Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty’s Versatility Could Allow Patriots to Keep Fewer Players in Front Seven, Secondary

Rob NinkovichWhen constructing a 53-man roster projection for the Patriots, it’s natural to look back at past years to determine how many players Bill Belichick will be looking to keep at each position.

Last year, the Patriots ended the season with 11 defensive backs, six linebackers and 10 defensive linemen. That’s been the standard number of players at each position many assume the Patriots will be keeping this year, as well. Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan are near locks at cornerback, while it would be worth holding onto Marquice Cole and Ras-I Dowling, as well. Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson and Duron Harmon are near locks at safety, while Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson will likely also stick around. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher and Steve Beauharnais will likely be the six linebackers and Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Marcus Benard, Jermaine Cunningham, Michael Buchanan, Justin Francis, Marcus Forston and Cory Grissom were my guesses at the defensive line.

When compared to the other 19 teams that ran a base four-man front in 2012, the Patriots kept an extra defensive lineman and two extra defensive backs. The other 19 teams had a mean average of 8.95 defensive linemen, 6.58 linebackers and 9.58 defensive backs. If you’re going by mode average, 10 teams kept nine defensive linemen, eight teams kept six or seven linebackers and 11 teams kept nine defensive backs.

The Patriots could decrease the number of defensive backs and defensive ends they carry this year, though, due to the versatility the team has in their defense. This isn’t just players that can line up in both a 4-3 and 3-4, either. They’re players who can play entirely different positions in the same scheme.

In the front seven, Ninkovich can play either defensive end (his starting role) or strong-side linebacker (his starting role in 2011). Cunningham, Francis and Benard can play defensive end or defensive tackle. Collins can play defensive end or outside linebacker and McCourty and Cole can play cornerback or safety.

If a starting linebacker or two starting cornerbacks went down with injuries, it’s likely Ninkovich and McCourty would move to those respective positions. If one of the starting defensive ends went down, it’s possible Collins would move down to play that position. And since the Patriots use a defensive end at defensive tackle on third downs, the Patriots could even save space on the roster by keeping just three defensive tackles.

There are plenty of players who could be saved this year if the Patriots can find ways to cut corners due to versatility. The team could keep five running backs, five tight ends (if Rob Gronkowski starts the season off the PUP list), nine offensive linemen or even three quarterbacks. LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanwanui, James Develin, Josh Kline and Brice Schwab have all played well this summer and could be considered for roster spots if there is room.

The positions in which the Patriots carry extra players are defensive end and safety. Most teams keep just five defensive ends on their 53-man rosters and four safeties. The “extra” players New England kept around last season were Jake Bequette at defensive end and Nate Ebner at safety. Bequette barely played, but it would have been rare to cut a third-round rookie. Ebner played in 15 games as a special teamer.

Going into the 2013 season, the Patriots are experiencing injuries at guard, cornerback and now defensive end. Due to Cole and McCourty’s versatility, the team could elect to carry just four safeties on the roster while also technically carrying seven cornerbacks (including McCourty). The team could also go down to just four or five defensive ends since Collins or even Hightower could play in that role in a pinch.

There’s a reason Belichick likes having players with versatility on the roster. It allows the Patriots to play the best 11 players at any given moment and it could allow some flexibility with the roster. With so many players who can play different roles, it also allows Belichick to keep around special teams-only players like Matthew Slater, Steve Beauharnais or Ebner.

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