As Coach Belichick would say, “We’re on to 2018!”
Football is back in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The defending 2017 AFC Champions, the New England Patriots are set to report to training camp on Wednesday. The first team organized practice will follow on Thursday. At that time, all lingering disappointment from a tough Super Bowl LII loss will be put aside in favor of focusing solely on creating a successful 2018 season.
As team practices lead to preseason games, all eyes will be on position battles and individual performances as this year’s Patriots take the practice fields in Foxboro. Of course, the ultimate goal for each training camp attendee is to procure a spot on the 53-man roster. While we are still a few weeks away from the final roster being set, here is a pre-camp prediction of what the New England Patriots roster might look like when the team opens the regular season on September 9, 2018.
Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling
Danny Etling showed signs of promise during OTA and minicamp. However, the Patriots know the value of the position better than anyone. As great as Tom Brady is, the Pats can not afford to ignore that he is about to turn 41 years of age. Expect the Patriots to err on the side of caution and carry both Etling and Hoyer as Brady’s primary back-up.
Running backs (5)
Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Brandon Bolden, James Develin
Sony Michel arrives in Foxboro with a great deal of pedigree and high expectations. During spring practices, Michel showed flashes of explosiveness. However, he also reminded everyone that he is still working his way through the learning process. As a result, he may need time to acclimate to the NFL game and the Patriots offense. Despite this fact, Michel’s upside will be enough for the Patriots to feel comfortable parting ways with Jeremy Hill and Mike Gillislee. Rex Burkhead, James White, and Brandon Bolden should round out the rotation. James Develin is poised to continue on in the fullback role. It also would not be a shock to see the Patriots carry six backs. Should they choose to do so, Hill likely gets the nod over Gillislee, who may benefit from a change of scenery.
Tight ends (3)
Rob Gronkowski, Jacob Hollister, Troy Niklas
After Hollister’s impressive spring, he has put himself firmly in contention for a roster spot. He has added bulk, which seems to be helping him in the passing game. Dwayne Allen is a talented tight end but struggled to find his niche in 2017. Unless he shows marked improvement in camp, he will be a likely cut as the preseason draws to a close. Hollister’s emergence could tempt the Patriots to carry just two tight ends. However, injury concerns that seem to surround Rob Gronkowski will likely entice the Patriots to take on three at the position. Look for a resurgent Troy Niklas, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, to make the team as the third tight end.
Chris Hogan, Braxton Barrios, Jordan Matthews, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kenny Britt, Matthew Slater (Suspended: Julian Edelman)
Edelman’s absence for the first four games will be difficult to overcome on the field. However, it will provide opportunities for some ‘bubble’ receivers to make their way onto the regular season roster. The Patriots remain high on Kenny Britt, who is looking like a roster lock. The recent news surrounding Malcolm Mitchell is disappointing. Mitchell has shown a great deal of potential. However, injury concerns seem to indicate that he has played his last game in Foxboro. It looks like it could be a battle among Philip Dorsett, Devin Lucien, Riley McCarron and rookie Braxton Berrios for the final spot on the receiving corps. In a surprise, Berrios makes the roster here.
Offensive line (8)
Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Cole Croston, LaAdrian Waddle
The departure of Nate Solder will be difficult to overcome, but not impossible. Rookie Isaiah Wynn is the likely choice to take over the position at left guard. Trent Brown looks like the Patriots’ left tackle for 2018. Croston can play guard and tackle. Waddle can provide much-needed depth at left tackle. Andrews, Cannon, and Thuney have been consistent and reliable, when healthy. Last but not least, Shaq Mason has become one of the better offensive linemen in the league.
Defensive line (8)
Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton, Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise, Jr., Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Derek Rivers
The Patriots defensive line was somewhat maligned in 2017. They should be much improved in 2018 with the additions of Adrian Clayborn and Danny Shelton. The return of Derek Rivers from injury should provide a spark to pass rush, as well as some much-needed assistance for Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, Jr. Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler get the nod here, edging out Vincent Valentine.
Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Christian Sam, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Marquis Flowers, Elandon Roberts, Brandon King
Roberts is seen as a ‘bubble player’ on many preseason roster predictions. His experience helps him to grasp a roster spot for now. The Patriots like Roberts, and have kept him in the mix on the first-team during spring workouts. However, their decision to draft Bentley felt like an acknowledgment that inside linebacker is an area which required attention. Harvey Langi is a tough cut here, especially after the potential he showed last year, pre-injury. The Pats might consider Langi for a spot, or hope that he remains with the team via the practice squad.
Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe, Duke Dawson, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones
J.C.Jackson might be a surprise omission here. After all, he started across from Gilmore in spring practices, indicating that he has the attention of Bill Belichick and the coaching staff. However, the Patriots might find that a healthy Cyrus Jones would be the best addition to the defensive backfield for 2018. Jones has much to prove and might just feel enough pressure to play to potential. Rookie Keion Crossen is another cornerback who got reps with the first-team before suffering an injury. Crossen will likely be a candidate for the practice squad, while Duke Dawson earns a roster spot. If Jonathan Jones begins the season on PUP, the Pats may look to add an additional corner before the start of the season.
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner
Do not adjust your screens. you are reading this correctly. Jordan Richards name is not among the Patriots projected safeties for 2018. The Patriots might be going light at safety but will field a solid squad. Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, and Duron Harmon will continue to provide toughness and field savvy. While Ebner’s contributions are most notably on special teams, he will once again be a lock at safety. The Patriots will fill the defensive backfield by carrying six corners and four safeties.
kicker, Stephen Gostkowski; punter, Ryan Allen; long-snapper Joe Cardona
There should not be any surprises at the specialist positions. Rookie punter Corey Bojorquez will likely put up a fight against Allen. However, Allen wins this battle based on him being the safer choice. Bojorquez has made a few errors in his short time with the Patriots. If those show up during the preseason, this might be an easier decision than many expect. Stephen Gostkowski and Joe Cardona make the team by default, which is far from being bad news.
–Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC