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NFL Notes: Playing some roster roulette

With one preseason game down, it’s time to take a shot at projecting the Patriots roster.

JuJu-NFL Notes (1) copy

Over the past few months, we've gotten a chance to watch five spring practices, 14 training camp sessions and a preseason game against the Houston Texans. While it's still early to predict exactly how the roster will unfold, there have been some patterns established that would seem to indicate how Bill Belichick and the coaching staff are leaning with certain spots and individuals.

So, what better time to take a stab at forecasting how things will pan out for the opening roster? Injuries, additions and other unforeseen activity will certainly change things, but until then here's how I see things unfolding at the moment.

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10).
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10).

Quarterback (2)

Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe

Jones and Zappe have basically split reps all summer but Jones is the clear-cut starter. What has been less obvious is exactly how Belichick intends to use Malik Cunningham. The undrafted rookie spent most of his time as a wide receiver but lately has received limited reps at quarterback, mostly operating in scout team looks as a runner. His skill set would seem ideal to help prepare the team for mobile quarterbacks – like Philly's Jalen Hurts in the opener – but is that worth a roster spot? Unless things change dramatically over the next three weeks, that would seem unlikely.

Running back (4)

Rhamondre Stevenson, Ezekiel Elliott, Kevin Harris, Pierre Strong

The Patriots have kicked the tires on several veteran running backs and reportedly decided to add Ezekiel Elliott to the mix. Harris and Strong have potential but given Ty Montgomery's injury history Belichick likely wanted more experience behind the pair of second-year backs. Stevenson will continue to be the workhorse but lightening his load would help avoid the late-season dip he suffered in 2022.

Wide receiver (5)

DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kendrick Bourne, Tyquan Thornton, Demario Douglas

Assuming everyone is healthy, which hasn't always been the case all summer, Douglas' inclusion with the top four as well as his limited playing time in the opener would seem to point to him earning a roster spot. Kayshon Boutte has shown flashes but not enough to crack the 53, and Tre Nixon's experience could offer him another year on the practice squad. Thyrick Pitts also could warrant more time to develop after the rookie out of Delaware arrived late.

Tight end (3)

Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki, Matt Sokol

The race here is for the third spot and Sokol may have the best combination of blocking and receiving skills of the bunch. Anthony Firkser has value as a potential fullback/move tight end but doesn't have Sokol's physicality. At 268 pounds, Johnny Lumpkin, the undrafted rookie out of Louisiana, has the size to be effective as a blocker and could get a look.

Patriots offensive lineman Sidy Sow (54).
Patriots offensive lineman Sidy Sow (54).

Offensive line (9)

Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Mike Onwenu, Conor McDermott, Sidy Sow, Atonio Mafi, Jake Andrews, Riley Reiff

Onwenu's health is key here. Assuming he can come off PUP in time to be ready for the season, he slots in as the starter at either guard or tackle on the right side. Calvin Anderson has yet to practice as he remains on the non-football illness list, putting his availability in doubt. Veterans McDermott and/or Reiff are not locks to stick around, particularly if Sow proves he can handle the move to tackle. James Ferentz is a reliable veteran depth option, and Kody Russey has gotten plenty of reps and could stick over Jake Andrews. Andrew Stueber, Bill Murray and Chasen Hines are in the practice squad mix as well.

Defensive line (7)

Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise, Christian Barmore, Keion White, Carl Davis, Daniel Ekaule

Good mix of run stuffers (Guy, Godchaux, Davis) and interior pass rushers (Barmore, Ekaule) to go along with the versatility of Wise and White. Davis could see more time in the middle if the Patriots wish to stop the run with less personnel than in the past. Sam Roberts shows flashes of ability and could hang around on the practice squad. Trey Flowers (PUP) likely needs more time to become a factor.

Linebacker (6)

Matt Judon, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche, Jahlani Tavai, Mack Wilson, Anfernee Jennings

Jennings has had a solid summer, showcasing an ability to get after the quarterback against the Texans. Wilson has been involved in a variety of packages in camp and should be involved on passing downs. Marte Mapu factors into this group as well, but for now we'll consider him a safety. Bentley and Tavai are solid tandem on early downs while Judon and Uche get after the passer.

Cornerback (5)

Jonathan Jones, Christian Gonzalez, Myles Bryant, Marcus Jones, Isaiah Bolden

Jack Jones' situation obviously bears watching. Assuming his legal problems are at least delayed, he gets a roster spot. But Belichick has consistently had Gonzalez and Jonathan Jones together, perhaps in preparation of not having Jack Jones available. If he winds up sticking around, we'll have to find a spot elsewhere on the roster because the rookie Bolden has shown enough promise to contribute on special teams. Shaun Wade has had some moments in camp but may fall victim to the numbers game.

Safety (5)

Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills, Marte Mapu

Mills appears ticketed for Devin McCourty's free safety centerfield role but he won't be alone. Dugger, Peppers and Mapu are more effective near the line of scrimmage while Phillips is effective both up front and on the back end. Josh Bledsoe could earn a spot, or take one from a veteran if Belichick is looking to get younger. This is one of the deepest areas on the roster.

Specialists (3)

Kicker: Chad Ryland

Punter: Bryce Baringer

Long snapper: Joe Cardona

The rookie kickers have big legs and their draft status means they'll be around. Nick Folk could wind up on the practice squad (if he's interested in staying), or Belichick could keep both and use the rookie as a kickoff specialist, although that appears unlikely.

Special Teams (4)

Matthew Slater, Chris Board, Brenden Schooler, Ameer Speed

The rookie Speed has received a lot of attention from Slater and the special teams units and looks to be destined for a spot. He excelled in that role in college. DaMarcus Mitchell could also factor into this mix, as could Cody Davis, who likely will open the season on PUP as he recovers from a knee injury.

Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham (16).
Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham (16).

Emergency calls

The status of Malik Cunningham is quickly becoming one of the stories of camp. His athleticism was on full display over the latter part of the fourth quarter against Houston, and many are wondering if that performance has earned him a roster spot.

It's still a bit early to say for certain, but one factor that could enter into the thought process is the NFL's return to the use of an emergency quarterback. The rules now allow teams to designate a third emergency quarterback who dresses for games but doesn't count on the game day roster limit. However, the third QB can only play if the first two are injured and knocked out of the game.

In order to use the designation teams must keep three quarterbacks on their active 53-man rosters. So, in the Patriots case, it's possible they would keep Jones, Zappe and Cunningham on the roster. In order for Cunningham to have a role, Belichick would need to name Zappe as the third quarterback, which would allow the rookie the opportunity to play even if Jones were healthy and available. Zappe would only be allowed to play if both Jones and Cunningham were deemed unavailable due to injury or disqualification.

Possible, but unlikely. Still, something worth noting as rosters start getting pared down.

Joint ventures

The Patriots will spend the next two weeks on the road, traveling to Green Bay on Tuesday for a pair of joint practices with the Packers ahead of preseason Game 2 Saturday night at Lambeau Field. The team will stay overnight in Green Bay after the game before heading to Nashville for another set of joint practices with the Titans next week. The final preseason game is set for Friday, August 25 following practices with Mike Vrabel's crew August 22-23.

Belichick has often spoken about the benefits of practicing with another team, which the coach believes adds a level of intensity to the proceedings. Another element coaches like is the ability to create scenarios in a competitive setting that aren't guaranteed in games. Fourth downs attempts, two-minute drives, plus-50 punting and many other situations can be orchestrated on the practice field against an opponent, creating an ideal practice environment.

View photos from the Patriots Training Camp practice on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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