FOXBORO — The final week of the preseason has arrived, which means cutdown day is looming.
By Saturday, over 1,000 NFL players will be on the hunt for new jobs. The decisions made by front offices across the league will have immediate and long-term implications.
Consider some of the Patriots’ cutdown day decisions over the past few years. In 2016, the talented trio of Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc and Darryl Roberts occupied the back of the cornerbacks depth chart. The Pats chose Jones, who ended up blossoming into a key contributor. That same year, the Patriots were forced to make a similar call on rookie linebackers Elandon Roberts and Kamu Grugier-Hill. Roberts got the nod, and he has started 30 games for the Pats over the past three seasons.
So who’s right on the bubble this week? Here’s a rundown of the players who are still angling for a spot:
LB Calvin Munson: A practice squad player a year ago, Munson is looking to make the leap to the 53-man roster this summer.
And he’ll have a decent shot to do it.
A core special teamer throughout the preseason, Munson has received looks at inside linebacker as well. On Thursday, Munson made back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter, chasing down Panthers quarterback Will Grier on a scramble and stuffing running back Jordan Scarlett for a loss of two yards on the ensuing play.
Munson, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2017, can provide depth behind inside linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Roberts. But his gameday value will likely come on special teams.
“Ever since I came into the league I knew special teams was going to be my way in,” Munson said. “So it’s just (about) getting a spot and kind of working my way in on defense, filling in whatever role they need me to be, whether that’s at middle linebacker or whether that’s kickoff return.”
He appreciates the emphasis the Patriots place on the third phase of the game.
“It’s awesome just hearing Nate (Ebner) and (Matthew) Slater talking about special teams stuff that I guess to the common eye you wouldn’t see,” Munson said. “But they break it down so much. They know it so well. It’s very helpful for a guy like me trying to come in and get a spot.”
DT Mike Pennel: This is a tough one. Pennel’s playing time is trending in the wrong direction; he was on the field with a defensive line of Ufomba Kamalu, Nick Thurman and David Parry during Carolina’s final possession on Thursday night. At this point, those players are all longshots to make the roster.
Pennel was one of the Patriots’ top free agent signings, but he has clearly fallen behind Danny Shelton for the nose tackle job.
Pennel has collected $600,000 from the Patriots ($500,000 in the form of a guaranteed signing bonus). This doesn’t mean the Pats are obligated to keep him, though.
The major risk associated with moving on from the 330-pound Pennel: The Pats don’t have another big body in the middle to back up Shelton in the base defense. The team’s next heaviest lineman would be Lawrence Guy, who is a bit leaner at 6-foot-4, 315 pounds.
LB Elandon Roberts: Without question, Roberts is a starting-caliber linebacker for the Patriots. He’s made plenty of plays over the years and shows improvement each season.
But the Pats are deep at the position with Hightower and Bentley also in the mix. Kyle Van Noy can play inside, too, if needed.
Roberts started over Bentley in the all-important third preseason game. Additionally, Roberts found a new role on the kickoff coverage unit against the Panthers. That was a noteworthy development.
Roberts won’t get cut, but perhaps a trade is a possibility. Roberts is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
LB Shilique Calhoun: Hasn’t practiced since suffering a leg injury in the second preseason game against the Titans. Did he do enough in the first half of training camp to win a spot? Calhoun, an athletic edge rusher, had been playing with the starters prior to his injury.
WR Braxton Berrios: The second-year receiver finds himself in a position similar to that of Maurice Harris, who was released on Sunday. Just too many bodies in front of him. A prototypical slot receiver, Berrios has flashed at times this summer. He’d be the team’s direct backup to Julian Edelman.
CB Duke Dawson: It’s a rough road ahead for Dawson, whose rookie season never got on track following an early August hamstring injury.
The Patriots have seen their share of second-round cornerbacks flame out, but Ras-I Dowling, Darius Butler and Cyrus Jones all made it to a third season with the franchise (in Jones’ case, he was cut at the end of August but brought back in September).
Of course, those players weren’t battling for a spot in the NFL’s most loaded cornerbacks group.
S Obi Melifonwu: A highly gifted athlete, Melifonwu hasn’t been consistent enough this summer. He was held out of Thursday’s preseason game due to an unspecified injury.
OT Dan Skipper: With Isaiah Wynn on track to play Week 1, the Patriots no longer need Skipper to start the season. But do they need him at all? The Pats could enter with two offensive tackles – Wynn and Marcus Cannon – on the 53-man roster and rely on Joe Thuney to bump to tackle in the event of mid-game injury.
Because Skipper, Cole Croston and the other backup tackles haven’t necessarily stood out, the Patriots may opt to build their depth on the practice squad rather than with a 53-man roster spot.
WR Gunner Olszewski: Electric athlete, but needs some polish as a receiver (which is understandable considering he’s been playing the position for three months). The Pats would love to keep Olszewski in some capacity as a developmental prospect.