Aug 03, 2023

Malik Cunningham among eight players to watch in Patriots

It would be the ultimate Bill Belichick move, wouldn't it?

Keep two kickers. Let one -- the younger one with the bigger leg -- focus on kickoffs. Let the other -- the older one with more poise and accuracy -- focus on field goals and extra points.

It would seem highly unlikely that Belichick would actually try to see that scenario through. But when I asked him back in June if he would ever keep both kickers, here is how he answered:

"We did last year. We had two active or brought one up, so yeah, it’s possible."

Last year, the Patriots had Nick Folk in uniform for place-kicking duties and practice-squadder Tristan Vizcaino called up for kickoffs. Happened twice, in Weeks 13 and 16.

Would Belichick actually use two roster spots on this year's kicker tandem? Nick Folk has been the steadier of the two, though his kicking power has been lacking at times. Rookie fourth-rounder Chad Ryland has boomed some field goals. He also has been more inconsistent with his accuracy, missing three straight -- all wide left -- on Tuesday in practice.

It seems as though, especially because of his draft position, Ryland will be on the initial 53-man roster. If Folk was released, he'd become a free agent, which would perhaps make the Patriots feel more comfortable about their ability to bring him back if New England is where he wants to be. The team could shuffle its roster -- get a player or two on injured reserve after the initial 53 are set -- then bring Folk back when a spot is cleared.

Seems like a lot to make sure the kicker job is sufficiently filled. But this is the kind of decision Belichick has to make at this point in the year.

Folk is a unique case, but it feels like he's on the bubble headed into the preseason finale. Here are a few other players worth watching -- on a night when starters reportedly won't do much -- in Nashville against the Titans on Friday.

Can he do so much with whatever opportunities come his way -- both as a quarterback and receiver -- that he forces the Patriots to keep him on the active roster?

Part of the value in showing out in these preseason games is that, unlike in camp practices, the rest of the league gets the tape. He feels like someone who is on the outside looking in at the moment, but an electric performance like the one he had against the Texans could make the Patriots think long and hard about possibly losing him via waivers if released.

The Patriots would, in all likelihood, have a better chance of getting Cunningham through waivers than Boutte. For now. But if Boutte continues to produce with the opportunities given to him -- particularly with Demario "Pop" Douglas and Tyquan Thornton dealing with injuries -- then he looks like someone tracking toward a roster spot.

🔊 Next Pats: Why Kayshon Boutte is SURGING toward a roster spot | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Taylor received heavy praise from Belichick following the exhibition in Green Bay, and if the team wants a sub back, he feels like the best option.

Has he played so well that the team would be willing to part with 2022 fourth-rounder Pierre Strong? Maybe not. Strong has speed that the team would probably like to keep around. But perhaps Taylor can earn a gig with a lights-out performance Friday.

He feels like the more valuable piece than either Kevin Harris (No. 3 "big back") or Ty Montgomery (oft injured vet).

In my opinion, it would behoove the Patriots to keep their veteran defensive tackle. He's a leader of that group. He's a professional. He's still able to stop the run. But if the team deems his skill set as in decline and it wants to save a few bucks, there's a chance he's not on the initial 53-man roster.

He played later than expected in Green Bay, and if the same happens in Nashville then perhaps his roster spot isn't locked in.

The Patriots need a blocking tight end. That should be Sokol, based on who's on the roster right now. Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer said on Early Edition this week that the team could be on the hunt for another tight end of that ilk via trade.

If they can't land one in that fashion, and if Sokol shows he can move people in Nashville in the preseason finale, he could be rewarded with an active roster spot. He appears to have the inside track on one over fellow tight end Anthony Firkser.

Wait... no... Would Belichick really... Would he? Would he actually dare to keep two kickers and two punters? Probably not. But at one point in practice this week it looked like the rookie Baringer was given the plus-50 bombs in the punt game, whereas vet Corliss Waitman had the directional responsibilities.

While keeping specialists within the specialist category would be incredibly unusual, it's still worth watching Baringer against the Titans to see if he can be precise when on the opposition's side of the 50. Belichick won't want to see him blasting his opportunities into the end zone for touchbacks.

Roberts has three pressures in two preseason games, and he's been impressive in spurts during practices. The 2022 sixth-rounder out of Northwest Missouri State is a great story, but he's part of a strong position group, which may mean he'll be a practice-squad candidate.

But if he can get to the quarterback on Friday, there could be a general manager elsewhere interested in giving him a crack as a bottom-of-the-roster developmental option. Can never have too many pass-rushers.

Wade gets forgotten within the Patriots cornerback room at times, but it may be time to remember him. Jonathan Jones hasn't practiced in weeks. Christian Gonzalez left Wednesday's practice hurt. Jack Jones could be suspended (or worse, depending on how his September probable cause hearing goes).

Wade has length and he's been in the Patriots system since prior to the 2021 season. His skill level may not warrant a spot here over someone else, but the depth at the position may call for an extra body here. A nice showing against the Titans could help him make his case.

🔊 Next Pats: Why Kayshon Boutte is SURGING toward a roster spot | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube