“Stranger Things” isn’t just one of the more popular streaming shows in recent memory, it’s also a great description of the evolution of this year in the NFL.
It’s not even August yet and oh so many strange things have indeed happened in the football world.
In case you missed it, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski ran from Patriot Nation to join the suddenly-popular Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The NFL had socially distanced free agency and a virtual draft.
The coronavirus pandemic left players working out in their backyards and meeting with their teammates and coaches via Zoom or WebEx.
The preseason schedule has been wiped out and training camps are about to open up with very new, strange, unique circumstances thanks to the coronavirus that continues to hold our country hostage.
Teams like the Patriots cut rosters down from the usual 90-man limit only to see veteran players choose to opt out of the season citing health concerns.
For now, though, one thing that remains constant is the NFL’s plan to play games come the second week of September. To get to that point there will need to be a lot of work by a lot of people – both in terms of football preparation and adherence to health protocols across 32 cities.
So it’s with a hopeful eye on New England’s scheduled Sept. 13 opener against the Dolphins that we break out one new-age, internet-driven summertime constant of the football calendar – a Patriots pre-training camp roster projection.
Given all that’s happened this offseason – and without the action of OTAs and mini-camps to fall back on – this projection is probably even more dubious than most years.
Remember it’s very early and there is very little information to go on. Write this down in pencil. Actually, write it in the sand at the beach just above the incoming tide.
Quarterback (3): Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer.
Analysis: Despite what some may say, this simply has to be Newton’s job to lose. If he’s healthy and anything near his past form, Stidham is left to another year to watch and learn while Hoyer may be the quarantine QB option that some coaches have talked about.
Running back (5): Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Damien Harris, Jakob Johnson.
Analysis: Even with Brandon Bolden opting out of the season, this a strong veteran group. The biggest question is whether Michel retains his role as the lead back or is he pushed by the former third-round pick Harris, who had essentially a red-shirt rookie season. Johnson returns from IR to secure the fullback role after Dan Vitale opted out and eliminated what might have been an interesting competition.
Tight end (3): Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Matt LaCosse.
Analysis: Though there is intriguing young mid-round talent to now work with, there are still plenty of questions at tight end. Keene is versatile and could play a hybrid role that includes fullback action. LaCosse is probably battling fellow returning veteran Ryan Izzo for one spot.
Wide receiver (7): Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Marqise Lee, Matthew Slater, Damiere Byrd, Jeff Thomas.
Analysis: Seven is a big number here, probably more of an example of quantity rather than quality. There are tons of questions after Edelman – who himself is past his expiration date as a 34-year-old slot receiver – in this group. Leaving Mohamed Sanu off the roster adds another $6.5 million to the growing cap space the Patriots could use at the trade deadline or roll over into next season. There should be plenty of competition for guys like Sanu, Meyers, Lee, Byrd and Thomas to prove themselves and win a spot in camp. None would be real surprises to make the roster or huge shocks to get cut. Lee has a track record when healthy. Byrd has speed. Thomas has supposedly had a good offseason (whatever that means?) and has untapped potential. This is an interesting if lackluster position overall.
Offensive line (8): Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Yodny Cajuste, Korey Cunningham, Hjalte Froholdt, Rookie!
Analysis: Marcus Cannon opting out shook up the starting lineup and this group. Cajuste was a third-round pick a year ago even though he was hurt, so New England clearly likes his talent level. He might get the first shot at right tackle. Cunningham has started in the NFL, so he’s at worst a swing tackle option. Froholdt is another mid-round pick who red-shirted last fall. And you’re damn right, I took the easy way out and gave an unnamed rookie draft pick a roster spot. How the hell am I supposed to differentiate between late-round picks Michael Onwenu, Justin Herron and Dustin Woodard? Plus, the new game-day practice squad call-up roster spots will play a significant role in backup lineman jobs.
Defensive line (8): Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Beau Allen, Byron Cowart, John Simon, Chase Winovich, Shilique Calhoun, Nick Coe.
Analysis: Guy is the man of this group, one of the more underrated Patriots players overall. Butler gets a big boost in pay as a restricted free agent tendered at the second-round level for a $3.25 million salary that’s impressive for a former undrafted player with a nice skill as a solid interior pass rusher (sack numbers grew from 2 to 3 to 6 over the last three years). Allen is brought aboard to fill the void of Danny Shelton’s free agent departure, but he’s only started 16 of 90 career games over six seasons, none last season in Tampa. Cowart saw very limited action as an undrafted rookie but may have some interior upside. Simon may be in for an increased role and attention on the now undermanned front seven, while Winovich will be expected to build on a 5.5-sack rookie season. Calhoun saw action in 26-percent of defensive snaps last fall and may need to do even more. Coe is a talented undrafted rookie who was once seen as a promising prospect at Auburn. His unique versatile athleticism might earn him a spot. Deatrich Wise’s time in New England has been on life support for more than a year now. Overall, though, there are plenty of questions in terms of roles and roster spots on the front.
Linebacker (6): Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Brandon Copeland, Cassh Malula, Brandon King.
Analysis: Losing Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency was a big blow. Losing Dont’a Hightower to a coronavirus opt-out is even bigger. This may be the weakest position on the roster. Bentley has obvious talent and upside, but must prove it. Uche and Jennings are talented day 2 draft picks with a lot to learn and little time to learn it. Copeland is a versatile free agent veteran signing who’s played a lot more on the outside than in the off-the-ball role the Patriots may need him for. Malula is a late-round longshot who’d probably play more in the kicking game, where King is a mainstay returning from injury. Adding a veteran talent via either signing or trade at linebacker would seem likely, potentially pushing Malula off the roster.
Safety (4): Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks.
Analysis: Another position that took a blow from opt-outs with veteran Patrick Chung sitting out the season. But, this group may be better prepared to fill the void thanks to the free agent signing of Phillips and the athletic top pick Dugger. Even Brooks filled in for Chung at times last fall, although with less than ideal results. This group seems pretty set.
Cornerback (6): Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Justin Bethel.
Analysis: The farther you get from the ball on defense the more loaded the roster is. The top four names at corner are proven contributors. Williams has matchup potential and maybe value as a hybrid safety player. Bethel is a high-end special teamer. Only a trade of surplus to acquire talent at another spot is likely to upset this group.
Special teams (3)
Kicker (1): Justin Rohrwasser.
Punter (1): Jake Bailey.
Long snapper (1): Joe Cardona.
Analysis: Bailey is coming off an impressive rookie season with enough leg to be a future Pro Bowl option. Cardona chugs along with his solid play. Rohrwasser is a fifth-round pick expected to take over Stephen Gostkowski’s job after the veteran was cut this offseason. With no competition on the roster there is no room for failure from the rookie kicker.