Moving on to the defense…while being thankful the roster apparently has not changed in the last couple of days. Cuz, you know, Bill likes to consistently churn the back-end of the roster and mess us all up. Wait, I may be the only one who cares about the bottom of the roster. Anyway, here goes:
Locks: Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise
In: Geneo Grissom
Way Out: Caleb Kidder, Rob Ninkovich (retired)
Comments: This is what I wrote in the first roster projection last year: “Flowers and Grissom don’t appear to be stars in the making.” Oops. At least on Flowers. Welp, I’ve been completely off before. And most assuredly will be again. Truth be told though, most people thought Flowers was on the fringe of the roster before the 2016 season. Now he is the unquestioned top defensive end on the team. So I wasn’t the only one. There have been plenty of whispers about Ealy early in camp. His attitude. His fit on the team. His “coachability”. And he has been on the sidelines quite a bit, from all reports. But the key phrase here is, “early in camp”. I’m not taking him off the lock list…yet. Rivers and Wise were two of their four draft picks. Not likely to go anywhere. And I am hearing Wise is running with the starters at this point. Grissom takes Ninkovich’s spot. It helps that he is a factor on special teams as well. Most were surprised at Nink’s sudden retirement. But maybe we shouldn’t have been. He’s getting up there in age and also wasn’t the same difference maker last year as in previous years…you know, before the PED suspension. Yup…
Locks: Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine
Out: Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo
Way Out: Josh Augusta, Adam Butler
Comments: Pretty much cut and dried here. Branch re-signed on a nice deal. Guy was signed to a fat deal himself, kind of out of nowhere. May be a little push for Brown in his third year. But the Pats like to rotate their big guys anyway. Valentine showed enough last year to be locked in this year. Hamilton and Kilgo may find themselves on the practice squad and therefore may surface on the active roster at some point this season. And Augusta and Butler are “Way Out” for the simple reason that I’ve never heard of them. Good enough for me.
Locks: Dont’a Hightower, David Harris
In: Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Harvey Langhi
Out: Jonathan Freeny, Trevor Bates
Way Out: Brooks Ellis
Comments: When I started putting together this column last week, I actually had Harris as only “In” and not a lock. Thought he may be that typical veteran who was a star elsewhere and then couldn’t adapt to the Patriots system/culture/etc. Seemed to be a prime candidate for that. Then I saw they gave him the green dot like 2 days into camp, leading the communication on the defense. I know, that is “early in camp” too. But I look at this development a little differently, right or wrong. McClellin, Roberts and Van Noy all bring different skills to the table so I figured they all stick for now. Langhi gets a nod here, simply because almost every year an undrafted free agent makes the squad out of the gate…and usually contributes. He is the early pick simply because they gave him the most dough. Freeny gets squeezed here, but wouldn’t shock me if he makes it, primarily for his special teams ability. Bates is from Maine and that’s nice. Ellis? Yup, no idea who he is.
Locks: Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones
In: Cyrus Jones
Out: Justin Coleman, D.J. Killings
Way Out: William Likely, Dwayne Thomas
Comments: Here’s another thing I wrote in the first roster projection last year: “Cyrus Jones HAS to be better than any of the teams’ third cornerbacks last year, doesn’t he?” And I had Jonathan Jones as “Way Out”. Oops. And. Oops. But I can’t see them giving up on Cyrus after only one year. Wouldn’t be unprecedented though. Jonathan has been apparently playing the slot in camp. Add in the fact he is, yup, a special teamer…that makes him a lock. Seems to me they like Rowe a lot too.
As for Gilmore and Butler, that whole scenario in the spring still baffles me. Butler has done everything the team asked since he came out of nowhere 3 seasons ago. Played at an All-Pro level the last two years, playing for peanuts and didn’t utter much of a peep about that. I mean, he knows how this organization operates. But still. Then New England gives Gilmore a huge deal right out of the gate as free agency opened. Not typical Patriot behavior. Don’t blame Butler at all from being pissed. Wasn’t surprised there was the stuff about him working out a contract with the New Orleans Saints and hoping the Pats worked out a deal with them. Nothing materialized with the Saints (or any other team, for that matter) and Butler is still here without a long-term deal. And even since then, you haven’t heard much from him regarding all of it. And now I think most expect Butler to play with a chip on his shoulder and help himself in free agency next year. That will also benefit the Patriots of course. But did the team play this out right? Time will tell. But hope Gilmore ain’t a colossal bust…
Coleman could I suppose be a back-end guy, but there’s no room. Killings was I believe the 2nd highest paid undrafted free agent in the Pats pool, so maybe he gets on the practice squad and gets elevated at some point. Likely & Thomas? Maybe I should watch more college football, so I can know who some of these camp bodies are.
Locks: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon
Out: Jordan Richards
Way Out: Jason Thompson, Damarius Travis, David Jones, Kenny Moore
Comments: Richards probably actually gets one more chance behind the three no-doubters and makes the squad when they break camp. Three safeties is kind of thin. But the other guys? You know what I am going to say.
Locks: Stephen Gostkowski (K), Ryan Allen (P), Joe Cardona (LS), Matthew Slater (ST), Nate Ebner (ST), Brandon King (ST)
Way Out: None
Comments: Nothing really to say here. Some are surprised Belichick did not bring another kicker to camp due to Gostkowski’s uneven year last year. I’m not. There are plenty of kickers “kicking” around (haha) and I’m sure Bill has one or two or three in mind if last year’s issues move forward into this year. No sense in wasting another camp spot on a kicker. Other than that, the six here are pretty obvious.
That’s about the size of it. I’ll wait until later in camp to project the practice squad and IR/PUP/NFI and other lists. Actually, I’d say no one actually starts on the PUP list this year. Only Hightower and Branch are currently on the preseason PUP list. Hard to believe they will miss the first six weeks of the season, but I suppose you never know…
NFL free agency begins Thursday afternoon at 4:00 pm. Of course there is some sort of “legal tampering” period that starts Tuesday. But let’s ignore that for now. The following is one man’s thoughts on what’s going on with the players that ended the 2016 season on the Patriots’ roster, by position.
Players under contract: Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Rob Ninkovich, Vincent Valentine
Free agents: Alan Branch, Geneo Grissom (exclusive rights), Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard
What I would do: Sign Branch ASAP! Along with Flowers, Branch was the best the defensive line had to offer this season. Brown is competent. Valentine may have promise. The rest? Ugly may describe most of them. Long wants to leave “to get back to showing the world the player he once was…” or something like that. What? His playing time dipped as the year went on because…he will never be the player he once was. But good luck to him. Sheard had a nice year in 2015, not so much in 2016. See ya. Ninkovich has always been a nice piece. But without the ‘roids this year, was this the beginning of the end? Pass rush was non-existent most of the year outside of Flowers. They were pretty stout against the run however. I’d work on some edge rushers in free agency. If Branch is retained, as I would like, the tackles should be in decent, if unspectacular shape. Maybe add a big body in the draft or a close to “end of the line” player as free agency rolls on.
What I think will happen: Not sure which way the league will go on Branch. My sense is he will be back. Simply because no one is going to hand him a fat contract when he is one toke away from a suspension. But you never know. Long and Sheard will be replaced by two lower level free agent defensive ends similar to what brought them here. Short deals, not huge dollars and being veterans looking for a fresh start or a last hurrah, so to speak. Sign a bunch of guys like Marcus Kuhn and Frank Kearse and see what sticks, similar to last year. The Pats will not break the bank here…as if this comes as any surprise.
Players under contract: Trevor Bates, Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy
Free agents: Dont’a Hightower
What I would do: Don’t you HAVE to re-sign Hightower? Last offseason, the Pats had kind of a “Big Six” on defense that were becoming free agents: Hightower, Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Jabaal Sheard. Collins and Jones are gone, Sheard is likely to be. Ryan? We will get to that. Butler is restricted, so they can hold off a year. It appears that the Pats will have over 60 mil of cap space, even more if guys like Solder and Amendola restructure. Don’t you have to pay SOMEBODY? Who is getting all the dough?
Look at all the names above. Again, don’t you HAVE to re-sign Hightower? That list above…YIKES!! Sure they can replace Dont’a with a guy or two. But they are not likely to have the same impact. Look how long it took Hightower to be what he is in this defense. A few years. Why lose that now? Sure, he is banged up a lot and misses games. But he’s in the games that count. I feel like they have to keep him. And also add a few more decent guys to the mix as well.
What I think will happen: My gut tells me that other teams in the league won’t overpay for Hightower, with the injuries and all. My gut also tells me that he brings the best offer to the Pats and the team matches it. Similar to Devin McCourty a couple of years back. The Patriots will then be paying Hightower more than they want, but less than the franchise tag. BUT…my gut has often been wrong. All it takes is one humongous offer from one specific team with a ton of cap space. We should know quick at least.
Other than this, I’d say the Pats sign a couple of lower level veterans to bring to camp. Nothing else to see here.
Next: Finishing up the defense and the specialists.
…and it is still leaving a bad taste in my mouth two days later. The New England Patriots’ performance on Sunday was just atrocious. I guess it was worse since I saw it live. And it wasn’t exactly a gorgeous autumn day to boot. All in all, not a whole lot to be excited about.
The Buffalo Bills essentially had one player to stop, LeSean McCoy, and the Pats couldn’t do it. Yeah, McCoy’s final numbers weren’t otherworldly (19 rushes for 70 yards plus 6 catches for 38 yards and a TD), he seemed to always get the job done when it needed to be done. As did Tyrod Taylor. A decidedly average quarterback, he seemed to accomplish what he wanted to as well.
You can say whatever you want about the offense. And they seemed bad. But…were they really that bad? I’d call it moreso just conservative. How much can you really accomplish when you play extremely conservative?
Granted, the Patriots had a third string QB at the helm. One with a bum thumb on his throwing hand. And the team once again played with only one legitimate QB active. They still were clearly babying Rob Gronkowski. Danny Amendola seems to be working his way back as well and he is not playing much at this time. Etc.
But I thought Jacoby Brissett looked…competent…out there. I thought he showed well for someone with his experience, not to mention with the limitations the coaching staff placed on him. Sure, the fumble inside the 20 was inexcusable. And he missed a wide-open Amendola on one third down. But he also dropped one right into Brandon Bolden’s hands for a potential TD, only to have Bolden drop it. He probably held onto the ball too long most of the time and did other things that rookies are prone to do. But to me, he didn’t look out-of-place like a lot of rookies do.
They let him throw 3 passes in the first half. THREE!! Not counting the 90 yarder to Edelman on the first play of the game due to penalties. Ok, it was a screen pass that Edelman turned into 90 yards, but a pass nonetheless. Once the coaches saw what direction the game was going in, couldn’t they have opened it up more earlier? Yeah, they did a bit in the second half, but still…not quite enough in my eyes.
I thought the game plan and the adjustments from the coaching staff left a lot to be desired. Especially with 10 days to prepare. But I have to say, I kind of don’t blame them for at least the offensive plans. Guys are banged up, as I said, including your only real QB. The Bills are terrible. LeGarrette Blount had been running well and was just named the AFC Player of the Month for September. And all that. With the game at home, they probably thought they could sneak out of there with like a 20-10 win or something. Even 14-10 or 14-7. Something along those lines.
The other units just didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Special teams…returns in particular…not good. Cyrus Jones is supposed to be a dynamic returner. That quality supposedly separated him from other players in the 2nd round the Patriots thought were about equal where they drafted Jones. But since the lights have come on in the regular season, Jones has been dropping the ball a lot and has been indecisive when he holds onto it. Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal as well. Ryan Allen punted well, but, not a banner day overall.
My ire is mostly with the defense. 16 points against looks good in the box score. Making the Bills attempt 5 field goals and allowing only 1 touchdown may look like a positive as well. But not really. No pass rush, terrible coverage, couldn’t get off the field on third down. Ugly.
I know Billy B. has his way of playing mobile QBs…not a ton of pass rush, contain the QB, some sort of zone D, etc. I know Jabal Sheard and Dont’a Hightower are not 100%. I know Vincent Valentine left the game somewhere in the middle of it, leaving the Pats essentially with only two defensive tackles in Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch, at a position where they like to rotate a bunch of guys to keep those big fellas fresh. I know all that and more. But a hugely disappointing effort all around on the defensive side. Countless missed tackles. A cornerback with an amazing 17 tackles (Logan Ryan…which is not actually a good stat for a CB, by the way). Guys running around TOO wide open, even for zone defense. As noted above, too many third down conversions against. And on and on.
With all that negativity being said and as angry as I have been since the game, I am really here to tell you…it doesn’t matter!! yes, the Pats really should be 4-0. Sure, everyone figured they’d be 3-1, with the loss actually coming against Arizona. Once they got to 3-0 and had a bad team at home, 4-0 really should have happened.
Now that it didn’t, it’s probably a good time to look at the big picture. With their 3rd string QB playing two and a half games out of the four Tom Brady was suspended, the team went 3-1. They still lead the putrid division by a game. And now Brady comes back. Rob Ninkovich is back as well. Presumably, Gronk, Amendola, Sheard, Hightower et al will get healthier. The offensive line will continue to gel (helped by quicker decisions and releases by Brady). The defense should play better and round into some sort of form. Gostkowski should return to his reliable self. Even Jones may learn from his return mistakes. Maybe we see more of Barkevious Mingo chasing the QB around as well.
The goal here is the end of the season, not September. We know Belichick always treats the first month or so as an extended training camp. Gets an idea of what they have. How things can be adjusted. The team should win the division going away still. And be in the mix for home field advantage in the AFC for sure…let’s just hope they don’t blow it like last year.
Maybe an early loss is good for them? No undefeated record to chase. Early wakeup call. Stuff like that.
That’s what I’m going with now anyway…