Does Aaron Dobson deserve a spot on the Patriots’ final 53-man roster? (Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports)
The third preseason game is typically as close to a regular season game as there is, so Friday night’s Patriots-Panthers game should be the most intense in the preseason and also a good test to go against a team that just reached the Super Bowl.
NFL rosters get cut down to 75 players next Tuesday before the final 53-man rosters need to be set by Sept 3. With that in mind, reps in the final two preseason games are extremely important for some players vying for final roster spots.
Here are five positional battles to keep an eye on both Friday night and in the final preseason game next Thursday against the Giants.
1. Wide receiver
The position got a little more clear this week with the team cutting Nate Washington. It now leaves Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Keshawn Martin, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Aaron Dobson, DeAndre Carter, Chris Harper and Devin Lucien left. It doesn’t appear likely Amendola will be ready to start Week 1 and PUP to start the season remains in play. Typically, the Patriots keep five wide receivers including Matthew Slater, so it would appear Edelman, Martin and Hogan are locks to open the year on the 53-man roster, leaving Dobson, Mitchell and Harper battling for the fourth receiver spot on the roster (fifth being Slater). It is possible the team could keep six wide outs, including Slater, and then try and sneak the odd man out of Dobson, Mitchell, Harper on to the practice squad. Dobson and Harper have been given extensive playing time over the first two games and neither have done anything to separate themselves.
The battle is for the fifth cornerback spot as it would seem Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Cyrus Jones are definitely locks and likely Justin Coleman as well. Competing for the fifth cornerback spot are Cre’von LeBlanc, Jonathan Jones and Darryl Roberts. LeBlanc and Jones have both stood out so far in the preseason and seem to have the edge over Roberts. On the flip side, Coleman has struggled in the preseason, especially last Thursday against the Bears, which is something to take note of. There’s a chance given the number of versatile safeties, the team could only carry four cornerbacks to be able to carry an extra player at another position. Friday night is big for Coleman, LeBlanc, Jones and Roberts to prove they can compete and deserve a spot on the final 53.
3. Running back
After releasing Donald Brown on Tuesday, the team now has Dion Lewis, James Develin, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney, James White, Joey Iosefa and D.J. Foster left competing for spots. Lewis is almost certain to start the season on PUP as Blount, White and Bolden appear to be locks with Gaffney and Foster perhaps battling for the final running back spot. Foster hasn’t played yet in the preseason, so if he does Friday night, it will be huge for him to show what he can do against NFL talent. Develin is also a lock and from this view point, Iosefa is a practice squad candidate. There’s also a good chance the team adds a player from outside the organization either via trade or a player who gets released as this is a position that seems to need an upgrade.
4. Defensive line
The defensive line didn’t seem like much of a competitive position going into the preseason, but it’s turned into one. Rob Ninkovich’s status is up in the air for Week 1 with a triceps injury and Jabaal Sheard is working his way back from a reported sprained MCL, which may mean a spot or two could be made available. Alan Branch has been suspended from the team and hasn’t been around all week, which leaves Chris Long, Terrance Knighton, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, Markus Kuhn, Joe Vellano, Frank Kearse, Anthony Johnson and Woodrow Hamilton battling for spots. It was interesting to see Knighton playing in the fourth quarter last Thursday night, as well as Johnson getting first-team reps. Valentine, a rookie, has been impressive as well. It’s unclear with the injuries just how many defensive linemen will be kept, but Friday night is big for players like Grissom, Kuhn, Johnson and Knighton.
5. Tight end
This is a battle for the third tight and it’s come down to A.J. Derby and Clay Harbor. Through the spring and into the first two preseason games, Derby has been one of the most impressive players on the entire roster. After being placed on season-ending injured reserve last summer, the second-year player has made the most of his opportunities so far this summer. Harbor, who the Patriots signed this past offseason, missed a few practices at the beginning of camp, which set him back. As it stands now, Derby seems to have the edge on the final spot on the 53-man roster.