With NFL training camps coming to a close and the early-September deadline for final roster cuts rapidly approaching, it’s time to start thinking about what the initial version of Bill Belichick’s 2016 New England Patriots will look like. Today, let’s take a closer look at the defensive and special teams units to try and project which players will likely make up the final roster.
Defensive End (5) – Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Geneo Grissom
Sheard and Long should get most of the reps in what figures to be a rotation at defensive end for Matt Patricia’s unit. Flowers has shown great promise this preseason and looks like a future starter. Ninkovich tore his triceps a few weeks ago, and it’s uncertain if he will begin the season on the PUP list or not. Grissom, who was selected just a few picks before Flowers in the 2015 NFL Draft, will also get a chance to prove himself as a blooming young talent.
Defensive Tackle (4) – Malcolm Brown, Terrance Knighton, Vincent Valentine, Anthony Johnson
Defensive tackle is another very competitive position on the Patriots’ roster. And, like at defensive end, we should expect to see some kind of rotation in place. Malcolm Brown shined in the latter half of the 2015 season, showing both run-stuffing and pass-rushing capabilities. Brown looks like he could be a stalwart in the middle for Matt Patricia’s squad. Knighton and Valentine are the new additions, the former via free agency and the latter via the 3rd round of April’s NFL Draft. Both are wide-bodied run stuffers who both should see time in short-yardage and goal line scenarios. Johnson could also slide into the Dominique Easley role as a nickel pass rusher. Alan Branch is suspended for one game, which raises the question of whether or not Johnson will stick around for long.
Suspended: Alan Branch
Linebacker (4) – Jamie Collins, Donta’ Hightower, Shea McLellin, Jonathan Freeny
Because the Patriots spend so much time in sub packages on defense, the need for depth at linebacker is not an urgent one. This unit is headlined by two bona-fide studs in Jamie Collins and Donta’ Hightower. Shea McLellin was also brought in as a replacement for Jerod Mayo in the middle when Patricia opts for a 4-3 alignment. Freeny played well at times last year and offers depth and versatility, as well as special teams capabilities.
Cornerback (5) – Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, Darryl Roberts
Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan were two of the premier cover men in the NFL last season (according to Pro Football Focus), and both are entering contract years. The team may have spent a 2nd-round selection on Cyrus Jones to replace one of them eventually, but that doesn’t mean he won’t see time working in the slot this season. Coleman should also contend for snaps in that role. Roberts had a nice training camp last season before an injury ended his rookie campaign, and it appears he’s the 3rd-best option at outside corner.
Safety (4) – Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards
Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung comprise one of the better safety duos in the NFL, and Harmon is one of the strongest cover safeties in the entire league. Richards, a 2nd-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, should back up Chung and see some reps on special teams.
Special Teams (3) – Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King
Bill Belichick loves his special teams studs. Slater has been just that in recent years, making the Pro Bowl 5 times. Ebner and King are less certain, but players who consistently contribute on special teams (as they have) have a habit of sticking around.
Specialists (3) – Stephen Gostkowski (K), Ryan Allen (P), Joe Cardona (LS)
No surprises here. Gostkowski is arguably the best kicker in the NFL, Allen has proved serviceable and has no competition on the roster, and Cardona was drafted in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft (Yes! A long snapper! Drafted!). All 3 of these specialists have complete and total job security.