FOXBORO, Mass. — The fourth preseason game is usually not for the faint of heart.
Tom Brady, Danny Amendola and Vince Wilfork likely won’t get much work against the Giants on Thursday night in Foxboro. In their stead will be Ryan Mallet, Josh Boyce, Joe Vellano and the rest of the New England players fighting for roster spots and starting roles.
The team will be cut down to 75 players, with the next cut down to 53 coming just two days later. Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ personnel staff may have their minds mostly made up for final cuts, but this is the last chance for players to prove themselves worthy of making the Week 1 roster.
Check out our top position battles below.
Brandon Bolden vs. LeGarrette Blount vs. Leon Washington
This game might determine if the Patriots keep four or five players at running back. Bolden and Washington have the upper hand in special teams, while Blount has looked the best running the ball in preseason games.
Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen likely won’t get many carries on Thursday as the Patriots rest their starters. That means plenty of reps for Bolden, Blount, Washington and maybe even undrafted rookie George Winn, who has just one carry for -2 yards during the preseason.
If Washington doesn’t make the roster, that means someone else will have to step up in kick and punt return duties. The Patriots have plenty of players who can handle that responsibility, but no one is as proven of a commodity as Washington. Washington is also the backup to Vereen in the third-down back role. Bolden, Blount and Ridley are not typical pass-catching backs.
Bolden looked solid last year for the Patriots, but injuries and a fumble in Game 3 have hurt him this summer. Blount looked best on his 51-yard touchdown run but hasn’t shown much beyond that one carry. This competition will likely go down to the wire. The Patriots will have to decide by Aug. 31.
Jermaine Cunningham vs. Marcus Benard vs. Justin Francis
It’s entirely possible that all three of these players make the 53-man roster, but only one will be the primary backup at defensive end. That guy will play dual roles as Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich‘s backup and the third-down three-technique defensive tackle.
Last season, Cunningham owned that role — when he wasn’t serving a four-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy, of course. All three players have played defensive end and defensive tackle as Patriots. Cunningham is the proven commodity, though he wasn’t overly effective in the regular season as a pass-rushing defensive tackle. Benard might be the best edge rusher, but he hasn’t flashed too much in the Patriots’ preseason games. He’s been pushed around a bit at the defensive tackle position. Francis is the most stout run defender of the group, but outside of a three-sack performance in Week 17 against the Dolphins, he didn’t show much as a pass rusher last season.
Cunningham was a limited participant in practice Monday, but if he’s healthy enough to practice Tuesday, he could be a full-go to play Thursday. He’s been injured for the majority of training camp, so this could be his only chance to prove he deserves a roster spot and the sub-package pass rushing role. Since no one else has really stood out, it could be Cunningham’s to lose.
Joe Vellano vs. free agents
Now that Cory Grissom is on injured reserve, the fourth defensive tackle spot appears to be down to Vellano and Anthony Rashad White. From looking at preseason opportunities, it appears Vellano is well ahead of White.
Vellano started Thursday’s game against the Lions and has played 83 total snaps this preseason. White has mostly played in the fourth quarter and has only played 26 snaps.
Vellano is undersized, listed at 300 pounds, but he appears smaller. He’s been sufficient against the run and in getting after the passer, but he hasn’t stood out like you would like to see out of an undrafted free agent attempting to make the roster.
It may be tough to stand out as an undrafted free agent this season, competing with Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld, but Vellano has a tendency to disappear at times. If Vellano can’t churn out a standout performance, the Maryland product could be competing with some of the defensive tackles released by other teams on Aug. 31.
It seems risky to have just Marcus Forston and Vellano backing up Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly this season. If a proven defensive tackle gets released as teams cut down to 53 players, the defensive tackle that sticks around (likely Vellano) could be gone before Week 1 of the regular season.
Logan Ryan vs. Ras-I Dowling
Both of these players will likely make the roster, as long as they’re both healthy after the fourth preseason game. They’ll be competing for the spot as the fourth cornerback on the depth chart, though. Ryan has improved more than any other player this summer, coming in struggling as the third cornerback in Week 1, but he took an interception back to the house in the second preseason game against the Buccaneers and played very well in the slot and outside against the Lions.
Dowling has all the upside in the world, but he just can’t seem to stay healthy. He’s been injured for most of training camp now, but he was a full participant in Monday’s practice. We’ll likely see Ryan and Dowling starting at cornerback against the Giants, and the better player could emerge as the third cornerback to start the season if Alfonzo Dennard isn’t healthy in time.
Steve Gregory vs. Adrian Wilson
Based on how they have been used in training camp and the preseason, Wilson is expected to be the starter Week 1 next to Devin McCourty, but Gregory will likely still get snaps in the nickel defense. If any starters play during the fourth preseason game, it will be these two.
It’s odd that there’s still a possibility either of these players will start Week 1 against the Bills or be among the Aug. 31 cuts. Neither player has really stood out this preseason, but neither have Tavon Wilson or Duron Harmon.
It’s nice the Patriots have McCourty to cover ground at free safety, because if not for the former cornerback, the Patriots might be in rough shape at safety. Wilson is the better player in the run game, he has better instincts and he’s the better tackler, but a lack of mobility limits him. Gregory is the more mobile player, he’s the better deep safety and he appears to have had some nice chemistry with McCourty last season, but he has a tendency to miss tackles and take questionable routes in the run game and in coverage.
Other Positional Battles:
Josh Boyce vs. Aaron Dobson vs. Julian Edelman
One of these players will emerge as the Week 1 No. 3 receiver behind Thompkins and Amendola. If it’s Boyce or Amendola, Thompkins will stick at the “X” wide receiver role, with Amendola moving to the slot. If it’s Dobson, Thompkins will likely move to the “Z” receiver spot.
Daniel Fells vs. Michael Hoomanawanui vs. James Develin
If Rob Gronkowski starts the season on the active roster, it’s likely only one of these players makes the 53-man roster. Fells is the best blocker, Develin is the best fullback and Hoomanwanui is the most versatile.
Undrafted Free Agent Offensive Linemen
Neither Josh Kline, Luke Patterson, Brice Schwab, Chris McDonald nor Matt Stankiewitch have really stood out this preseason. As a second unit, they haven’t been half bad in protecting Ryan Mallett, but with one available spot still up for grabs, they’ll have to step up their game with increased reps. With Marcus Cannon and Dan Connolly just returning from injuries, the Patriots are expected to come out of camp with eight offensive linemen.
Marcus Cannon vs. Dan Connolly
Cannon had the perfect opportunity to snatch the starting right guard role at the beginning of training camp when Connolly was out with an injury. Then Cannon got hurt and Will Svitek was taking the starting reps at the position. Svitek has struggled, so it’s back down to Cannon and Connolly, both of whom appeared healthy during Monday’s practice.