With the spring practices -- OTAs and minicamps -- now completed, the 2013 Patriots are starting to come into sharper focus. And inevitably, while there are guys who appear to be roster locks, there are also players who -- at least as of right now -- appear to be on the bubble when it comes to making decisions on the 53-man roster.
It needs to be mentioned that it can be a good thing to be on this list. For rookies and some other younger players, it means they have played their way into a significant spot on the depth chart, and if they continue trending in the right direction, they could force the coaching staff to make some tough decisions come cutdown day. Of course, for some veterans, this isn’t the place you want to be at this stage of your career. (At the same time, it isn’t always a commentary on their overall skills, but merely a reflection of the fact that a younger and cheaper player could be pushing them for a roster spot.)
Regardless of which category these players fall into, it’s important to remember that this list isn’t for back-of-the-roster unknowns, but for legitimate candidates playing time who might be considered as being on the bubble when cutdown day comes around. With that in mind, let’s roll out the post-minicamp edition of Bubble Watch:
Tight end Daniel Fells: With the uncertainty surrounding the health of Rob Gronkowski, Jake Ballard’s attempt to return from a year on the shelf because of knee surgery, the rehab of Aaron Hernandez from offseason shoulder surgery and the strong spring of undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld, there are still a lot of variables at the tight end position. Into this picture comes Fells, who had a respectable 2012, his first year with the team. Through no particular fault of his own, the future of the 29-year-old (at least as it relates to the Patriots) is tied to the status of some of the other tight ends on the team. Will Gronkowski start the year on PUP? Can Ballard return to form? And can Sudfeld continue to emerge as a viable option? All questions that have to be asked before you consider what to do with Fells in 2013.
Defensive lineman Jermaine Cunningham: This guy lives on this list. Seemingly dancing on the edge of the roster the last two years, it doesn’t get any easier for Cunningham as he enters his fourth season in the NFL. The 25-year-old shone on a handful of occasions last year -- he played in each of the first 11 games as an interior pass rusher and defensive end, and was tremendously productive on occasion. (Against the Jets on Thanksgiving, he had six tackles while playing 62 of a possible 74 snaps.) But he hit the skids after a four-game suspension for PEDs, and wasn’t as effective down the stretch. In the offseason, the Patriots added more bodies up front, and as a result, that leaves Cunningham (who is entering the final year of his rookie contract) on the bubble once again, at least for the time being.
Quarterback Tim Tebow: There’s already been a ton of discussion about the prospect of Tebow as a member of the Patriots, and there will be much more between now and the start of camp. But as we wrote here, the question surrounding Tebow at this point is whether or not it’s more beneficial to carry him as a third quarterback (at the expense of some other spot on the roster), or dedicate time to trying to develop him as a bonafide NFL starter. (Never mind the possibility of trying to play him somewhere else.)
Tight end Zach Sudfeld: For the rookie out of Nevada, this is a good spot to be in. Sudfeld certainly had a good spring, and if he continues to trend in the right direction, will force the Patriots to make some hard decisions at the tight end spot (and maybe some other positions) come cutdown day. In fact, at this point it’s completely possible to see a scenario where the Patriots have to choose between Sudfeld and Fells.
Wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins: Like Sudfeld, it’s a good thing for Thompkins to be on this list, at least at this stage of his career. An undrafted free agent who had a good spring, he’s another guy who could be playing himself into a larger role down the road. (For what it’s worth, veteran Lavelle Hawkins could also fall into the same category as Thompkins in that he’s an under-the-radar presence at wide receiver who has the capability to surprise before the end of the summer.)
Wide receiver Michael Jenkins: Jenkins has been a fascinating study this spring. When he was first acquired, he really wasn’t given much of a chance to make the roster, but he’s shown up positively on the occasions where the media was allowed to view the OTAs and minicamp. And it’s also worth mentioning that when it comes to shadowing Tom Brady, the former Ohio State wide receiver has been a constant presence throughout the spring. Even if it’s just standing there listening to a conversation between the quarterback and another pass catcher (usually Danny Amendola), Jenkins has always been very attentive to everything Brady has been saying. When it comes to getting up and down the field, he’s still a bit of a strider in his running style, but he certainly did enough to open some eyes this spring.
Defensive lineman Jason Vega: It’s tough to get a handle on how the linemen (both on offense and defense) really did over the course of the spring. First, the position drills were usually held in a far corner of the practice field, and the fact that they weren’t wearing numbers made it very tough to ID who was who. Combine that with the fact that there was a minimum of contact because full pads are prohibited in the spring, and it’s tough to evaluate where linemen are at this stage. But the Northeastern product faces a tough hill as he attempts to make the roster. He certainly had success last season in the CFL, and if he and fellow Canadian import Armond Armstead can demonstrate that they can bring a dependable presence to the pass rush (as well as possibly some special teams value), his chances of making the roster will increase exponentially. (For what it’s worth, the only reason we didn’t include Armstead on this list is because he has a slightly more impressive resume than Vega. But at the same time, Armstead also has to show something come August -- while possibly battling for playing time with the likes of Tommy Kelly -- or he could also be on the hot seat.)
Cornerback Marquice Cole: While Cole is a defensive back in name, his presence on the roster last season was a tribute to his special teams skills. He was a core member of many of the New England special teams units, and was a positive presence in the locker room. However, the Patriots picked up a few young corners in the offseason who could possibly fill the same role as Cole going forward. He’s certainly one to watch come training camp. (Another player who could also fall into this category is linebacker Niko Koutouvides. Like Cole, Koutouvides is known more for his special teams skills than his work as a defender. And like Cole, he became one of the most integral special teamers on the roster over the course of the 2012 season. But there’s always someone younger and cheaper on the horizon, and in the name of creating competition, Koutouvides could be fighting for a spot come August if one of the younger linebackers shows some special teams value.)
Running back LeGarrette Blount: It might be unfair to include him on this list, as Blount remains a bit of an enigma because we didn’t get a real chance to see him work with pads on throughout the spring. (The oversized back is at his best when he’s allowed to bowl guys over. You can do much of that in shorts and shells.) As a result, there’s still no real idea of what he can accomplish, particularly in this offense. Our best guess to this point is that based on his running style and the collection of running backs currently on the roster, he’ll be fighting for playing time with youngster Brandon Bolden.
Cornerback Ras-I Dowling: The 33rd overall pick in the 2011 draft has seen is two-year career with the Patriots marked by injury. After a solid opening to his rookie year where he started his first two games as a professional, he landed on season-ending injured reserve on Oct. 29 because he needed hip surgery. And 2012 started poorly when he suffered a hamstring injury early in camp and missed nearly three weeks. As a result, he slipped down the depth chart, and began the season as a nickel back. Then, in late October, he landed on season-ending IR for the second straight year when he suffered a thigh injury in an overtime win over the Jets. With at least three corners head of him on the depth chart (Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington) and facing a challenge from other youngsters (Logan Ryan, Brandon Jones, Stephon Morris), it will be an important camp for Dowling.