was snubbed, so he made up for it during his pro day when he ran the forty twice, both times under 4.4, and he finished with 23 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. When you look at his physical attributes and watch his tape, it's surprising that he was available in the 7th round. Alfonzo Dennard was a 7th round pick and although he was cut this year, he did contribute to back-to-back AFC Championship game runs. The Patriots are hoping they found another 7th round gem in Roberts. Justin Green returns after spending 2014 in Dallas; Green impressed in the 2013 preseason and has a chance to make the roster. New England also dove into the rookie free agent pool, signing Brandon King, Jimmy Jean and Eric Patterson. King is a physical corner with good size (6'2) who is similar to Browner; Jean is another tall corner, standing at 6"3 but only weighing 180 pounds. Eric Patterson is a smaller corner (5'10) but he had a solid career at Ball State. Dax Swanson, a 2014 graduate of Sam Houston State, is back and also battling for a roster spot. Swanson (5'11) was impressive in camp last year so he could be a surprise in camp.
The Patriots rewarded Patrick Chung with a contract extension during the 2014 season, but with a change in philosophy after losing their top man-to-man corners, Chung may be a liability. Chung is one of the best run-stopping strong safeties in football, but when it comes to defending the pass, he struggles. Chung will still be used more in run support than pass coverage, but his offseason focus needs to be on improving his coverage skills. Nate Ebner is strictly a special teamer that hasn't played defense too often in his career; if he continues his great special teams play, he'll remain on the team, but if he drops at all, he might lose his job. 2015 second round pick Jordan Richards is a smart player that is also strong against the run, but he also has trouble in coverage and has issues playing deep. Richards was considered a reach, which is becoming a draft day tradition in Foxboro. Belichick likes taking safeties that NOBODY expects to see drafted at that point.
Devin McCourty re-signed for big bucks this past offseason, so he'll have a lot of pressure on him to lead this group, especially after the departure of Revis. McCourty should have no problem stepping up considering he's been the top free safety in football over the last two seasons. McCourty has the athletic ability to make plays in the passing game and the smarts to recognize certain situations that other players wouldn't. Tavon Wilson, another one of the surprising Belichick safety selections, has become a good backup and could possibly see time at the strong safety position. Wilson had a huge interception against the Ravens in the AFC Divisional Playoffs last season, which has to help his confidence. Duron Harmon, the third member of the Who? Club at safety, has also developed well and will see a good amount of playing time this year. New England is going to get creative in the secondary and they'll use their safeties more than most teams in the NFL. McCourty may find himself in more man-to-man this year helping the corners while Wilson and Harmon cover the void on the back end. The free safety position is one of the deepest for this young Patriots team.
Punter: Ryan Allen
Ryan Allen has proven to be an excellent NFL punter and that the Patriots were correct in going with him over Zoltan Mesko two years ago. Allen is going to continue to improve as he enters into his prime years and is a weapon for the New England special teams. Allen also handles holding duties, an overlooked job that requires skill and guts. Allen should be the Patriots punter for the next decade.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Stephen Gostkowski is one of the highest paid kickers in football due to his franchise tag designation heading into 2015. The Patriots should be able to work out a long term deal in the offseason, but you never know. Adam Vinatieri was also tagged and he ended up bolting to Indianapolis when he became a free agent again. If Gostkowski takes roughly $3.5 per year, he'll end up being signed long term.
Long Snapper:*Joe Cardona
Cardona, a rookie out of the Naval Academy, is no sure thing for 2015. If the Patriots can't work out an agreement with the Navy regarding the five years of service owed, then New England will be looking for another long snapper. Cardona is only the fourth long snapper in history to be drafted.