Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots have choices to make
The exhibition schedule now three-quarters complete, and the real thing but a couple weeks away, much of the evaluation is over. Some can still state their case in practice this week, or in Thursday's final preseason game, though for the most part the evidence is in and decisions are being made about who will pack for Buffalo on Sept. 8 and who will pack their locker and head home.
The first series of those decisions is due Tuesday, when the Patriots must reduce their roster to 75. The harder choices then come Saturday, when the list is pared down to a game-ready number of 53. And as seems to be the way with most things about the Pats these days, it should be pretty interesting to see how it all plays out.
Some of the cuts will be predictable, roster fillers being thanked for their hard work, then sent to the street - perhaps never to be heard from again. Others will be young players who bring some level of intrigue, but not enough to earn a place on a team with playoff aspirations.
But the most interesting thing about the cuts that are coming is that a big chunk of the players on the bubble fit into one of three categories, all of which carry some intrigue, and all of which could say something about where the organization feels it's at in both the building process and maybe even the NFL hierarchy.
The first category of cut candidates are the high draft picks. As many as four or five players who the Patriots have taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Drafts since 2010 could be at risk of receiving their release, in some cases because they haven't been healthy enough to be productive and in others because they haven't proven the ability to do the job at a level warranting their inclusion among the final 53.
Typically players taken early are given every opportunity because the team has already invested valuable draft capital in them, and that could yet salvage some - if not all - of those projected to be on the precipice of a pink slip. But in cases like Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) and Ras-I Dowling (second round, 2011) the Patriots have little reason to trust that the player will be available to take advantage of the opportunity even if it's presented to him. Cunningham has shown flashes as a change-of-pace inside rusher on the defensive line, though he was silent after being busted for a substance abuse violation last year, and is out now with an undisclosed injury.
Dowling, meanwhile, was essentially a first-round pick - going as the first player in Round 2 - though in two seasons that choice has resulted in two starts, eight games, seven tackles and a single pass defended. A big cornerback, he's missed time with an injury this training camp, too, which won't help his case - but one aspect that is to his advantage is the finances. The Patriots won't save any money on the salary cap by releasing him, so if he doesn't make the team it was strictly for football-related roster reasons.
The other three are more recent, and all also defenders. Tavon Wilson was a controversial choice when tabbed in the second round last season, and he could be on the chopping block if Bill Belichick doesn't believe his progress has been good enough to justify the exit of either Adrian Wilson or Steve Gregory at safety.
Another 2012 bust may be Jake Bequette, the defensive lineman who has shown little of appeal, while 2013 third-round selection Duron Harmon has looked bad at times this preseason. It'd be drastic to give up on a player that quickly, and based on so small a sample, but it's hard to envision the Pats keeping five safeties, and Harmon looks the least capable of contributing immediately.
Meanwhile, the second category is the name-value veterans. That's where Adrian Wilson's name arises, particularly after the five-time Pro Bowler was still on the field in the fourth quarter Thursday night. To a less-accomplished extent, Gregory fits here, too.
Offensively, the Patriots have already rid themselves of the veterans they brought in at receiver, which shifts the focus from a roster perspective to tight end. With the emergence of undrafted rookie Jake Sudfeld, one of the more experienced tight ends will likely have to go once Rob Gronkowski is ready to come off the physically unable to perform list.
They've been waiting more than a year for Jake Ballard to recover from a leg injury, though it's not yet clear if he is the same player he was prior to tearing his ACL. Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui have familiarity to their advantage, but both have flaws. Any of the three - and likely one of them - could be cut.
Then, of course, there's Tim Tebow. He has name-value, for sure, but that might be where his value ends - unless the Pats keep him around to simulate during practice the litany of running quarterbacks they'll encounter this season. Based on his performances in two preseason games, however, he is not someone the Pats want to put on the field when wins and losses matter.
And, finally, the third category encapsulates the players whose fate could be decided by where Belichick decides to dedicate a roster spot. For instance, running back Brandon Bolden may make the team because he's good on special teams, but he could be gone if the Pats want to keep a true fullback (James Develin) or keep Hoomanawanui to fill that role part-time.
Likewise, special teamers Niko Koutouvides and Jeff Tarpinian could make it as reserve linebackers at the expense of, perhaps, a defensive lineman (like 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan). Or a player like Marquice Cole could be helped or hurt by the uncertainty surrounding Alfonzo Dennard and what his status would mean for the cornerback corps. Some of that will be cleared up Tuesday, when Dennard goes back to court for a probation hearing after being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.
Just another subplot in what promises to be an interesting week of personnel choices for the Patriots.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.