FOXBORO -- With two weeks of training camp and one preseason game in the books, the 2014 Patriots roster is really starting to take shape. But while there are some individuals at the top of the depth chart who are just crossing days off the calendar while counting down to Week 1 of the regular season, there are others who are in the middle of a battle to land a spot on the 53-man roster. Subsequently, they might be on the bubble when it comes to finding their place in Foxboro.
One reminder: 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 forced their way into the conversation when it comes to any sort of debate 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.
For the record — this list isn’t for back-of-the-roster unknowns, but for legitimate roster candidates who might be considered as being “on the bubble” when cutdown day comes around. Ultimately, while other names came up when putting this list together, from this viewpoint, here are 10 guys who need to start stringing together some good performances over the next week-plus if they want to solidify their standing in Foxboro.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler: The rookie played very well in the preseason opener against the Redskins, looking competitive while working in coverage against Washington’s backup receivers, and a good week of practices against some of Philly’s pass catchers could create a real debate as to whether or not he could be a part of the picture at cornerback. While no one is expecting him to usurp anyone at the top of the food chain (Revis, Browner, Arrington and Dennard), he could end up pushing some of those who are on the back end of the depth chart, including second-year Rutgers product Logan Ryan and Justin Green. At the very least, he’s landed on the radar screen because he maximized his opportunities against the Redskins. Now, he needs to build on that going forward.
Cornerback Logan Ryan: Ryan finished last year on an up note, but it’s clear he’s facing a challenge from Butler when it comes to the back end of the cornerback depth chart. He appeared to struggle at times in the preseason opener against the Redskins, and had some issues in Sunday’s practice when he was beaten on a deep pass play from Jimmy Garoppolo to Brian Tyms. To be clear: it doesn’t appear that Ryan is in any danger of necessarily losing a roster spot, at least as it stands right now. But he cannot afford to have many more subpar practices and/or games. If he does, he risks the possibility of starting a slide down the depth chart.
Offensive lineman Jordan Devey: Devey is an offensive lineman who spent the bulk of the 2013 season on the practice squad, but to this point in the summer, he’s been shuffled around the offensive line, getting time alongside veterans. (He started the preseason opener against the Redskins at left guard in place of Logan Mankins and played 100 percent of the snaps.) Throughout camp, he hasn’t appeared overwhelmed by the process, and has done more than enough to at least inject himself into the conversation at this point as to whether or not he deserves a roster spot. However, like most of the rest of the players on this list, he needs to maintain a high level of play over the rest of the summer if he truly wants to break camp with the Patriots, either as a practice squadder or a part of the 53-man roster. Two things working in his favor? He has versatility (he’s played both guard and tackle) and has practice squad eligibility.
Running back Roy Finch: The rookie had some hands issues in the preseason opener against the Redskins, fumbling away one kickoff return (at the end of a very good run) and also botching a punt return. (It was particularly illustrative seeing Julian Edelman give Finch on the sidelines later in the game, going over technique with the rookie out of Oklahoma.) Finch has a tremendous skill set, and the fact that he was back out on the field working as a returner with a bunch of other candidates on Sunday says something about the belief that the coaching staff has in what he can accomplish. He will certainly get more chances going forward, and if he can maximize those (particularly when it comes to special teams), he can make his case to be included on the 53-man roster.
Wide receiver Josh Boyce: The second-year speedster out of TCU is part of a dicey situation at the back end of the receiver depth chart, facing competition from the likes of Kenbrell Thompkins, and he needs to be able to continue to do the things necessary to distinguish himself from the rest of the field. Namely, flash the physical skills that made him a fourth-round pick last spring. He didn’t help his chances Thursday against the Redskins when he committed an early gaffe, lining up offsides early. (The mistake was compounded later on when he and Ryan Mallett couldn’t connect on a passing play that looked like it might have been the fault of the receiver.) One thing that could potentially separate him from the rest of the pack is his special teams value. Boyce worked as a kick returner in college, and was at that position as a part-timer last season. He’s taken a lot of reps back there through the first two weeks of practice, and has had limited results. If he can seize that position over the next week, he can carve out a nice position for himself on this roster.
Tight end D.J. Williams: A week ago, Williams probably felt good about his chances -- the Patriots left veteran Rob Gronkowski in Foxboro while they headed to D.C. for joint practices with the Redskins, and Williams, along with youngsters Asa Watson and Justin Jones, were counted on to hold down the tight end spot. Flash forward to Sunday -- Williams has missed two practices since last week because of injury. In addition, the Patriots jettisoned Watson and Jones and brought in three more tight ends, including veteran Ben Hartsock. While Williams can take some solace in the fact that he survived the purge, the addition of a steadying veteran presence like Hartsock, as well as the fact that the team still has Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui in the fold, has to make him wonder about his chances going forward. While much of his future is tied to the overall health of Gronkowski and Hoomanwanui, the former John Mackey Award winner needs to show something positive if he really wants to make his case for a roster spot.
Running back Brandon Bolden: Bolden burst onto the scene in 2012 when he lit up the Bills for 137 yards on 16 carries. Since then, he hasn’t done much, as he’s been pretty much relegated to the back of the running back depth chart. However, if the Patriots are inclined to keep an extra wide receiver or offensive linemen, that could make Bolden expendable. There’s no denying the fact that Bolden would be a tough cut, for two big reasons: one, he figures to serve as the primary backup to Stevan Ridley as a semi-traditional “between the tackles” back, and if he was cut, the Patriots might be a little thin at the position. And two, if he was let go, New England would be inclined to keep rookie James White ahead of him. While White has certainly impressed over the course of the summer, it might be a little early for New England to choose him ahead of someone like Bolden, who does have some experience in the system.
Wide receiver Brian Tyms: Prior to Thursday night, Tyms was known as little more than Jimmy Garoppolo’s favorite target. But like Butler, he enjoyed a breakout performance against the Redskins. The Florida A&M product caught five passes for 119 yards and a touchdown, and didn’t appear to be fazed at all by playing under the lights. It remains to be seen how he’ll do if asked to perform against No. 1 and No. 2 defensive players (as opposed to the No. 3’s and No. 4’s he mostly faced Thursday), but if he keeps catching whatever is thrown his way and refusing to back down, he’ll be in the mix for a roster spot in some form or fashion before it’s all done. In an odd twist, the fact that Tyms is facing a four-game ban for testing positive for a banned substance could allow him to stick around longer than he might otherwise. Because he's suspended, he wouldn't count against the active roster over the first month of the season, and that roster flexibility could work in his favor.
Defensive linemen Marcus Forston/Joe Vellano: We’ve included this pair as a duo because they appear to have the same sort of chance. With the recent injuries suffered by backup defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones, Forston and Vellano both have a chance to make their mark as the primary backups to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. It’s unclear -- for now -- how long both Siliga and Jones will be sidelined. While they are probably the two primary backups, both Forston and Vellano figure to get more opportunities in their absence for the next few days.
Safety Kanorris Davis: The gonzo special teamer made one of the most impressive plays of the preseason opener, chasing down a punt returner and sticking with the play even after losing his helmet. It’s the sort of move that has come to define Davis in his relatively short time with the Patriots. He spent the bulk of the 2013 season on the practice squad, but certainly appears to have the inside track on one of the final roster spots, at least as long as he keeps making those sorts of plays. (At this point, he might be in competition with Pat Chung for the final safety spot, but his special teams value probably gives him a boost.)