Patriots 53-man roster projection: Rookie wide receiver provides tantalizing upside

Perry's 53-man roster projection: Can a Pats rookie WR make an impact? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Now that the NFL draft is in the books, let's take a way-too-early look at the Patriots' 53-man roster.

How many rookies will make it? What does the receiver room look like? Will a rookie quarterback make the final cut? Exactly how many special-teams specialists will comprise the 53?

Let's find out...

Quarterback (2): Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe

Pretty self-explanatory here. The Patriots didn't invest a draft pick or real free-agent dollars at this spot. One of either Trace McSorley (signed as a free agent) or Malik Cunningham (signed as an undrafted rookie) could be kept aboard to land on the practice squad, but neither player seems likely to win an active-roster role.

Cunningham reportedly earned a big-time pay day after the draft, so perhaps with a strong summer he could claim a backup spot in Bill Belichick's quarterback room.

Running back (4): Rhamondre Stevenson, Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris, Ty Montgomery

Montgomery is a bit of a forgotten man in this group because he wasn't seen after catching a touchdown pass in Week 1 of 2022. But he has a shot here due in part to the fact that the Patriots don't have an obvious "sub back" option. Could be Pierre Strong, but hard to project how he'll absorb pass-protection duties after blocking just four times in 51 offensive snaps last year.

Kevin Harris' spot is no sure thing, but he makes the roster here as the "big back" backup if anything were to happen to Stevenson.

Wide receiver (5): DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Tyquan Thornton, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Demario Douglas

This unit appears to have four NFL-caliber veterans -- with Tyquan Thornton looking to establish himself in Year 2 -- and one spot for a rookie. Will it be Demario "Pop" Douglas out of Liberty? Or Kayshon Boutte from LSU?

Both were sixth-round picks. We'll go with Douglas here since he appears to give the team something it doesn't have as a low-to-the-ground slot option with real vertical ability. He had an impressive Shrine Bowl and combine, and would be a depth option as a return man.

Boutte had an impressive touchdown against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, but he laid an egg athletically at the combine and there are football character questions that follow him into the league. If Boutte is the player he was two years ago, he could be a Day 3 steal. If not, he could be off the roster by Week 1.

2023 NFL Draft Highlights: Kayshon Boutte - WR, LSU


Tight end (2): Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki

The Patriots are pretty invested in this spot financially, but if one of these two goes down? They'll have to abandon a chunk of their playbook. No real depth pieces here.

Hunter Henry looks like the steady do-it-all presence. Mike Gesicki looks like the vertical-down-the-middle-of-the-field option. Together they could provide headaches for defensive coordinators looking to match up, particularly under Bill O'Brien, whose history with 12-personnel packages is well-established.

Offensive line (8): Trent Brown, Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson, David Andrews, Cole Strange, Mike Onwenu, Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow

It looked as though Belichick tried to protect himself prior to finding a relatively weak tackle class on draft weekend. He went out and inked both Reiff and Anderson, and now it's pretty clear that the plan is for at least one of them to start.

Fourth-round rookie Sidy Sow could help bolster the tackle depth here, but he looks like a versatile guard-tackle option. Fellow fourth-round rookie Jake Andrews looks like a versatile guard-center option who seems to be the succession plan for New England at center.

That'll have to wait in this scenario, though, as David Andrews remains arguably the team's best offensive lineman.

Special teams (9): Chad Ryland, Bryce Baringer, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Brenden Schooler, Cody Davis, Chris Board, DeMarcus Mitchell, Ameer Speed

Based on the fact that the Patriots were willing to expend draft capital on kicker Chad Ryland (fourth-rounder) and punter Bryce Baringer (sixth), the expectation is they'll be here when the 53 is decided. Tough break for kicker Nick Folk, who has been among the team's steadiest players in the last several years.

Rookie sixth-rounder Ameer Speed makes the roster here as well. The corner out of Michigan State (a Georgia transfer) likely won't impact Belichick's defensive backfield, but as a core special-teamer in college, he impressed enough to warrant a Day 3 selection.

The question is this: Is this an over-commitment to the kicking game? The Patriots' season ended on two kickoff returns for touchdowns, but having almost 17 percent of your roster spots taken by players who likely will not chip in on either offense or defense is rare.

Defensive line (6): Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise, Carl Davis, Daniel Ekuale

The Patriots opt to run it back at this position with some big-bodied early-down defenders (Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis), a sub option to rush from the interior (Daniel Ekuale), and a couple of versatile pieces to be used across situations (Deatrich Wise, Christian Barmore).

Belichick will want to be able to throw fresh legs at opposing offensive lines over the course of a game, and a half-dozen capable vets at this position should allow him to do exactly that.

Outside linebacker (4): Matthew Judon, Keion White, Anfernee Jennings, Josh Uche

One could make the argument that White belongs in the previous grouping, as his diverse skill set could lead him to be used in a fashion that's reminiscent of Wise's role: on the edge on early downs, rushing from the interior on third down. But we'll keep the second-round pick here, as he's shown the ability to play in a two-point stance off the edge and drop into coverage with impressive fluidity for a man his size (6-foot-5, 285 pounds).

Inside linebacker (3): Ja'Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai, Raekwon McMillan

The top-two options here will be heavily relied upon once again, but they could be spelled a little more frequently in 2023 by Raekwon McMillan. Last season, McMillan injured his thumb early and had his playing time sapped because of it. If he can stay healthy, he could be a regular both on defense and in the kicking game.

Mack Wilson ended up being one of the last names excluded on this 53-man projection, but his speed and kicking-game abilities at this spot weren't enough to beat out someone like...

Cornerback (5): Christian Gonzalez, Jack Jones, Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant

...Myles Bryant, who was one of the last included here, but who played nearly 700 defensive snaps last year, blowing away the playing time Wilson saw last season (234 snaps). And at a position like corner -- a weak-link system where one non-NFL-caliber player being forced into action can have a disastrous effect on the entire defense -- that experience is valuable. The others here are givens.

Safety (5): Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills, Marte Mapu

Marte Mapu's selection may have had you scratching your head wondering how he'll fit in, but Belichick clearly could see a role for Mapu well before using the No. 76 overall pick. That's if Mapu is healthy, of course. The third-rounder suffered a pec injury at the Senior Bowl that could make him unavailable for the start of the regular season. We'll put him in this spot for now, knowing there's a chance he ends up as an undersized inside linebacker, where he starred in Mobile.

Jalen Mills is here in part because of the depth the team now has at corner and some uncertainty at the free safety spot. Will it be Mills who takes on some of the responsibilities freed up by Devin McCourty's retirement? Or will it be Jonathan Jones? Or will Kyle Dugger end up playing in the deep portion of the field more often?

All questions still left to be answered, but this group seems like the group most likely to be on the active roster come September.