By 4 p.m. Saturday, the Patriots will need answers.
Until then, they’re left only with questions, all pertaining to how they can best construct a 53-man roster before the league’s weekend deadline.
How the Pats address four of these questions will reveal their belief in players, positions and the roster as a whole. For weeks, they’ve been running players through arduous practices and observing their every step. But soon, the time for training camp talk will be over.
The time for cuts is coming.
Do they keep Brian Hoyer?
Historically, the Patriots have opted to keep two quarterbacks.
From this view, it’s time to break the trend. Brian Hoyer should stay.
Newton’s injury history suggests his backup will see action sometime this season. At that point, the Patriots will be happy they employ an emergency third quarterback. Plus, Hoyer’s institutional knowledge of the team’s system and NFL defenses, as an 11-year vet, is unparalleled in the room.
Newton has said Hoyer’s insight and example are valuable to him, while he learns the playbook. What’s valuable to Newton is now valuable to the Pats.
The only problem is handing a spot to Hoyer means taking one away from another Patriot. Who should that be? Or will the Patriots again deem 53 players more valuable than a third quarterback?
How many young offensive linemen stick?
If there was any position after quarterback the Pats wished could have experienced a full offseason, it would unquestionably have been the offensive line.
Co-position coaches Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich worked to replace franchise legend Dante Scarnecchia in a brief window this summer, blessed with a veteran starting group and a bounty of inexperienced reserves. The task was towering from the start.
Particularly because it’s impossible to develop any player within three to four weeks of practice, let alone a young offensive lineman. Naturally, there is still no clear answer to who will be the team’s next swing tackle.
Offensive tackles Korey Cunningham and Justin Herron, a sixth-round rookie, flipped constantly between the left and right side in training camp. Both had their moments and proved healthier than Yodny Cajuste, a 2019 third-round pick who essentially redshirted last year. If the Pats view Cajuste as trailing the other two, he could be left out in the cold or perhaps catching one; Foxboro Flu season is about to hit and likely send a few players to injured reserve.
Inside, another sixth-round rookie, mountainous guard Michael Onwenu, surged late in camp in a competition with Hjalte Froholdt. Smart money says both will stay, with Froholdt serving as the backup to center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason and Onwenu providing depth at left guard and, in emergency cases, at tackle.
Which brings us back to the original question: Cunningham, Herron or Cajuste? Will it be one, two or none?
How few linebackers can the defense survive on?
If there’s a position the Pats can steal from to create room for an extra quarterback or lineman, it’s linebacker.
Only Ja’Whaun Bentley, Chase Winovich, John Simon and draft picks Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are locks in 2020. Positional versatility — Uche and Jennings can play inside and out — and safety depth could allow them to paper over any depth issues.
For starters, Adrian Phillips, Terrence Brooks and top pick Kyle Dugger will see regular snaps in the box this season. It’s how Patrick Chung was deployed for the past two seasons. Plus, the Pats’ 2020 schedule features only six above-average rushing teams from a year ago, meaning they won’t need many thumpers.
Of course, the Patriots will roster more than five ‘backers. Edge rushers Brandon Copeland, Shilique Calhoun and Derek Rivers are the top candidates to stick, along with sixth-round rookie Cassh Maluia. But all of them together? Probably not.
How feasible could a trade be?
A year ago at this time, the Pats executed three trades, all involving late-round picks for backup offensive linemen. The deals revealed a total lack of confidence in their reserve O-lineman, an unknown worry to that point. So might Belichick feel similarly about another position this summer — wide receiver, tight end or linebacker?
Only time and exploratory trade talks will tell. Ideally, the Patriots would deal with an organization led by a former coach or executive of theirs, to expedite the onboarding process for any acquired player who would carry similar system experience. Such teams include the Giants, Lions, Titans and Texans, with the Dolphins, as an in-division opponent, being a far less likely trade partner.
By trading for a veteran, the Pats could quickly patch a roster hole while allowing a younger position group to develop. Naturally, there are several obstacles in the age of COVID-19; namely, a lack of preseason tape to properly evaluate potential trade targets. But accepting that NFL decision-makers are likely to play it safe on cutdown day, retaining veterans who understand their system over unproven first and second-year talents, it may behoove the Patriots to pursue a deal than simply cross their fingers Saturday that a proven player falls through.
Time to get on the phone.