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Bubble breakdown: Tough decisions loom for Patriots

Injuries further complicated the upcoming roster cutdown in the preseason finale.


The Patriots wrapped up their preseason on Friday night with a disappointing effort against the Raiders but will quickly put the game behind them as they turn the page to the looming roster cutdown that must come Tuesday by 4pm EST.

With an already difficult task of choosing their 53-man roster, things were made even more complicated after a potentially serious injury befell promising running back Ty Montgomery, who appeared to be a big part of the offensive plan. Further inconsistent performances at other positions also complicated matters as the coaching staff looks to outfit their team in the best way possible.

Based on a week of joint practices and the game in Las Vegas, here's a quick reset of the five most intriguing positions where roster decisions will be the most difficult.

Running Back

The injury to Montgomery could significantly derail the Patriots plans at running back. He was one of the bright spots this summer, contributing in a variety of ways and at times looking like the most comfortable back running the wide zone play in practice. With James White's retirement and Damien Harris' potential injury issue from the second day of joint practices, the depth and experience at running back has quickly turned concerning.

Kevin Harris had the play of the game against the Raiders with a strong 33-yard run that was one of the best of the summer. However, he put the ball on the ground twice, losing one fumble, and that kind of poor ball security can put a rookie in the doghouse.

Fellow rookie Pierre Strong has had a quiet summer but showed some growth against the Raiders in four limited touches. When he was drafted he seemed like a long-term potential replacement for White, but it's a big leap given his limited reps to think he's ready to jump into a significant role in just over two weeks.

J.J. Taylor was firmly on the bubble heading into the finale, but could be the biggest beneficiary if Montgomery is lost. He has the most experience behind Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, but had limited usage against the Raiders with three carries for seven yards and two catches for 22 yards. Now in his third season, Taylor might finally get a real shot.

Offensive Line

The starting line has had some issues this summer getting on the same page and those issues were again on display against the Raiders as inconsistency short-circuited a handful of plays before they had a chance to be successful. But there are still few questions about the starting five when it comes to making the roster, despite rumors of potential trade candidates.

It's the depth where the biggest roster bubble questions reside. James Ferentz, Justin Herron, Yodny Cajuste and Will Sherman top the list of backups who are pushing for a roster spot but all have been up and down this summer. Ferentz and Cajuste played extensive snaps in Vegas to make their case, while Arlington Hambright and Will Sherman played just 22 snaps combined as their playing time dipped.

Undrafted rookie center Kody Russey might be the biggest wild card, as his play has noticeably improved over the summer despite being undersized. He's a hard-nosed player whose toughness stands out.

There are no easy decision along the offensive line and it's easy to see some of the backups getting thrust into the fire sooner or later this season.

Defensive Line

The DL is one position group where the starters are firmly established but the backups have made an intriguing push all summer. The trio of Sam Roberts, LaBryan Ray and Daniel Ekuale have all flashed during camp and continued those kinds of performances in Vegas. Even Jeremiah Pharms made his presence felt against the Raiders, further complicating decisions.

Ekuale is facing a suspension for the first four games, something that strangely helps his roster chances. He topped out among this group with 44 snaps, while Ray wasn't far behind with 35. Roberts and Pharms both played 22. Perhaps those numbers reveal a bit of how the coaching staff views the depth, but all four have been disruptive and that's something any defense needs.

Meanwhile, Henry Anderson played just nine snaps, which is either a very good or very bad sign for him.

With some older veterans in the group, an influx of youth would be beneficial in the long term but there's a leap of faith that has to be made to keep one of them over an established vet.

Wide Receiver

After recent injuries to Tyquan Thornton and Kristian Wilkerson thinned the depth chart, the Patriots might've suffered another blow against the Raiders with Jakbi Meyers spending time in the blue medical tent before riding the bike on the sideline and not re-entering the game.

You can't overstate what Meyers has meant to the offense this summer, he's been their most consistent receiver. To lose him would cement the top trio of DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, with extremely limited proven depth behind them.

Tre Nixon faded down the stretch of the preseason after a strong spring, picking up just two catches for 32 yards in the finale, while recent darling Lil'Jordan Humphrey had just two catches for seven yards. Josh Hammond made his first splash of the season leading the team with four catches for 33 yards but still remains more of an unknown quantity.

Given the injuries, one of this trio likely has an inside track right now, but choosing between the potential and athleticism of Nixon and the size and length of Humphrey is a tough call.

Special Teams

The Patriots have long valued special teams and undrafted rookies Brendan Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell have had strong summers in the third phase, getting extensive tutoring time from vets like Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel and Cody Davis.

Could the Patriots choose to elevate those rookies into significant roles over one of the veteran core special teams players? Their potential and salary certainly give them an advantage but it can be risky going away from proven performers.

Nick Folk got the only two field goal attempts against the Raiders, though Tristan Vizcaino was tested during joint practices. It would appear Folk has once again sewn up the job, but the presence of two kickers at this stage of the summer isn't something you can ignore.

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