Commentary

Assessing the Patriots' 53-man roster

After some surprise moves (Meriweather AND Sanders), Belichick surely isn't done

Updated: September 4, 2011, 10:02 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

(Editor's note: This was written before the Patriots agreed to terms with offensive guard Brian Waters on Sunday morning. The team will need to clear a roster spot to add him.)

When looking at the New England Patriots' initial 53-man roster, the biggest surprise comes at safety. While some could have envisioned a scenario where Brandon Meriweather or James Sanders didn't make the cut, few figured both would be gone.

Another thought when looking at the initial 53-man roster is that changes are surely still to come. "Initial" is a key word.

The Patriots are light at tight end (2) and their decision-making process figures to be dictated by whether rookies Will Yeatman and/or Lee Smith clear waivers and return to the practice squad. The situation is similar along the offensive line, where the club has significant injury concerns and has only eight blockers.

Those areas figure to be addressed in the days to come, in some form, but for now here is an analysis on the initial 53-man roster:

Quarterback (3)


Starter: Tom Brady
Backups: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett
Analysis: The Patriots went with two quarterbacks in 2009 and 2010, which came with some risk but also allowed them to keep a player at another position that otherwise would have been cut. After drafting Mallett in the third round this year, coach Bill Belichick said, "I don't think you can have too much depth at that position. We've all seen what can happen there. We got by the last two years with basically just two guys, and you put your whole team at risk if you don't have a quarterback that can run it. So it's good to have depth at that position."

Running back (4)


Starters: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead
Backups: Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley
Analysis: One of the team's goals in 2011 was to get younger at the position, which is how it predictably unfolded with rookies Vereen (second round) and Ridley (third round). Both rookies should be active on the 46-man game-day roster, putting them in position to make an immediate impact. Green-Ellis enters the final year of his contract and is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in 2012, which is something to keep in mind from a long-range team-building perspective. Woodhead is the "passing" back, while Kevin Faulk is insurance on the reserve/physically unable to perform list (eligible to return Week 7).

Wide receiver (6)


Starters: Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Wes Welker
Backups: Julian Edelman, Taylor Price, Matthew Slater
Analysis: Ochocinco, Branch and Welker project to get the majority of playing time, as that was the primary three-receiver set throughout the preseason. Edelman and Price beat out Brandon Tate, showing more at receiver (Price) and in the return game (Edelman). Slater makes the club as a top special-teamer, but as he showed in the preseason finale, he can help at receiver in an emergency situation. The biggest issue at receiver is getting Ochocinco up to speed as quickly as possible.

Tight end (2)


Starters: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
Backups: None
Analysis: The Patriots figure to make good use of their practice squad to build depth here. They are hoping that rookie free agent Will Yeatman clears waivers and lands there, as he was the third tight end throughout the preseason and was a tough cut Saturday. Garrett Mills also has practice-squad eligibility and would be a good fit as a backup "move" option for Hernandez. If those plans don't come to fruition, perhaps the Patriots consider veteran Alge Crumpler as a third option on the active roster if he's healthy.

Offensive line (8)


Starters: Matt Light (LT), Logan Mankins (LG), Dan Koppen ( C), Dan Connolly (RG), Sebastian Vollmer (RT)
Backups: Ryan Wendell (C/G), Nate Solder (LT/RT), Steve Maneri (LT/RT)
Analysis: Interior offensive line depth is a concern, especially with Connolly (right ankle) and top backup Wendell (calf) not 100 percent, and third-stringer Rich Ohrnberger (concussion) landing on season-ending injured reserve. One free-agent possibility that makes sense is Quinn Ojinnaka, who spent most of 2010 with the Patriots and was released by the Rams on Saturday. Veteran free agents Brian Waters (Chiefs) and Andre Gurode (Cowboys) were in for visits Saturday. Look for a few practice-squad additions here, while also considering that fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon could be an option in Week 7 as he is on the reserve/physically unable to perform list.

Defensive line (10)


Starters: Shaun Ellis (LDE), Vince Wilfork (LDT), Albert Haynesworth (RDT), Andre Carter (RDE)
Backups: Mike Wright (LDE), Kyle Love (DT), Myron Pryor (DT), Gerard Warren (DT), Mark Anderson (third down), Jermaine Cunningham (RDE)
Analysis: This is the deepest part of the Patriots' roster as there has been a significant shift in terms of defensive approach. The Patriots were in their base 3-4 alignment, which players often referred to as a read-and-react approach, 40 percent of the snaps last season. But this year the defense is trending toward a scheme that looks more like a traditional 4-3 that attacks. Said Haynesworth of the defensive line: "We had good depth at Tennessee, but here, we have great depth. We have guys that could go to any other team and start." True.

Linebacker (7)


Starters: Jerod Mayo (WLB), Brandon Spikes (MLB), Rob Ninkovich (SLB)
Backups: Dane Fletcher, Gary Guyton, Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian
Analysis: The surprise of the initial 53-man roster is Tarpinian (Iowa), who played in just one preseason game because of injury. Still, if the Patriots make a move for an offensive lineman, as expected, Tarpinian could quickly find his way on season-ending injured reserve, which would be another way to ensure he is part of the team's future plans. This was pretty straight-forward from the start of camp, with one of the few questions whether White -- the second-leading special-teams tackler for the Patriots in 2010 -- would stick. He does.

Cornerback (6)


Starters: Devin McCourty (LCB), Leigh Bodden (RCB)
Backups: Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler, Antwaun Molden
Analysis: Butler's spot on the team is not necessarily set in stone, so his status will be one to keep on the radar in the coming days. If a team is looking for corner help and inquires, the feeling here is that the Patriots will listen. The Patriots have a bigger look at the position with McCourty (5-10, 193), Bodden (6-1, 193), Dowling (6-1, 198) and Molden (6-1, 200), which is a noticeable change from recent years when they were just as comfortable targeting smaller corners with good change-of-direction skills. Bodden has been sidelined since the second preseason game, but unlike 2010 it's nothing long-term in nature.

Safety (4)


Starters: Patrick Chung, Sergio Brown
Backups: Josh Barrett, James Ihedigbo
Analysis: The question many are asking is how the Patriots could simply cut Meriweather. Surely, the Patriots would have traded him if they could have, but the interest apparently wasn't there. Perhaps Meriweather's freelance style didn't fit well with the attack-minded style the Patriots might play in 2011, which will alter responsibilities in the secondary. But that's just speculation. The Patriots are opening the door for Chung to take control of the secondary, and it's a question mark who starts alongside him. For now, Brown gets the nod because even though he's only in his second season he's played more than Barrett and Ihedigbo in the system.

Specialists (3)


Starters: Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Zoltan Mesko (punter), James Dearth (snapper)
Analysis: With Gostkowski proving that he's back from a torn right quad muscle, and Mesko putting together a solid preseason, the only question is with the snapper. That's an often-forgotten-about position that is only talked about when a mistake is made. Dearth joined the team prior to Thursday's preseason finale, and has proved he can handle the duties in the past. But still, look for the Patriots to add a snapper to the practice squad, such as Andy Schulze (Iowa).

Injured reserve (4)


Rich Ohrnberger (guard/center), Bret Lockett (safety), Kyle Hix (offensive lineman), Christian Cox (linebacker)

Reserve/physically unable to perform (3)


Kevin Faulk (running back), Ron Brace (defensive lineman), Brandon Deaderick (defensive lineman)

Reserve/non-football injury (1)


Marcus Cannon (offensive lineman)

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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