Some Patriots have a lot to prove
This promises to be a critical week of practice for these six players
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots returned to the practice field Sunday, coach Bill Belichick said a key checkpoint had been reached in training camp.
"This is a big week. Time's running out for whatever moves anybody's going to make, they've got to make them," he said.
The first roster cut, from 90 to 75, is scheduled for Aug. 27. The final roster cut, from 75 to 53, is set for Aug. 31.
With this in mind, our Patriots reporters each picked one player on both sides of the ball who falls into the "have-to-make-a-move" category.
Offense: Marcus Cannon (offensive tackle)
The second-year blocker will almost certainly be on the final 53-man roster. The question from this view is whether he will earn the coaching staff's trust as a Day 1 starter should Sebastian Vollmer's back injury keep him on the physically-unable-to-perform list into the regular season.
If not, another roster move might be required, which could explain the team's reported interest in free agent Chad Clifton.
In one-on-one rush drills on Monday, the 6-foot-5, 340-pound Cannon looked to be having a lot of trouble. Rob Ninkovich's speed has been a tough matchup for him on a daily basis and reserve Tim Bulman also got into him with a power move to score a victory. This has been a consistent theme in camp.
Some draft analysts viewed Cannon as a better fit at guard in the NFL, but in explaining why tackle is the best fit in New England, Belichick said, "He's big, he's strong, he's in good condition [and] he's got the feet to be able to play out there in space."
Belichick also pointed out that Cannon has a long history of playing the position in college, but the NFL is another step up. It will be interesting to see how Cannon fares in this defining week.
Defense: Will Allen (safety)
Now in his 12th NFL season, Allen has found himself in two unfamiliar spots in the Patriots' training camp -- at safety instead of cornerback and as a reserve instead of a starter.
The Patriots have worked Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory as their starting safeties, and second-round draft choice Tavon Wilson is a roster lock. This puts the squeeze on Allen, whose stock could be hurt further by the fact he doesn't play a large role on special teams. He played only in the second half in the preseason opener against the Saints.
But this is a big week for him, as reserve safety James Ihedigbo -- a big presence on special teams -- has been out of practice with a foot injury. That has opened the door for Allen, who like Gregory is more of a coverage option at safety, to take reps next to Wilson.
If Allen shows up, and also makes plays in the slot in sub packages (competition comes in the form of Marquice Cole, among others), it could affect Belichick's decision-making on the final roster.
Allen has had a quiet camp to this point.
Offense: Dan Koppen (center)
A year ago, it would be strange to hear Koppen's name mentioned among players who need to "make a move" to have a role with the Patriots coming out of training camp. But things have certainly changed for the 32-year-old veteran, who found himself lining up alongside unfamiliar players in the second half of Thursday's preseason opener.
At this point in camp, it appears that the team is more comfortable starting Ryan Wendell or Dan Connolly at center than it is giving Koppen his old job back. If Brian Waters, who has not reported to camp, returns by the start of the regular season, the squeeze will be on for Koppen, who could be fighting for a roster spot. As a reserve, one strike against Koppen will be his lack of positional versatility, contrasted with Nick McDonald, who has lined up at all five offensive line spots in camp.
With Logan Mankins coming off the PUP list on Sunday, he is a lock to be on the opening day roster, along with Wendell and Connolly. The seats in the offensive line's meetings are filling up, meaning that Koppen needs to make a move to keep his locker in Gillette Stadium past Aug. 31.
Defense: Jeff Tarpinian (linebacker)
With linebacker Dane Fletcher waived after suffering an ACL tear in Thursday's preseason opener, Tarpinian could stand to benefit the most. As an undrafted rookie last season, Tarpinian made the 53-man roster and became a contributor on special teams, while also making a start on defense when injuries hit.
So far in camp, Tarpinian had looked to be part of a "second wave" of linebackers, separate from a top group that included Fletcher and veteran newcomer Bobby Carpenter. With Fletcher out of the picture, Tarpinian has a chance to crack that group, but it is an opportunity he must seize.
If Carpenter becomes the top reserve option for the unit, Tarpinian could become the next man up. Perhaps his best path to a role with the team will be in sub packages, where he is considered strong in pass coverage.
The other area where Tarpinian must make a move is on special teams, where Fletcher was a part of at least three of the "core four" units. With a week before their next preseason game, the upcoming practices will be critical for Tarpinian in proving he is the right player to fill Fletcher's role.
Offense: Spencer Larsen (fullback)
Larsen, who is currently sidelined with an undisclosed injury, was signed this offseason and expected to be a player who offered versatility as both a fullback and special teamer. Limited to just a handful of practices in training camp, he has not yet appeared to settle in as the undisputed top fullback.
It was believed that new coordinator Josh McDaniels would install a number of two-back sets into his offense, but the absence of healthy bodies has precluded the team from taking as many reps as it may have wanted.
For Larsen, a return to the field, coupled with productive days at work, could help cement his status on the roster and the role of the fullback within the Patriots' offense. Should he stay sidelined and be unable to return for an extended period, the team may turn to its proven strategy of adapting to what it has and moving forward without a fullback.
Defense: Ron Brace (defensive tackle)
Entering his fourth year in the NFL, Brace has yet to consistently produce and stay on the field as a member of the Patriots' defense.
He recently returned from an injury that stunted his hot start to training camp, during which he flashed impressive power and ability to generate an interior pass rush.
With a number of defensive ends in the mix to stay on the roster, as well as the emergence of young players such as Justin Francis on the defensive line, Brace must show he can harness his ability and make an on-field impact.
If healthy, he appears to have scheme versatility within his massive frame and he is a difficult body to move in the running game.
But like many other positions, the Patriots have created a deep competition along the defensive front, meaning all players will have to step up in both practice and Monday's game against the Eagles to prove they should stick around. For Brace, consistency and execution are the keys.