As mandatory minicamp sessions come to an end across the NFL, and voluntary OTAs begin June 11th, the perfect time arises to look across the league’s landscape. Everyday NFL fans now have a period of “low tide” football news, yet the more dedicated fan remains locked in as roster competition, position battles, and team drama consumes each practice session.
For the New England Patriots’ fan base, these three things are known all too well.
After days consumed by Julian Edelman’s pending suspension, Rob Gronkowski trade rumors, and a trolling Reddit user, Patriot fans have certainly had their fair share of negative headlines. However, the team has made less publicized, yet equally important, positive headlines in minicamp.
Roster competition has been fierce thus far into the offseason programs, leading to curiosity among fans as to who will make the 53-man roster. While it may seem early to the ordinary fan, coaches and reporters alike have not hesitated formulating roster predictions. After already examining our predictions on the offensive side of the ball, we move onto the defensive side of the ball.
The defense, as many fans know, had a very inconsistent 2017 season. Beginning with one of the worst four-week stretches of the Bill Belichick tenure, the defense turned it around to close the season. However, the holes still remained. Injuries to prominent players such as Dont’a Hightower and Derek Rivers and other depth options took a toll on the Patriots’ pass rush. A shallow secondary unit allowed too many big plays, exemplified in Super Bowl LII. However, the team has been active in addressing their needs, adding veterans Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton, and Adrian Clayborn along with rookies Duke Dawson, Ja’Whaun Bentley, J.C. Jackson, and many more. With these additions comes new faces to challenge the old, and roster competition is fierce. In this article, we will break down our predictions for the Patriots’ defensive roster come September.
Predicting the New England Patriots’ 53-Man Roster: Defense Edition
The defensive line is one of the most intriguing positions for the Patriots heading into 2018. The depth chart is deep, and plenty of names have a shot at making the roster. Following a season in which the pass rush seemed virtually non-existent, Bill Belichick has added plenty of talent. There are solid rotational pieces, such as Shelton and Clayborn, as well as those with the potential to take a big step forward, such as Rivers, Wise, and Butler. Butler makes the roster over Valentine simply because of known potential. Valentine spent all of 2017 on injured reserve, and Butler flashed in the pass rush as an undrafted rookie. Expect this unit to take a big step forward in 2018, compared to the lackluster 2017 campaign.
Who’s Out: Elandon Roberts, Nicholas Grigsby
This was not a difficult position group to narrow down. The depth chart holds solid rotational pieces, with Hightower topping them off. Hightower, the defensive leader, and Van Noy, who flashed at times as a second linebacker, are locks for the roster. Recent fifth-round draft pick Ja’Whaun Bentley has not had a bad camp thus far, and due to his draft position was a likely pick for the roster. The same goes for Sam, as the sixth-round draft pick should serve as a primary role player, similar to Bentley and Langi. Flowers flashed late last season, earning him a renewed one-year deal with the Patriots this offseason. He isn’t going anywhere, either.
Here comes the biggest shocker of this article: undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson will make the roster over both 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones and veteran Eric Rowe. Hear us out, Patriots fans. While Jason McCourty has been limited during minicamp, J.C. Jackson has taken first-team reps at outside corner across from Gilmore. And he hasn’t looked out of place. In fact, he has looked good. Jackson has logged a number of pass breakups, at one point forcing three straight incompletions off Brian Hoyer. Jackson’s legal history pushed him out of draftable territory, but the Patriots may have found their replacement for former UDFA Malcolm Butler in Jackson. Expect Jackson to be one of the only 2018 UDFAs to make a difference in New England.
Rowe has not had a great camp. Losing reps to Jackson on the outside, and with rookie Duke Dawson manning slot duties, Rowe seems to be buried on the depth chart of a sneakily good secondary in New England. What’s more, both Kenny Britt and Jordan Matthews have taken turns burning Rowe on vertical routes. This does not bode well for a player fighting for a roster spot.
Cyrus Jones, though injury-prone, may end up getting a shot. However, in the same case as Rowe, Jones is buried on the depth chart. His only likely impact would be on special teams, where Braxton Berrios or Riley McCarron seem more likely for that job.
Finally, New England fans, rejoice; Jordan Richards (in this scenario) is gone. Rob Gronkowski and second-year standout Jacob Hollister have taken turns embarrassing Richards in camp. Since 2015, he has been unable to find a role in the Patriots’ versatile defense. If he stays, he is buried on a talented safety depth chart. That most likely will not happen. Most fans likely will not miss him, or his missed tackles.
Bonus Piece: Special Teams:
Ryan Allen (P)
Joe Cardona (LS)
Cardona and Gostkowski are two of the best at their respective positions and have virtually no roster competition. The Patriots have brought in two other rookie punters to minicamp, and it remains possible they beat out Allen. However, there is little reason to suspect this result. The special teams unit should remain the same for another year.
Overall, the Patriots roster have gained a youthful, yet talented, group to add to a Super Bowl caliber team. The defense has shed some weak links in Richards and Rowe, and the front seven now looks both healthy and promising. With former linebacker coach Brian Flores taking a more aggressive approach to the defense in 2018, expect a much different, and more effective, unit than in 2017.
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