Jermaine Cunningham, Tim Tebow, Daniel Fells Among Final Cuts in Patriots 53-Man Roster Projection

Jermaine CunninghamThe Patriots are now in the home stretch of the preseason with less than 48 hours standing between them and their final exhibition before the regular season.

This final week of the preseason has implications for lots of players around the league, as nearly 30 percent of the players on rosters at the start of training camp will lose their jobs on or before Sept. 1. Those dominoes already began to fall on Tuesday as NFL rules mandated teams to trim their rosters down from 90 to just 75 players ahead of each team’s final preseason game.

For the Patriots, Kamar Aiken and Niko Koutouvides were the unfortunate recipients of the ax along with a number of lesser-known players. With 22 players left to cut by Saturday, guys like Tim Tebow, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Bolden and Jake Bequette, among many others, know that Thursday night’s game against the Giants may make or break their futures with the Patriots.

So, as the final preseason game slowly closes in on us, NESN.com NFL editors Luke Hughes and Doug Kyed took a look at how they see the 53-man roster smoothing out after Tuesday’s cutdown.

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK

Kyed: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett (2)

I’ll hold my ground that Tim Tebow is not making this team. The 53rd spot on the roster is too valuable to use on a quarterback that should not get on the field. The Patriots have plenty of young players on the roster bubble, but keeping them around for an extra year to see if they can improve is more important than a third quarterback.

Hughes: Brady, Mallett (2)

Tebow didn’t play at all during the Patriots’ game in Detroit, and the third preseason game typically most resembles a regular-season game. So, that wasn’t a good sign for Tebow. He still may hold some long-term value for the Patriots, but not enough to claim a roster spot from someone like Steve Beauharnais or Tavon Wilson. Plus, if the Patriots find themselves in need at some point this season, he will, in all likelihood, still be on the market.

RUNNING BACK

Kyed: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Leon Washington (4)

I think Bill Belichick values special teams too much to keep LeGarrette Blount over Bolden and Washington. Bolden is a part of the core special teams coverage units, while Washington is the most proven return man on the roster.

Hughes: Ridley, Vereen, Washington, Bolden, Legarrette Blount (5)

Bolden may have fumbled his way off the Patriots’ roster last week. After the second-year back’s miscue, he sat on the bench until late in the fourth quarter. Belichick doesn’t take too kindly to unforced errors, and Blount has shown more to this point in the preseason. But Bolden’s special teams value will work in his favor and will save him from the cutline this time. There’s also no need for James Develin to stick around as long as Michael Hoomanawanui can fill that fullback role in a bind.

WIDE RECEIVER

Kyed: Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater (6)

As long as everyone stays healthy, this unit might as well be set in stone. The only players left to compete for a roster spot are Johnathan Haggerty and Quentin Sims. At this point, it’s just figuring out the order of the depth chart.

Hughes: Amendola, Boyce, Dobson, Edelman, Thompkins, Slater (6)

With Monday’s release of Kamar Aiken, this group is pretty much settled at this point. Sims and Haggerty have a shot at sticking on the practice squad, but these six will be the guys you see catching passes from Brady come Week 1.

TIGHT END

Kyed: Zach Sudfeld, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Rob Gronkowski (4)

If Gronkowski starts the season on the active roster, the Patriots will likely have to cut a tight end. Daniel Fells and Develin get the axe, while Hoomanawanui sticks around. Hoomanawanui is the more versatile player, even if Fells is the better inline blocker.

Hughes: Gronkowski, Ballard, Sudfeld, Hoomanawanui (4)

Gronkowski was at least active out on the field with the Patriots on Monday. Belichick’s decision to have him run in front of the media must mean he’s made some vast improvements, and it has me convinced that he’s closer than six weeks away from returning. With Gronk making the final 53-man, Fells finds himself as the odd man out. Fells is a valuable asset both as a blocker and on special teams, but that can’t justify his $1.5 million cap hit. Hooman and Sudfeld can do enough to ease his loss.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Kyed: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon, Sebastian Vollmer, Will Svitek, Dan Connolly, Josh Kline (8)

With Cannon and Connolly still recovering from injuries, it’s important to keep around eight offensive linemen. Kline makes the cut over the rest of the undrafted free agents. Kline can play guard and center and has looked solid all summer.

Hughes: Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Connolly, Vollmer, Svitek, Cannon (7)

Markus Zusevics was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, making the Patriots’ chances of carrying seven offensive linemen much more likely. Svitek and Cannon are both capable of playing both the guard and tackle, almost voiding the need for extra offensive linemen. Plus, no one among the Chris McDonald, Brice Schwab and Kline group has established themselves enough to earn a roster spot.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE END

Kyed: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Justin Francis, Marcus Benard, Jermaine Cunningham (5)

Keeping an eighth offensive lineman means someone else has to get cut. In this situation, that’s Michael Buchanan. Buchanan slipped to the seventh round for a reason, and it’s likely because other teams took him completely off their board. If the rest of the NFL didn’t like him in April, they probably still don’t like him, meaning Buchanan could make it onto the practice squad. Even if he doesn’t slip through waivers, he hasn’t shown much in preseason as a pass rusher or run stopper.

Hughes: Jones, Ninkovich, Francis, Benard, Michael Buchanan (5)

Cunningham finally returned to the practice field, even if he was limited, on Monday, which is a good sign for the fourth-year veteran, but even that may not be enough to save his place on the roster. Cunningham can play on the inside and outside of the line, giving him the type of versatility the Patriots typically desire on the line. But, unless he shows up big during Thursday’s preseason finale or he lands on IR, I’m not sure there’s a spot for him right now. Jake Bequette also hasn’t done enough to deserve further consideration here. At a certain point, you have to cut your losses — even with a third-round pick.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Kyed: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Marcus Forston, Joe Vellano (4)

Vellano will make it for now, but the Patriots will definitely keep their eyes on defensive tackles cut on Aug. 31. Vellano has been fine, and he’s a nice developmental prospect, but the Patriots will need four defensive tackles who are game-ready. Vellano may not be there yet.

Hughes: Wilfork, Kelly, Forston, Vellano (4)

Armond Armstead is officially on the NFI list, which means he can’t return until at least Week 6. With that knowledge, we know the Patriots may have to move forward with at least one extra player beyond Wilfork, Kelly and Forston on the interior. At this point, the rookie Vellano seems to be the most likely choice. Belichick could always keep Cunningham as the fourth “interior” lineman or maybe even snag a veteran in free agency after cutdowns on Saturday.

LINEBACKER

Kyed: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher, Steve Beauharnais (6)

Mike Rivera and Jeff Tarpinian have been solid on defense and special teams, but Beauharnais offers more upside. This is a stacked linebacker corps.

Hughes: Mayo, Spikes, Hightower, Collins, Fletcher, Beauharnais (6)

Beauharnais has shown enough at this point in the preseason to earn a place on the team, adding value on special teams and as a depth linebacker. But, he will be one of the final few. If nothing else, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t make it through waivers and onto the practice squad, forcing Belichick to find a place for him on the final 53.

CORNERBACK

Kyed: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Marquice Cole, Ras-I Dowling (6)

With Dennard and Dowling still recovering from injuries, it may be a good idea to keep around a sixth cornerback in Cole. Cole is a great special teams player who can contribute in the slot or at safety in a pinch.

Hughes: Talib, Dennard, Arrington, Ryan, Dowling, Cole (6)

Dowling was firmly on the cutline for me, if only because he hasn’t practiced in nearly a month now. It’s become a running storyline with him, but, if he’s healthy, there is just too much talent to give up on him yet. Cole’s ability to fill in at safety and his value on special teams make keep him on the roster, too.

SAFETY

Kyed: Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon, Steve Gregory (5)

Some of these players probably don’t deserve to make the 53-man roster, but they’ll be kept around for upside and depth. As other players start to step up, this group could get cut down during the season.

Hughes: McCourty, Adrian Wilson, Harmon, Gregory, Tavon Wilson (5)

Tavon Wilson has been a major disappointment in the Patriots’ secondary so far this preseason. He has struggled to cover the deep part of the field, failed to adjust to offensive adjustments at times and shown an overall greenness that a Super Bowl contender just can’t afford to rely on. Even still, he has potential, and it’s too soon to give up on a second-rounder — as hypocritical as it may sound, considering my stance on Bequette. The other Wilson (Adrian) offers too much leadership and has enough left in the tank to pass on him.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kyed: Stephen Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko, Danny Aiken (3)

Mesko has been better than Ryan Allen.

Hughes: Gostkowski, Mesko, Aiken (3)

Allen made a strong case for the punter job early in camp, but he’s fallen off considerably of late. Mesko has been consistent throughout the preseason, and, while he may not have the booming leg of Allen, his hangtime and ability to accurately place the football are too valuable to lose. Don’t be surprised if Allen makes it onto the practice squad, though.

FINAL SELECTIONS

LAST THREE IN

Kyed: Tavon Wilson, Kline, Vellano

Hughes: Beauharnais, Dowling, Vellano

LAST THREE OUT

Kyed: Buchanan, Tebow, Blount

Hughes: Cunningham, Fells, Tebow

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