The Patriots currently have 89 players on the active roster, just one shy of the allowable limit during this portion of the offseason. The team might not fill the vacant roster spot right now, but NFL clubs typically carry a full roster during minicamps and organized team activities in order to evaluate as many players as possible.
Should the team opt to make a move, five unrestricted free agents from the 2011 roster remain available for signing -- running back Kevin Faulk, defensive end Andre Carter, defensive lineman Shaun Ellis, cornerback Nate Jones and safety James Ihedigbo.
Here’s a look at what each offers and the chances the Patriots may decide to re-invest in one of them, either now or in the future:
Faulk has spent the entirety of his 13-year career in New England, and has previously suggested that he would only return to the field if it were with the Patriots. The alternative, retirement, seems very much in play as well.
After signing Joseph Addai and Brandon Bolden (Mississippi), the Patriots already have six running backs on the roster. Taking into account that some view Addai as a comparable -- and younger -- version of Faulk, it seems as though the dependable veteran may not have a spot with New England going forward.
Faulk was used in a limited role last season, and was not active for Super Bowl XLVI. After countless important carries, catches and blitz pick-ups, he’d have plenty to be proud of should he call for retirement soon.
Carter had already accrued 10 sacks by the time he went down with a season-ending quadriceps injury in the Patriots' 14th regular season game of 2011, and established himself as the latest low-profile, high-reward veteran free agent pickup by Bill Belichick.
The key to Carter’s return is his health, as it remains unclear when he’ll be ready to be back on the field at full speed. As Mike Reiss previously reported, Carter intends to play in 2012 and there has been mutual interest expressed by the team and the defensive end for a return (but that was before the draft and the selection of multiple defensive ends).
Without knowing enough about his timetable, it’s difficult to judge his immediate future, but it would make sense if the team invited Carter to rejoin the franchise upon receiving a clean bill of health. That could be within the next month, during training camp, or even beyond. For now, it’s a wait-and-see situation.
Ellis, like Carter, played under a one-year deal in 2011. Unlike Carter, however, Ellis didn’t come cheap, and he wasn’t as productive as many expected out of him, given his contract and playing history.
The Patriots have worked hard to retool their front seven this offseason, and Mike Rodak recently profiled that as of Friday, their 27 front-seven players was the highest total in the NFL.
New England loves to mix it up on the defensive front, and it would seem that with the addition of athletic players like Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette that they’ll be able to throw multiple looks at opposing offenses in 2012. Ellis has flashed versatility in the past. Should he remain available entering training camp, don’t discount the possibility of a return -- at the right price.
It spoke volumes that Jones played meaningful snaps for the Patriots just days after signing with the team in late November of 2011. He proved to be a sufficient late-season addition, totaling 20 tackles in eight appearances with the Patriots.
Should the Patriots experience similar injury issues at any point this season, Jones seems like the kind of guy New England would turn to once again in a pinch (similar to Hank Poteat in the early years of Belichick's tenure). That is dependent upon his availability, as Jones could land with a team later this offseason.
Ihedigbo had by far his best season as a pro for New England last year, notching 69 tackles in a prominent safety role. The secondary struggled as a whole, however, and as mentioned already, the team has worked to inject new personnel into the lineup.
Ihedigbo started 12 games in 2011, but that still doesn’t suggest the team is expected to bring him back. With Patrick Chung presumably healthy, second-round pick Tavon Wilson on board, veteran Steve Gregory signed this offseason and Devin McCourty potentially working into the safety group, it’s hard to find room for Ihedigbo at this time.
He has what it takes to make an NFL roster, and should find work before the beginning of the season. The question is, will a numbers crunch and possible desire to go in a different direction preclude a return to New England for Ihedigbo?