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Ten thoughts on Patriots moves on cutdown Saturday

09.01.13 at 12:21 am ET
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Ten thoughts on the series of moves the Patriots made on Saturday, and what it means for the future of the franchise.

1. Farewell to Tim Tebow. The departure of Tebow after two-plus months in Foxboro marks the end of a tumultuous stretch, as the quarterback never really seemed to get all the way up to speed in the offense, while his unique skill set and running style also never really clicked with the New England offense. He did have a very enjoyable final act, tossing a pair of touchdowns to his BFF Quentin Sims in the preseason finale against the Giants. In his success, it was nice to see his New England teammates rooting so hard for him — Ryan Mallett in particular reacted as if the Patriots had just won the Super Bowl. (Tebow offered a pleasant parting thought regarding his time with the Patriots via Twitter, saying he was thankful for the chance to play for such a ‘€œclassy’€ organization.) The Patriots will now go with two quarterbacks for the fourth time in five years, as Mallett will serve as the lone backup for Tom Brady.

2. Zoltan says goodbye. While the Tebow release is certainly garnering bigger headlines nationally, the decision to move on from veteran punter Zoltan Mesko is perhaps the biggest overall surprise of cutdown weekend for the Patriots. The immensely likeable punter was not only one of the best young punters in the league, but a tireless advocate for various charities in the Boston area. A genuinely nice guy, he’€™ll be missed in the locker room. But from a practical perspective, it does make sense. Mesko had a sizable cap hit, and was set to be a free agent at year’€™s end. In contrast, rookie Ryan Allen had punted well over the summer, and the two two-time Ray Guy award winner was considered one of the top punting prospects coming out of college this spring. Bottom line? Mesko is probably the better punter at this moment — and certainly has an established history as the holder for kicker Stephen Gostkowski — Allen offers a higher ceiling down the road for considerably less money. The sad truth to the NFL is that it’€™s a business, and while Mesko will ultimately find a job somewhere else, he will be missed in New England.

3. A full-house backfield. While there was some belief that the Patriots would go with four backs and choose between LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden, instead, counting fullback James Develin, they’€™ll carry six backs into the start of the 2013 season: Develin, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Blount, Bolden and Leon Washington. It’€™s a diverse group — Ridley will serve as the lead back, a between the tackles presence who will get the bulk of the carries. He’€™ll be backed up by the Blount/Bolden combo, while Vereen will serve as the primary third-down option out of the backfield in the mold of Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead. Washington figures to serve as a backup to Vereen, and Develin’€™s positional versatility figures to come in handy as a combo fullback and tight end. As the 2013 season dawns, the Patriots haven’€™t seen this depth and versatility from a backfield since 2008 (the last time they had a fulltime fullback on the roster in Heath Evans).

4. Rob Gronkowski‘€™s availability. The decision not to place the big tight end on the reserve/physically unable to perform list is a sign that the Patriots believe he could be ready within the first six weeks of the regular season. While it’€™s my belief that he won’€™t necessarily be a tremendously impactful player over the first month-plus of the 2013 season — he still needs to add weight and get back into football shape, two things that won’€™t happen overnight — just the idea that he might be available will force defensive coordinators to have to account for his presence, and take time and energy away from something else the should be devoting their efforts toward.

5. Adrian Wilson moves to injured reserve. This was an interesting decision, one that could be viewed on a number of levels. As colleague Mike Reiss indicated, Wilson was not given the short-term IR designation that might allow him to come back at some point in the 2013. Instead, he’€™ll be on the shelf for the entire 2013 season. It’€™s debatable how much he could offer in 2014 — by that point, he’€™d be 34 years old. In the short term, this opens up more playing time opportunities for the likes of Steve Gregory, who figures to slide into a part-time safety role along with rookie Duron Harmon. For the short-term, the New England secondary will now look almost exactly like the group that ended the 2013, with the addition of rookies Harmon and Logan Ryan.

6. Expect more moves. Don’€™t think that this is the roster they’€™ll take into Buffalo for the opener. The Patriots will almost certainly make more moves between now and the start of the season: Last year, between cutdown day and the opener, the Patriots put running back Jeff Demps on injured reserve, acquired wide receiver Greg Salas in a trade with St. Louis for an undisclosed future draft pick, claimed offensive lineman Matt Tennant off waivers from New Orleans and released veteran linebacker Bobby Carpenter. Three days later, they signed fullback Lex Hillard and released Tennant. And finally, they signed tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and placed tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on injured reserve with a designation to return. That’€™s in addition to the myriad of practice squad moves they made after the final cuts came down.

7. In the market for a defensive tackle? In that vein — and with two available roster spots — the Patriots could find themselves looking to add some depth at defensive tackle while they wait on Armond Armstead (who will start the season on reserve/NFI) to get completely healthy. Currently, the Patriots only have Joe Vellano as a possible backup interior tackle to the Vince Wilfork/Tommy Kelly combo, and while the rookie is a nice underdog story, there’€™s virtually no depth beyond that point. (One distinct possibility is that the Patriots could be thinking of moving to move three-man defensive fronts over the course of the 2013 season, with Wilfork going back to more of a traditional nose guard spot, with Kelly at one defensive end and Chandler Jones at the other spot. With Rob Ninkovich able to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, it might be a prospect worth exploring.)

8. Lots of love for special teams. The Patriots kept a lot of players who are known more for their special teams value as opposed to what they bring to the field on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. Pro Bowler Matthew Slater was a given, but safety Nate Ebner, cornerback Marquice Cole and rookie linebacker Steve Beauharnais all figure to be core members of New England’€™s special teams unit. The return of Cole and Ebner in particular signify just how much of a priority Bill Belichick puts on special teams.

9. Youth is served. As of right now, all seven of the Patriots 2013 draft choices (Aaron Dobson, Jamie Collins, Josh Boyce, Ryan, Harmon, Michael Buchanan and Beauharnais) have made the roster. In addition, an impressive five members of New England’€™s group of undrafted free agents — Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sufdeld, Vellano, Josh Kline and Ryan Allen — also made it through. Not saying that they’€™ll all stick around between now and the opener — and it remains to be seen now they’€™ll grow and evolve as players at the NFL level — but to have 12 of the 51 roster spots currently occupied by first-year players is a tribute to New England’€™s scouting staff.

10. Possible returnees. The three names that initially jumped off the page as possible candidates to return to the active roster in some form or fashion came late Saturday night when ESPN’€™s Field Yates reported that defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis and offensive lineman Chris McDonald were designated as waived/injured, per source. If they go unclaimed on waivers, they will revert to injured reserve, and while that would likely sideline them for the duration of the 2013 season (there’€™s a chance they get the short-term IR designation, which means they could be back this year), they would still be eligible to return to Foxboro. Chances are the Patriots would like to bring back Francis — the Rutgers product showed some promise as a rookie in 2012, finishing the season with seven quarterback hits and three sacks. The 24-year-old, a 6-foot-4, 270-pounder had 10 tackles total last season.

As for practice squad candidates, providing they make it through waivers, we like both wide receiver Quentin Sims and running back George Winn. The 23-year-old Sims played two seasons at Georgia Tech (2009-10) before transferring to Tennessee-Martin in 2011. The 6-foot-3, 202-pounder had 86 receptions for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, and gained a small measure of fame this summer as the favored target of Tebow — the two hooked up on a pair of touchdown passes in the preseason finale Thursday night against the Giants. As for Winn, he’€™s a 5-foot-10 1/2, 218-pounder out of Cincinnati who impressed in limited reps over the course of the summer — he had 14 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown in the preseason finale against the Giants.

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