By Howard Ulman
---- — FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots released veteran tight ends Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells in the first batch of final cuts.
Now comes the really hard part.
The Patriots released 10 players on Friday and must reduce their roster by 12 more to get down to the NFL regular-season limit of 53 by Saturday.
Tim Tebow could be in jeopardy despite a decent performance in the Patriots’ 28-20 win over the New York Giants in the exhibition finale Thursday. The third-string quarterback completed 6 of 11 passes for 91 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also was sacked four times but got poor protection on some of them.
“It’s not just one game (that matters),” coach Bill Belichick said Friday about the player evaluation process, “although every game is important. But the body of work, the camp, the rate of improvement, the ability to do the things that players are going to be asked to do at their respective positions (also matters).”
Belichick spoke before the cuts were announced and gave no indication of which players he might let go.
The cuts of Ballard and Fells indicate that Rob Gronkowski could be ready to play sooner than expected after missing all four exhibition games following back surgery. He’s one of three tight ends still on the roster.
Tebow is one of three quarterbacks, playing behind Tom Brady and Ryan Mallett.
Asked after Thursday’s game if he felt that performance improved his chances of making the team, Tebow said, “I’m not sure. I don’t make those decisions.”
That decision will depend on whether Belichick feels it would help the Patriots more to have greater depth at another position than by carrying a third quarterback, something he’s done just once in the past four seasons.
“I don’t think it’s good planning or good insurance for your team to go light at a position and then have no idea where your depth at that position is going to be,” he said. “It may be on the roster. It may not be on the roster. But, at least, you want to have some idea where you’re headed if you need it.”
That depth could come from players on the practice squad, the physically unable to perform list or free agents who aren’t on any team, Belichick said.
“I think whenever you put a roster together you look at it and say, ‘OK, we’re a little heavy here and we’re a little light here,’ relative to where your team has been in the past, or maybe relative to what the norm is around the league,” he said. “But you do it because you feel you have a higher quality player at a certain position, or you just lack the overall depth at another position.
“That’s going to happen somewhere on your roster every year.”
The Patriots released three other veterans — defensive end Marcus Benard, wide receiver Johnathan Haggerty and linebacker Mike Rivera — first-year offensive lineman Luke Patterson and four rookie free agents — fullback Ben Bartholomew, defensive linemen Gilbert Pena and Scott Vallone and offensive lineman Matt Stankiewitch.
The Patriots hoped Ballard could contribute this year when they claimed him off waivers from the Giants in 2012. Belichick knew the knee injury he sustained in the Super Bowl that year, a 21-17 win over the Patriots, would keep him out all last season. But Ballard didn’t seem at full strength this summer and didn’t catch any passes in exhibition games.
Fells played 13 games last season after signing as a free agent from Denver and caught four passes. He had five receptions this preseason.
Gronkowski is on the physically unable to perform list and, if he stays there, would have to miss the first six regular-season games. But he’s been working out on the field in shorts and a T-shirt and could be ready early in the season. The other tight ends are rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui. The Patriots cut Aaron Hernandez on June 26 after he was arrested. Later that day, he was charged with murder.
One decision involves the punter, where Zoltan Mesko had three solid seasons. But free-agent rookie Ryan Allen has had a good camp.
“It’s been competitive all the way through from the spring to training camp into the games,” Belichick said. “We have to talk about that one.”