Following the mandatory roster cut-downs on August 30th, 15 players found themselves back in Foxboro on the Patriots practice squad. New England notably did not claim any players outside of the team, instead opting to bring back nearly all the players they cut onto their practice squad. While practice squad players will likely not make-or-break New England’s season, their personnel choices hint at some possible insights into the Patriots scheme and gameplan this season.
What the New England Patriots Practice Squad Tells Us About 2022
Though the Patriots 53-man roster is filled with young talent, New England signed several players to the practice squad who, long-term, could make an impact. The Patriots, after a series of disastrous drafts, finally got back on track in 2021 and, hopefully, 2022. And to ensure sustained success on the team, the Patriots need to develop talent.
Several players on the Patriots practice squad could benefit from a season in Foxboro, including defensive lineman LaBryan Ray, linebacker Cameron McGrone, and receiver Tre Nixon.
Ray, the former five-star recruit out of high school, could not find the field due to injury during his time at the University of Alabama. But Ray posted a nice preseason and training camp and showed what kind of talent he could provide the Patriots when healthy. The UDFA could be both a steal for New England and give the Patriots a much-need boost along the defensive line in both run-stuffing and pass-rushing. Possibly paired with Alabama alumni Christian Barmore, Mack Wilson Sr., and Anfernee Jennings, Ray could contribute defensively in a big way like his fellow Crimson Tide teammates.
Cameron McGrone had high expectations going into this season but was overshadowed by veterans Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson Sr. The explosive second-year player suffered an ACL injury in 2020 and found himself on injured reserve for all of 2021. A year on the practice squad could go a long way in getting him up to speed and at full strength to shore up a young linebacking corps. The longer McGrone remains a Patriot, the longer he has time to develop under de facto defensive coordinator Jerod Mayo, a long-time Pro Bowl New England linebacker. Perhaps some of that knowledge and experience can rub off on McGrone.
As for Tre Nixon, 2022 will be his second year on the Patriots practice squad. Nixon showed flashes of real potential in the preseason and training camp, earning himself a reputation of a “darkhorse 53-man roster player.” But with Tyquan Thornton showing out, he could not make the cut on the main roster. That said, his time to develop on the practice squad could prime him for a larger role in 2023. With questions as to whether Jakobi Meyers will be resigned, Nixon’s similar build and skill-set make him a viable candidate to fill the slot/Y-receiver role if New England moves on from Meyers.
Two Tight Ends On The Patriots Practice Squad
With the Cincinnati Bengals claiming former 2020 3rd-round pick, tight end Devin Asiasi, the Patriots signed both Matt Sokol and Jalen Wydermyer. The two tight ends, while not especially flush with high-end talent potential, signal that the Patriots are not entirely giving up on some of their old ways offensively.
The Patriots, in the midst of an offensive scheme change, opted to carry fewer tight ends on the official roster than usual. The wide/outside zone scheme they have flirted with during the preseason is better suited for one or two tight ends. But by keeping extra tight ends on the practice squad, the Patriots show they are still keeping their options open.
New England is notorious for changing their game plan week to week, opponent to opponent, depending on a number of factors. For example, in Week 13 last season, the Patriots met the Bills in a blustery Monday Night Football game in Buffalo. Understanding the unprecedented conditions, as well as their size advantage at the line of scrimmage, the Patriots opted to pass the ball three times and run it 46 times. In their next game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots passed the ball 45 times and rushed only 19 times.
By keeping two extra tight ends on the practice squad, the Patriots are leaving their options open week-to-week on how they want to attack opposing defenses. Some weeks, the Patriots may deploy the wide zone scheme, and some weeks they may return to the power-running gap scheme, loading the line of scrimmage with extra tight ends. With a roster built to change week-to-week, do not expect to see a one-dimensional offense or see Sokol Wydermyer elevated to the roster this season from New England.
The Patriots Are Confident In Their Team
With the Patriots below the league average in cap space, it is unlikely that they make a big splash before the trade deadline. Unless the Patriots unload an expensive contract like Isaiah Wynn’s, they have limited cash to spend. And while having the flexibility to wheel and deal during the season is assuring, the Patriots appear to be content with their team as is.
By bringing back all but a handful of players from their team during the preseason to the practice squad, the Patriots believe their starters are dependable and that their depth pieces can contribute greatly. After encouraging preseason performances from LaBryan Ray, interior offensive lineman Kody Russey, and receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, the Patriots did not feel the need to bring in much outside talent. And based on the skill set of the players on the practice squad, the decision to keep many of the players on their practice squad speaks to Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh’s comments about his desire for the Patriots to get “tougher, faster, and younger.”
With how weakly New England ended their season in 2021, at the hands of a blowout loss to Buffalo, having young, tough talent could give the Patriots a much-needed boost as they compete for a playoff spot down the line in 2022.