After returning home early following an unfortunate ending to Saturday night's preseason contest in Green Bay, the Patriots have one week to trim their roster down to 53 players.
New England is currently full at the 90-player roster limit that will become the initial 53-man roster by 4 pm E.T. on Tuesday, August 29. This season, there aren't any incremental cutdown dates, so all 32 teams must reduce their rosters to the 53-player maximum next week.
Following the organization's decision to cancel joint practice previously scheduled with the Titans heading into the preseason finale, Friday night will serve as the final showcase for players on the roster bubble who are making a push to earn spots on the 53-man roster.
Several factors go into head coach Bill Belichick's decision-making process regarding the initial roster. However, one important note as we begin discussing roster cuts is how the waiver process works. Most importantly, players with at least four accrued seasons when released do not go through waivers, meaning they immediately become free agents. By rule, clubs can have six vested veterans (four-plus accrued seasons) on their 16-man practice squad. The Pats might keep a younger player over a veteran, knowing they're not putting the veteran directly at risk of being poached by another team.
Of course, another team could sign that vet as a free agent. But the six practice squad spots eligible for vested veterans and current game-day elevation rules offer a way for teams to keep promising developmental players on the 53-man roster while still retaining experienced players who might have more game-day value.
As we head into the final week of the preseason, here are five dark-horse candidates who are making a strong push to earn roster spots with cutdown day looming:
R.B. J.J. Taylor
While spending his first three seasons with the Patriots after signing as an undrafted rookie in 2020, Taylor was nicknamed "mini Dion [Lewis]" by former running backs coach Ivan Fears. You can see the comparison in Taylor's smaller frame, short-area quickness, creativity between the tackles, and contributions in the passing game.
"J.J. has just gotten better every year. He works extremely hard, very diligent guy. Had a couple good things in pass protection, which with his size, is always a little bit of a challenge, but he's a tough kid and strong for his size. So, that's an area that he's really grown in and just in general in the passing game."
"His versatility, handling punts, playing on the kickoff team, playing on all three downs offensively, his versatility, he wasn't able to do that three years ago. So, his versatility and his overall skill in the passing game, both of those have improved," head coach Bill Belichick said.
During his three NFL seasons, Taylor has appeared in 12 regular-season games while going up and down from the practice squad. After adding Ezekiel Elliott last week and investing two draft picks in the 2022 draft at running back, finding a roster spot for Taylor becomes a numbers crunch in the backfield. Still, he had an all-around great performance last Saturday night.
On the ground, Taylor made the most of his four carries by gaining 29 yards, 20 of which were after contact, along with one forced missed tackle, per PFF. Above, the Pats are running a "trap" scheme where right guard James Ferentz pulls from the backside to kick out the play-side edge defender, allowing tight end Anthony Firkser to climb to the linebacker immediately. While recognizing the linebacker working outside of Firkser's block, Taylor has to maneuver around the initial penetration and cuts it up inside Firkser for a smooth nine yards.
As Belichick mentioned, Taylor's compact frame at 5-6, 190 pounds presents a challenge when it comes to blocking in the passing game. However, Taylor is showing real improvement in that area this preseason, which gives him more of a chance to make the team.
Here, Taylor is in a "scanning" role where he will look across the line of scrimmage for oncoming blitzers. When the Packers don't blitz, he looks for work as a blocker. Taylor sees left tackle Andrew Stueber getting beat to the inside, saves Stueber from allowing a pressure, and then makes himself available to quarterback Bailey Zappe late in the play, effectively turning a possible sack into an eight-yard gain for the offense.
Taylor's vision, decisiveness, and creativity as a more experienced ball carrier have stood this summer over New England's second-year running backs, while, per the head coach and the film, his skill in pass protection has improved.
New England invested draft capital in Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris and now has Elliott behind Rhamondre Stevenson. Although that makes it tough, Taylor can play. He deserves a real shot, and if he doesn't get it here, it wouldn't be surprising to see him move on for more opportunities elsewhere.
OL Chasen Hines
After spending two early day-three picks on interior offensive linemen, the Patriots have some difficult decisions to make in that area of the roster next week. Although rookie Atonio Mafi has earned reps with the top unit at left guard, sixth-rounder Chasen Hines's preseason film has been impressive. Hines had a slow start to his NFL career after spending some of his rookie camp on the non-football injury list and then landed on injured reserve last October, meaning the last month or so has been the first extended action we've seen from him as a pro.
With each rep, Hines looks more comfortable out there. At 6-3, 320 pounds, Hines is a big, athletic blocker with better length (33 7/8-inch arms) than some of their other interior options.
Hines, wearing number 63 above, has played all his snaps at left guard (65). In 13 true pass sets, Hines has allowed only one hurry in extended preseason action. He has the foot speed to work up to the second level on combination blocks, is an effective puller on long traps, and has shown great awareness in pass protection. For example, in the third clip, Hines adjusts when the rusher lined up over him slants inside, gets his eyes outside, and picks up the end so that left tackle Andrew Stueber can get out to the blitzer.
Hines fits well in a power-run scheme due to his play strength and ability to block on the move as an effective puller, while his instincts in pass protection are solid. Although it's unlikely that the Patriots will give him a roster spot over their rookies, Hines might also have an NFL future.
TE Matt Sokol
Another roster crunch for the offense will come at the pass-catching positions, where the Patriots will have to decide between receiving upside and blocking reliability. With strong summers for rookies Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte, the buzz around the team is that New England should carry six wide receivers on the initial 53. But they'll likely need to trim below their usual numbers at tight end or running back for that to happen.
Furthermore, the two locks at tight end, Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, are more receiving threats than sturdy in-line blockers. For a team that wants to run the ball down defense's throats, a blocking specialist to clear pathways for Stevenon, Elliott, and company could earn a roster spot. We've previously discussed versatile Anthony Firkser as the third tight end. Firkser can play from multiple alignments as an in-line, H-Back/fullback, and slot receiving option, with his lead-blocking experience out of the backfield specifically pointing us in that direction.
However, this summer, Sokol has been New England's most noticeable in-line blocker. After a so-so performance in the preseason opener, Sokol's work at the point of attack showed up against the Packers. Above, Sokol effectively makes a "wham" block, seals the edge for Taylor, and opens a hole for Kevin Harris with an excellent combination block.
Sokol might not have the same positional flexibility as Firkser or the receiving chops of Henry or Gesicki, but he is a potential blocking asset in an offense that will feature the run game and two-tight end sets.
DL Sam Roberts
Moving over to the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots have 11 interior defensive linemen on their 90-man roster, with significant depth despite majoring as an odd front defense (three IDLs).
Based on their defensive structure, and with veterans (Godchaux, Wise, Barmore, Guy) and second-rounder Keion White likely locked into spots, it's a roster crunch for players like Roberts. Although Roberts didn't help his case with two penalties, one of which was very avoidable, his upper-body power and first-step explosiveness to reset the line of scrimmage fit the brand.
As a base 3-4 defensive end, Roberts's twitch to press-and-shed off blocks and ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage against zone-blocking schemes flashed in his film against the Packers. Roberts was credited with five tackles, two stuffs, and a hurry.
The 2022 sixth-rounder needs to show better discipline than he did on a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty due to a late hate on Packers QB Jordan Love. However, the tools are there for Roberts to be an effective two-down run-stopper in a defense that prioritizes his abilities.
CB Shaun Wade
Some will write off Wade for being on the scene for Love's touchdown pass to rookie Jayden Reed, but the once highly-touted prospect has been competitive in coverage throughout the summer.
The former Ohio State Buckeye's career took a turn for the worst in Columbus, and he hasn't regained his form since switching positions and suffering an injury in college. Wade was a potential top-100 draft pick in his rookie class as a standout playing the nickel role in Ohio State's defense but was forced to move outside in his final collegiate season and struggled while playing through injury. Eventually, Wade was selected in the fifth round by the Ravens and was later traded to the Patriots rather than getting cut after a bumpy rookie training camp in 2021.
This summer, the Pats moved Wade back into the middle of the field, primarily playing him as a slot corner but also giving him opportunities at deep safety and covering tight ends. In the preseason opener, Wade was great in coverage on Texans wideout John Metchie in the slot and made a nice open-field tackle on speedy slot receiver Tank Dell as the last line of defense at deep safety, while he has also made plays on the ball in practice.
The 24-year-old gives the Patriots more size in the slot (6-1, 195), where they typically rely on the likes of Jonathan Jones (5-10, 185), Myles Bryant (5-9, 192), and Marcus Jones (5-8, 188). Although Wade struggled in a tiny sample size last season, the Pats defensive back looks much more comfortable in his natural position this summer.
Honorable mention: DT Jeremiah Pharms - not sure where he fits with the team committed to Davon Godchaux and Carl Davis sticking around. But there's a strong case to be made that Pharms has been the best run defender in the second group this preseason.