Players On The Bubble
Weve broken players down into three categories:
Keepers: The most likely starters and top sub players
In, Unless: These players will make the cut unless (a) an injury (b) surprises choice
On The Bubble: These players are looking from the outside in
OFFENSIVE LINE: The offensive line has been less productive than the starting group, which struggled in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Fortified with a number of street free agents, rookies and players lacking experience, New England has question marks everywhere on the O-Line. Nick Kaczur and Wesley Britt have swapped roles at left tackle and right tackle in an attempt to replace Matt Light who has missed a significant amount of time in camp for undisclosed reasons. Neither Britt nor Kaczur seem to be the answer, causing great uncertainty along the line. Ryan O'Callaghan has also been away from practice. It appeared that O'Callaghan may have tweaked his knee in practice as he was last seen walking slowly off the practice field over a week ago.
The keepers remain holdovers from last season. The team's five starters return for another year, while the primary backups Britt, Hochstein, Yates and O'Callaghan are the most likely to return. Of the newcomers, Jimmy Martin and Dan Connolly have shown up in camp and the preseason games, though Connolly may rue a poor snap to Matt Cassel resulting in a Tampa Bay touchdown. 2008 free agent acquisition Oliver Ross began training camp on the PUP list, and may not actually start the season on the active roster.
In, Unless: OT Ryan OCallaghan, OG/C Billy Yates
TIGHT ENDS: The tight end unit has undergone considerable change since Daniel Graham left for Denver. Injuries have affected the starters, while players like Kyle Brady and Marcus Pollard had trouble picking up the system, or fitting into the scheme. Watson and Thomas are the primaries, while Spach offers enough blocking ability to make the cut, unless Stupar and DeVree are on the outside looking in at a spot on the practice squad they hope.
In, Unless: Stephen Spach
RUNNING BACKS: The position is full of talent, but of which type? There is a growing belief that Laurence Maroney may not get it even with the support of the team and the elite status of being a first round Draft pick. He runs hard, but even he admitted he needs more carries in a game to get going. Sammy Morris is fighting his way back from a freak chest injury and his performance thus far in preseason hasnt been as inspiring as hoped. Morris' performance early in the 2007 regular season led the team to believe that he could be the primary back while Maroney, and crew supplement the former Dolphin. Morris turned 31 years old this year, a sure sign that the team needs to look at a possible future without him. Kevin Faulk is an aging veteran (32) who knows how to play the third down back role almost flawlessly, but hes struggled to get on track this preseason. LaMont Jordan is the wildcard in the mix. Jordan was signed shortly after clearing waivers from the Raiders, causing quite the brouhaha in Oakland because Raiders owner Al Davis was sensitive to Jordan signing in New England. Jordan brings both power and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, the two things Faulk and Morris are on the roster for.
The attempt to build a youth movement continues with undrafted rookie free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Ole Miss product has the speed on par with Faulk and he's demonstrated some determination to gain the tough yards by running inside. Unfortunately for Green-Ellie, the backfield is a bit too crowded, and he's likely a candidate for the practice squad. The last two times the Patriots tried to sneak talented on backs onto the practice squad, they were snapped up by other teams. Patrick Cobb went to Miami, while Justise Hairston went to Indianapolis. With an abundance of backs available, Green-Ellis shoudl clear waivers for New England to re-sign.
The Fullbacks scenario is a little clearer. Heath Evans is expected back. Signed as a free agent, the report on Evans was that he could catch out of the backfield, he could block well, and he could get the short yardage play. Hes shown the ability to do all three, but hes also struggled at key points in games at all three spots. He should be in barring something unexpected, like Jordan getting the spot and the team going without a FB. Kyle Eckel hasnt been seen since early in camp, and whatever ails him, will likely cause his elimination.
Keepers: Laurence Maroney, Heath Evans, Kevin Faulk
In, Unless: Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan
On The Bubble: Kyle Eckel, BenJarvus Green-Ellis
QUARTERBACKS: Without a doubt the Patriots have their top gun in Tom Brady, a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback, but after him the picture is a bit muddled. Matt Cassel and Matt Gutierrez have ocmpeted for two seasons for the right to backup Brady should the unimaginable happen -- he misses a game. Until now, Matt Cassel has been the top backup to Brady. The two get along very well, they have a similar look, they're both competitive by nature, and Cassel seemed to be the perfect fit, at least until this year. New England wanted to push Cassel to try and improve the depth behind Brady. During his only opportunity to showcase his skills in 2007, Cassel misfired on his first pass and was immediately replaced by Brady who went back into the game to secure a victory against the Dolphins. Since that point, the competition behind Brady has been improving. Gutierrez has shown more promise as leader during the offseason, he's had a good camp, and an even better preseason. The Patriots showed their confidence in the the two Matts by selecting Kevin O'Connell in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. O'Connell hasn't seen much action as the real camp battel comes down to the two Matts. Cassel needs to have a better showing if the former seventh round pick wants to stay in New England, and the undrafted Gutierrez may have shown enough to grab that third spot. It's possible New England keeps four quarterbacks for now, but don't bet on it during the season. Four players at that specialized position are too many.
Keepers: Tom Brady, Kevin O'Connell
In, Unless: none
On The Bubble: Matt Cassel, Matt Gutierrez
WIDE RECEIVERS: The wideout position is a bit clearer at the top and a little more muddled at the bottom. The top three receivers return from last season as Jabar Gafdfney and Randy Moss return to complete last season's dynamic trio with slot specialist Wes Welker. From number four to number six becomes interesting to see who fits and who doesn't. Former second round draft pick Chad Jackson is in a make-or-break year, even though he says he doesn't feel that way. Jackson is in his third season, and if the light doesn't go on for him this year, there is a high degree of probability that he'll follow in the footsteps of a former second round disappointment Bethel Johnson. The battle for the remaining spots will factor in players' versatility in other phases of the game, especially on special teams. Sam Aiken was signed as a special teams ace, but he's missed significant time after suffering an injury early in preseason. Kelley Washington returned to action last week, and his special teams contributions continue to be a boost for the team. Matt Slater started the season as a wide receiver and has slowly moved to the defensive side of the ball, while Ray Ventrone has done just the opposite, actually leading the Patriots in receptions last week C.J. Jones, once little more than a camp body and practice squad member, has turned in an inconsistent preseason, but has demonstrated a certain dynamic quality that the Patriots might want to make room for.
Keepers: Jabar Gaffney, Randy Moss,Wes Welker
In, Unless: Chad Jackson, Kelley Washington, Matt Slater (See defense)
On The Bubble: Ray Ventrone, Sam Aiken (I/R?), C.J. Jones