The Patriots coach had already made some minor waves with his first round of cuts Aug. 27 when he let go of veteran wideouts Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth. But he was just getting started.
Four days later, when rosters need to be at 53, Belichick unleashed a few more shockers. Among the 22 players let go Aug. 31 were wide receiver Deion Branch, center Dan Koppen and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. Word of those moves had begun circulating throughout the afternoon, so when the team's official release documenting all of the transactions came out shortly after the 9 p.m. deadline, few thought there would be any more surprises.
But rookie running back Jeff Demps was placed on injured reserve, ending his season before it began, which was totally unexpected. The Olympic sprinter injured his knee or ankle late in the team's final preseason game against the Giants but reported afterward that he was fine. Regardless, he will not be adding his dynamic speed to the kick return game – or any other aspect of the Patriots – in 2012.
The real shocker of the group was Branch, who was set to enter his 12th season after enjoying a solid campaign a year ago. With Stallworth and Gaffney already gone, it appeared as if the classy veteran would be safe to return. But Belichick obviously felt differently and chose to open the season – at least for now – with just four wide receiver, one of which is special teams captain Matthew Slater. He joins Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman.
It should be noted that Belichick actually trimmed his roster by one more than needed as the Patriots currently have 52 players. In years past the coach has routinely mixed and matched his troops in the days leading up to the opener, including last year when he added Brian Waters, Danny Aiken, A.J. Edds and Dan Gronkowski before the Dolphins game.
Speaking of Waters, he remains on the reserve/did not report list. If he returns in the next couple of days it would be possible the team would receiver a temporary roster exemption, but if he's in the plans to take the field in Nashville one would think he's need to be in the fold by the end of the weekend.
Hoyer's release also came as a mild surprise. Based on performance it's easy to understand the move. He struggled all summer long running the offense and was erratic throughout the preseason. The surprise came only in that Ryan Mallett, who apparently won the battle for the No. 2 job, wasn't much better. Neither inspired much confidence with their efforts, but Hoyer should have separated himself as a fourth-year player and it would be hard to declare him the winner based on his performance.
Koppen was probably the least surprising of the three moves. The veteran struggled throughout camp but appeared to be regaining his form in recent days. When he survived the first round of cuts many believed he was safe, but then he was present in the fourth quarter of the Giants game when virtually all of the front-line players watched the proceedings from the bench.
In all the Patriots released 22 players Aug. 31. In addition to Branch, Koppen and Hoyer, they included safeties Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo, Derrick Martin and Malcolm Williams, defensive lineman Marcus Harrison, wide receivers Jeremy Ebert, Jesse Holley and Kerry Taylor, offensive linemen Matt Kopa, Jeremiah Warren, Derek Dennis, Derrion Weems and Dustin Waldron, linebackers Aaron Lavarias, Niko Koutouvides and Jeff Tarpinian, tight ends Tyler Urban and Alex Silvestro and fullback Eric Kettani.
That left the team with 52 players – 22 on offense and 27 on defense with three specialists. Among the notables making the cut at this point were undrafted rookie defensive linemen Justin Francis and Marcus Forston. But as Belichick has taught us in the past, few members of the current roster should feel comfortable at this point.