FOXBORO -- The Patriots roster doesn't have to be trimmed down to 75 players until Aug. 30., but they're already at 81 players, which includes the four on the physically unable to perform list at the moment. Five days before the first cut-down deadline, the Patriots are already close to where they need to be.
The question is, why? Why not keep players around for a few extra days to see what they can do? If it's certain they won't make the team, why not release them and sign other long-shot free agents for what would essentially amount to a multi-day tryout? The Patriots turn over the bottom of their roster as frequently, if not more frequently, than any other team in the league. Why aren't they maximizing their roster space?
The answer is that they want to maximize the reps they can give to players who are already under team control. If the roster is crowded, that might mean less of a look at legitimate potential contributors in practice or against the Panthers in Carolina on Friday night. Having open spots on the roster early in the cut-down process also allows the Patriots to pounce on a player, or several, who may be released before the deadline.
Belichick shed some light on his thought process on roster moves at this time of year during a press conference earlier in the week.
"Well, we’re definitely going to have to trim it down," Belichick said. "We may release players before [Aug. 30], before the [Panthers] game. Again, there is a lot of personnel movement going on at this time of year. We could acquire a player, or two, or whatever if the situation was right. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not like I have five roster moves waiting back there in the office that are about to happen. That’s definitely not the case. But look, it could be in 10 minutes, I don’t know, or it could not be.
"But the intent of doing what we’ve done with the roster is because of where we are, what we feel like is best for our team at this point in time -- although I think that some of the moves that we made are also best for some of the players as well, to be honest with you. Not that that’s the main reason that we did it, but it’s a part of the residual of doing what’s right for everybody. But yeah, we’ll just have to see how it goes.
"We could have 84 or 85 [players] by the end of the week or we could have 80 by the end of the week, 78, I don’t know. We’ll just have to see how it plays out. Obviously injuries, they’re a factor at this time of year for every team so there are some positions where you need depth, some positions where you have depth and you can’t play everybody. I think that’s definitely the case, and in some positions for us we have more players than we can really play against Carolina, so if we’re not going to play them, and then we’re going to have to release them at the 75 cut after the game, then there is an argument to just doing that now, which gives the player an opportunity that kind of clears it up for us a little bit. I think there is some of that."
The Patriots released a handful of veterans in recent days, including receiver Nate Washington, corner EJ Biggers, defensive lineman Frank Kearse and running back Donald Brown. In Brown's case, an injury forced him to lose practice time that he was not going to be able to make up. For the others, they were buried on the depth chart, and the team may have assumed that it would have been too tough for them to see meaningful snaps against Carolina given there were younger players at their positions who needed further in-game evaluation.
It's a tricky balancing act, Belichick explained, particularly when there are players of varying experience at the same spot. Do you keep the young guy who is the project, particularly if you think you might lose him to another team if he hits the waiver wire? Or do you go with the veteran to win in the here-and-now?
"That’s the $64,000 question," Belichick said. "That’s what it is. It’s been like that since the day I got into this league. From all of the personnel meetings I’ve ever been in it’s a [matter of] a player who’s more experienced [and] more ready to help the team now, versus a player that’s not as ready now but at some point you think the pendulum will swing in his favor. Will you do that? Can you do that? What are the consequences of making that move? What are the consequences of not making that move? How likely, as you said, is it that you could keep both players in some capacity?
"That’s what it’s about, trying to balance now with later. We’re going to field a team in November, we’re going to field a team next year, we’re going to field a team in 2018. Not that we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves, but we’re going to be in business in those years, so we have to sort of have an eye on those moving forward and a lot of the other factors that go into that. Those are all tough decisions. They’re all things that you really have to think about."
Every year there are examples of those kinds of choices. This year, one that comes to mind is a decision that could be coming at the tight end position.
AJ Derby, now in his second season, has been one of the team's most impressive players during the preseason, but if he makes the team he'll be buried on the depth chart behind Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. If he doesn't make the team, it's likely another club will claim him on waivers. Clay Harbor, now in his seventh season, can play a variety of roles and might be more equipped to help the Patriots immediately. He was given $400,000 in guaranteed money this offseason to do just that.
There is the possibility that the Patriots keep both, but the team may believe there's only room for one.
Even for Belichick and the Patriots, who have developed their program since 2000, there are no hard and fast rules. Though Belichick has the final say, the disagreements among individuals helping to make the roster decisions can be difficult to sort out.
"Some people in the room want to have one opinion, other people have another opinion," Belichick said. "You kind of have a split camp there and both sides’ arguments are good arguments. It’s kind of your perspective. Is it today or is it tomorrow? I’m sure every team in the league is having a lot of those discussions."
Given their roster reduction over the last few days, the Patriots are apparently having some of those discussions a little early.