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Roster moves: the last cut is the deepest

A position-by-position analysis of the roster cuts that determined the Patriots 53-man active roster.

It wasn't exactly Sarah Palin-surprising, but what Bill Belichick did over Labor Day Weekend is certainly "wow"-worthy.

By 4 p.m. on Saturday, every NFL team had to trim its roster down to the league-mandated 53-man limit. When the Patriots announced their list of cuts, some players who were expected to make the team found themselves out of a job, while others who were thought to be finished in New England earned themselves a reprieve.

Perhaps the most closely monitored battle this pre-season was waged between the backup quarterbacks. The small town of Foxborough, Mass. just wouldn't be big enough for two Matts.

Either Matt Cassel or Matt Gutierrez had to go, and the prevailing sentiment among media and fans alike was that Gutierrez would survive the gunslingers' duel to be Tom Brady's number-two. Cassel, it was argued in many corners, had not developed enough in his three previous seasons and four pre-season games this summer to retain his job.

But it was Gutierrez who was handed the proverbial pink slip. The second-year signal-caller originally won the third-QB job last year as an undrafted rookie free agent and was fighting to supplant Cassel this season. In three games this August, Gutierrez threw a pair of touchdowns, mirrored by an equal number of interceptions.

Meantime, the talented, yet much-maligned Cassel has had to fight off Gutierrez as well as the critics, who, at times, have been more merciless than the opposing defenses Cassel's faced. Despite being plagued by a perceived inability to live up to his potential, Cassel will get another opportunity with the Patriots. Rookie Kevin O'Connell, the third-round pick from San Diego State, has secured the third quarterback spot.

Another position surrounded by intrigue this summer was defensive back, brought on by the off-season departures of Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Eugene Wilson.

The Patriots appeared to fill at least two of those holes when they signed veteran free agent cornerback Fernando Bryant, a former first-round pick, and established veteran Jason Webster earlier this year.

But after disappointing performances in the pre-season (including an embarrassing, unsuccessful attempt to bring down Giants tight end Darcy Johnson on his touchdown reception last Thursday, during which Johnson simply pushed Bryant back into the end zone) the ten-year veteran was issued his walking papers.

Webster, on the other hand, wasn't able to impress the coaching staff due to an injury that kept him off the field for most of the summer. He was let go in the first round of cuts last Tuesday.

That means either rookie second-round draft pick Terrence Wheatley or veteran free agent Lewis Sanders will likely start opposite Ellis Hobbs at corner this Sunday against Kansas City. Rookie Jonathan Wilhite, another member of New England's 2008 draft class, is the fourth cornerback to make the roster, with second-year man Mike Richardson having been released as well.

At safety, the team has settled on the tandem of former Pro Bowlers Rodney Harrison and John Lynch to mentor young veterans James Sanders (a returning starter from last season) and Brandon Meriweather, last year's first-round selection. The Pats may actually have five safeties on the roster, as fifth-round pick Matthew Slater, who has seen time at wide receiver and special teams in addition to defense, spent considerable minutes at safety in the most recent Giants game.

Gone are veteran Antwain Spann and rookie free agent Mark Dillard.

Belichick decided to keep a surprising number of receivers: eight in all, after not cutting a single player at the position. Former practice squad members Ray Ventrone and C.J. Jones are getting promotions to the active roster. Third-year veteran Chad Jackson had an up-and-down summer, but with impressive TD catches in the final two pre-season games, keeps his job. Free agent Sam Aiken also won a spot.

At linebacker, Victor Hobson failed to make the transition well enough from outside to inside. The former New York Jet was released, while one of the pleasant surprises of training camp, rookie free agent Gary Guyton, earned himself a job with his consistently impressive play. The team will keep nine linebackers in all. Rookie Vince Redd was cut, while draftee Bo Ruud wound up on injured reserve.

The talented defensive line remains strong with a six-man rotation. Jarvis Green, Mike Wright and Le Kevin Smith won the backup spots to starters Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren.

On the offensive line, incumbent starting right guard Stephen Neal will start the first six weeks of the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), while reserve tackle Ryan O'Callaghan will miss the entire season , having been placed on injured reserve.

The injuries to several key O-linemen during the pre-season apparently weren't serious enough to warrant further shuffling. Versatile Russ Hochstein and dependable Billy Yates will keep their backup jobs (though Yates will likely start in place of Neal for the time being). They're joined by Dan Connolly, a guard who was on the Pats practice squad a season ago.

The tight end position looks exactly as it did at the end of last year. Benjamin Watson, David Thomas and Stephen Spach will handle the chores again on opening day.

At running back, five players have made the roster, with second-year pro Kyle Eckel and rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis the casualties of the group.

Around noon on Sunday, the Pats will have the opportunity to sign up to eight players to their practice squad, so some of Saturday's released players could end up back with the team if they aren't claimed off waivers by other NFL clubs before then.

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