Patriots 53-man roster projection after NFL draft: Rough year for rookies to make the team

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Henry McKenna
·7 min read
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The New England Patriots aren’t done working through the kinks of their roster ahead of minicamp and training camp. But it seems they have put together a fairly complete roster, give or take a few players.

I do think there could be some moves pending at cornerback, for example. And we’ll get to what might be in store for the position. But otherwise, we can very clearly see the bones of this roster. What’s fascinating is that the complexion of the quarterback competition took a massive left turn, with Mac Jones – the 15th overall pick – set to challenge Cam Newton, the 2020 starter. That will be one of the most interesting quarterback competitions in the NFL.

But, of course, there will be so many positional battles in New England. Here’s a look at our initial thoughts on how those will shake out.

(Note: Rookies are in all-caps)

Quarterback (3): Cam Newton, MAC JONES, Jarrett Stidham

Newton is likely to start, unless his play continues to look like it did in 2020. But with an improved supporting cast, Newton is likely to look much better. So he'll fend off Jones -- at least for the first few weeks. Why three players? The 2021 season won't feature as much uncertainty as 2020 did during a pandemic. But the reality is COVID-19 isn't going away. We may see outbreaks in locker rooms. Having three quarterbacks will be important again in the upcoming season. Even if Jones and Newton both look like they're starting-caliber players, I think the Patriots keep Stidham.

Running back (5): Damien Harris, James White, Sony Michel, RHAMONDRE STEVENSON, Dalton Keene (FB/TE)

While the Patriots don't have a true RB1, they have a solid group of players at the position, with Stevenson (6-foot, 230 pounds) bringing extra size -- and perhaps versatility with work as a pass-protector and pass-catcher in college. The pecking order will be interesting, particularly for fantasy owners. It's likely the timeshare is extremely convoluted in 2021. It feels like the Patriots will go without a true fullback in 2021. Keene showed versatility in college to be a strong blocker, but New England showed a firm commitment to working him into the offense as a tight end. No matter his position, the Patriots should have plenty of extra blockers on the field with their tight end group. Stevenson, a big runner, could also help bring the element of physicality that might be lacking without a fullback.

Wide receiver (5): Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, N'Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski

If there's any group that still underwhelms, it's this one. Otherwise, this roster is extremely deep. But at wideout? I just don't know. First of all, there isn't a single player on this list who has topped 1,000 yards. Agholor and Meyers had impressive seasons in 2020, but there should be some skepticism about whether their impressive statistical years are repeatable. Bourne, not unlike Damiere Byrd last year, seems like the type of player who could flourish in New England. But like Byrd, Bourne could flop. Harry has flashed huge potential -- in between his mostly anonymous performances. Olszewski probably wouldn't make the team if not for his Pro Bowl contributions as a returner. Tre Nixon, the seventh-round pick, has all the measurables to stand out. But I don't know how he cracks into this group, considering the recent investment of draft capital and/or money.

Tight end (3): Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi

New England will lean heavily on these two tight ends. Smith and Henry's contracts (which pay them in the top five per year) show as much. It wouldn't be a surprise if Smith, Henry and Agholor lead the team in snaps among pass-catchers. They are going to be on the field a lot. The tight ends are now the most important players in the offense, both as pass-catchers, pass-protectors and run blockers. They are supposed to be two queens on the chessboard. Let's see how they live up to those expectations.

Offensive line (8): Isaiah Wynn, Michael Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Trent Brown, Ted Karras, Justin Herron, Korey Cunningham

New England's starting line looks great, even with a little turnover. Onwenu should step in for Joe Thuney, who left for the Chiefs in free agency. Trent Brown will take over for Marcus Cannon (who opted out in 2020) and the mishmash of players who performed well at the position last year. Karras and Herron will be the top backups. Then there should be one or two spots available to the rest of the players on the roster. Rookie William Sherman seems to be a long shot.

Defensive line (6): Davon Godchuax, Lawrence Guy, CHRISTIAN BARMORE, Henry Anderson, Byron Cowart, Deatrich Wise

This group is absolutely stacked. It was already extremely promising when they added Godchaux for big money in free agency and added Anderson as a depth option. But then Barmore? The Patriots wouldn't have traded up in the second round in they didn't view him as a first-round talent. So this group should have high expectations. Belichick won't settle for the embarrassing run defense from 2020.

Linebacker (7): Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Matthew Judon, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, RONNIE PERKINS, Anfernee Jennings (PUP: CAMERON MCGRONE)

I tried separating this group to inside linebackers and outside linebackers and it was basically futile. Most of these players have played both positions. Only Judon, Perkins and maybe Winovich figure to be pure edge players. (But again, even Winovich played inside in 2020.) Belichick already admitted to drafting McGrone with the thought that they won't have him in 2021. He's going to get a medical redshirt season after tearing his ACL in November. The one player who is in roster-bubble danger? Jennings. The 2020 third-round pick had a very rough season, playing both inside and outside linebacker. Perhaps the Patriots can revitalize his prospects by keeping him outside as an edge-setter. His lack of athleticism became a problem in the middle. Linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley, meanwhile, doesn't make it. It came down to him and cornerback Myles Bryant, and I think the defensive back has more upside. But Bentley isn't a long shot to make the team -- just a product of too much talent and experience at linebacker.

Cornerback (6): Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Richard Sherman (FREE AGENT), Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams

Yes, I do wonder if a splash is coming at cornerback. The Patriots still have some cap space, and there are a lot of really good players at the position in free agency. New England could easily negotiate a veteran minimum deal with one of the top options, with Sherman being an interesting option. The Patriots might have waited with hopes they'd land Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn in Round 1 of the draft. But because those prospects didn't fall to 15, New England could get a veteran.

Safety (5): Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Jalen Mills, Adrian Phillips, Cody Davis

I'm not totally sure what position Mills will play for the Patriots. If they think he's a cornerback, then my suggestion that they're going to sign a free agent is probably wrong. But if he's a coverage safety (sort of like Duron Harmon), the Patriots have a deep group of players.

Special teams (5): Kicker Nick Folk, punter Jake Bailey, long snapper Joe Cardona, gunners Justin Bethel and Matthew Slater

No competition for the specialists. And the Pro Bowl gunners are going to make the team again in 2021.

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