by Scott Benson
scott@patriotsdaily.com

Do you think a Doris Day movie reference is topical enough for today’s web audience?

Nevertheless, I still think it applies to the ongoing question of whether the Patriots will keep five running backs on their roster when they begin the season. The discussions and debates I saw (both in the mainstream media and the fan blogs and boards) seemed focused on whether its reasonable and prudent for them to do so, given that they may have to sacrifice in other areas in order to have such depth in their backfield. Do they need five running backs when that luxury may cost them a third tight end, or another defensive back, or an extra offensive lineman?

I’ll admit, I haven’t figured any of this out yet, so I thought we’d hash it out this morning.

I suppose we all come to this with the premise that the Patriots would have four backs in 08, because that’s what they almost always have done, at least recently. Maroney, Dillon/Morris, Faulk and Evans to fill the almost-cursory fullback spot. That’s how they roll, so to speak.

The reasonably-impressive arrival of LaMont Jordan gives pause. Between practice and last week’s game, Jordan’s done what he could do to make himself a factor. Presuming he maintains that level over the next three weeks, how do you cut the guy? He may be the best short yardage Patriot since the 2004 version of Corey Dillon.

Before we go any further, am I safe to assume that Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans are exempt from this discussion? As New England’s most talented backfield player, Maroney’s of course off the table. I should add that he was a lion in December and January last year, answering once and for all any questions we (cough) may have had about his mettle. Faulk, in short (literally), is an institution in the world of kick-ass NFL role players. What was he out there for last Thursday night – one play? Nine yards on a draw play….first down, with a slithering finish move at the marker. He’s still got it, kid, and he’s as much as a lock as Maroney. 

I think Evans deserves a modicum of the same respect for his steady performance since he signed on in 05. He’s the closest thing to a pure fullback that the Pats have, though admittedly, fat lot of good it does him when they’re running four and five receivers on every play. You’re not going to make him your go-to guy, but he can be an effective short-area runner and blocker and he’s shown some hands as an outlet receiver. He finds a way to contribute on special teams, and Evans isn’t cheating anybody on effort and system buy-in. I don’t think he’s is a marginal player at all, and I’d be pretty surprised if he wasn’t there on September 7th. One thing to remember, though, is that his deal expires after this season.

I’m also going to assume we’re not talking Kyle Eckel or BenJarvus Green-Ellis either. Though Eckel’s had his moments and Green-Ellis has a cracking good eight yard run under his belt now, I think its a stretch to put either of them on a Top Five list.

I wonder if that doesn’t turn the spotlight on poor Sammy Morris, who’s played pretty well for the Pats when he wasn’t getting crushed in a pileup. Morris has already answered one of the team’s running back questions by returning to the squad at the start of camp, ready for full contact after a long rehab from one of the strangest injuries in recent memory (a sternum clavicle separation?). Morris was an effective approximation of a physical inside runner last year, and he came to the team with some receiving chops he developed in Miami (sometimes to the Pats’ consternation).

In short, aside from his injury, Morris seems to have done everything he could to earn a spot with the team since he’s been here. He performed like a lead rusher when Maroney was down last year, and he worked (by all accounts) diligently at a successful rehab to be ready to practice again with the team when the bell rang. I don’t know how you cut him either, though that may be the way this works out after all. Thing is, he’s signed through 2010, and while his release would open $1.2 million in cap space this season, the Pats would suffer nearly that much in cap hits over the next two years if they let him go now (thanks, Miguel’s Salary Cap Page). I’m sure that only complicates matters more.

The thing is, I can envision all of this becoming a real team strength. In an increasingly two-back league, the Pats could rotate four. Maroney and Jordan fulfill the protypical inside-outside tandem, and the team of Faulk and Morris give them depth in capable pass blocking, savvy route running, and a little inside run change-up. Evans backfills with the occasional fullback duty, and maybe a swing pass now and again. Call me hopelessly biased toward the ground game, but I think that works.    

So let’s say all five (Maroney, Faulk, Evans, Morris and Jordan) do everything right from here on out and leave Belichick precious little choice but to include them all in his final roster paperwork. What does that mean to the rest of the team?

I imagine this is a good time to introduce this link, which is a September 1, 2007 Mike Reiss blog post detailing the composition of the Patriots’ roster after their final cuts. Nothing’s written in stone of course, but I thought it might be a good reference for our discussion of future roster matters.

In summary, the ’07 53 man broke down like this:

Quarterback (3) 
Running back (4)
Wide receiver (6)
Tight end (3)
Offensive line (9)
Defensive line (6)
Inside linebacker (5)
Outside linebacker (3)
Cornerback (5)
Safety (6)
Specialists (3)

As I recall, they ended up going with one fewer receiver (Reche Caldwell was released) and one fewer cornerback (Tory James), in favor of linebackers Corey Mayes and Chad Brown by week two. So that roster would would have looked like this:

Quarterback (3) 
Running back (4)
Wide receiver (5)
Tight end (3)
Offensive line (9)
Defensive line (6)
Inside linebacker (6)
Outside linebacker (4)
Cornerback (4)
Safety (6)
Specialists (3) 

Again, what applied last year will not necessarily apply this year; in fact, it almost certainly won’t. But this example may provice at least a general guide as to their recent thinking about roster composition.

Just looking at that mix, can we see where some numbers may be shifted around to accomodate that fifth running back? This may be a fool’s errand at this early date, but think they’ll start this season with six safeties, for example? If John Lynch has anything left, the Pats will have a safety quartet of Harrison-Meriweather-Sanders-Lynch this season, and you wouldn’t figure they’d need two more beyond that. Maybe Antwan Spann sneaks in there, but that’s at least one spot freed up already, if not two.

Of course, four isn’t nearly enough cornerbacks, so maybe they keep ten defensive backs again this year by using that extra spot on another corner. Hobbs, Bryant and Wheatley are the top three corners as we speak, and though he’s been hurt of late, rookie Jonathan Wilhite has flashed some ability in camp. There’s also veterans Lewis Sanders (nice game last week, and he’s said to be able to swing between corner and safety) and Jason Webster, who is about ready to get back on the field. We could be talking about as many as six cornerbacks here, so the secondary may not be the best place to find that extra spot.

What about the linebackers? The Pats entered last September with ten. This time, let’s start with the presumptive starters – Thomas, Vrabel, Bruschi and rookie Jerod Mayo, who seems well on his way to succeeding Junior Seau. Next would come the young backups, including the emerging Pierre Woods and rookie Shawn Crable. That’s six. So, who are the other four? Top candidates would be special team vets Larry Izzo and Eric Alexander, but is rookie FA Gary Guyton coming on as a possible replacement for one or both of them? If Guyton’s for real, does it seem like they’d they keep all three? And what of veteran Victor Hobson? He’s been slow to respond to his new opportunity on the inside, but at this point, isn’t he still a better bet than the three special teams guys, given his experience?

It’s hard to know the answer to that now, but can we agree there’s at least an opening there for one fewer linebacker this year?

I’m not sure that possibility exists for the defensive line. Can they do with less than two full shifts? Seymour, Wilfork and Warren are your first line, with Jarvis Green as the anchor man for the second groups. Utility men Mike Wright and LeKevin Smith return to face challenges from Santonio Thomas, Kenny Smith and Titus Adams, and it seems like the Pats wouldn’t try to cut corners here by going with less than two complete units.

Same deal on the other side of the ball. Offensive line has clearly been the most challenging position for the Pats this August, with Stephen Neal still on the PUP and Matt Light missing a good bit of the action so far. But assuming they eventually take their place alongside Mankins, Koppen and Kaczur, the Pats will still need Russ Hochstein and Wesley Britt and two others from the group of Billy Yates (the longest tenured right guard after Neal), Ryan O’Callaghan, Barry Stokes and John Welbourn. Hard to see where there’s any less than nine o-linemen when the ball is teed up on September 7.

Since it’s equally hard to imagine the Patriots keeping anything less than three quarterbacks, that brings us to the pass catchers.

The Pats started last September with three tight ends, but there’s at least the suspicion they will trim back to just the duo of Ben Watson and David Thomas this time, with people like Marcus Pollard and Stephen Spach on speed dial just in case. Meanwhile, in their absence, players like Evans and Hochstein can line up as third tight ends in goal line situations. Along with linebacker, this might be a position where the Pats trim back their opening day roster to gain more depth elsewhere.

And what about the wide receivers? Let me begin with this question – aside from the first three of Moss, Welker and Gaffney, what Pats receiver has played his way onto the team this month? Kelley Washington is a talented special teamer with some experience as a receiver, so maybe he’s a solid fourth, especially with Sam Aiken hurting. Who else? I’ll acknowledge that even with his well-documented missteps in camp, it would be premature to cut Chad Jackson loose, especially with Gaffney on a one year deal. The Pats don’t have another young receiver with a realistic chance to develop as a front liner, unless you think Matt Slater’s your guy. I don’t. Taking all that into account, it seems logical that they carry five guys into the season here.

So, that leaves a minimum of a couple of positions (LB, TE) where there’s some play. Even if they look to keep Slater as a developmental receiver/safety/kick returner, there’s still room for that fifth running back.

Isn’t there?

Your guess is as good as mine (hint: comments link above). In any event, it was a good excuse to catch up with you guys after a slow week. See you again Sunday morning with the Links, and don’t forget, Chris Warner will be along on Monday with his reaction to Sunday night’s second pre-season game in Tampa.