By: Hayden Eskridge
Football season is right around the corner, as the New England Patriots prepare to enter training camp marking the beginning of their title defense. While on paper this Pats team looks as good, if not better than any team in franchise history there are still no shortcuts to being in shape and mentally prepared for the rigors of an NFL season. The Pats enter camp with the core of their Super Bowl 51 roster still mostly intact and have added some new faces that will almost certainly make an impact in 2017. However, before we get to see all of the pageantry that comes with an NFL game day these players and coaches will be pouring in hours of their time in hopes that it yields yet another Super Bowl victory
WHEN- Camp will start July 27th
August 7-8-Joint Practice with Jags
This will be the Pats first opportunity to hit someone wearing a different uniform. Despite their abysmal 3-13 record of a year ago the talent on the Jags roster provides the Patriots with an opportunity to compete against some of the league’s best position groups. The Jags have a top flight corner duo in Jalen Ramsey and newly signed A.J Bouye which will test the talent and the depth of the Patriots Wide Receivers. On the flip side, the dynamic duo of Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson will put some pressure on the Patriots defensive backs and allow us to get a preview of how the Pats might matchup their corners in the regular season. We all know coach Belichick puts an emphasis on situational football, and joint practices are perfect opportunities to run through various scenarios that could present themselves over the course of the season.
August 15-16- Joint Practice with Texans
When the team made the announcement that joint practices would be held with the Houston Texans ahead of their pre-season matchup I was a bit surprised. Why give the Texans, a team with about as much familiarity with the Patriots as any in the league a chance to gain even greater inside knowledge of team operations? Then I sat back and thought about it, Houston could be a legitimate threat to the AFC crown, and it is likely that the Pats will see them down the line, in addition to their Week 3 matchup in Foxboro. As we know Houston doesn’t have it all figured out at the Quarterback position and these practices could be opportunity for Bill Belichick to gain insight on both Tom Savage and rookie first round pick Deshaun Watson. Aside from that this will be a great chance for the offense to test themselves against one of the league’s most premier defenses.
August 25- Preseason game 3 at Detroit
The third week of the preseason is treated as a dress rehearsal in the NFL. This game will be the most extensive play time we will see from Brady and the rest of the starters before they take the field week 1 against the Chiefs. The Lions have had a top offense almost every year with Matt Stafford at Quarterback and this season should be no different. Expect less vanilla coverage and basic defensive schematics from the defense in this one.
September 3rd- Cut down to 53 man roster
One rule change adopted at the league meetings this offseason was the move to simplify the 90-man roster cut down to one single wave of cuts. This means the Patriots will be able to keep their roster at 90 players throughout the course of the pre-season opposed to having to make the cut to 75 under the previous policy. I like this rule change because it gives the coaches more time to evaluate each player, as well as opportunity to rest players that are locks to make the roster.
What to watch for
The Gronk Is Back- That’s right, 87 is back healthy and ready to roll for the 2017 season. Coming off of back surgery that ended his 2016 campaign in week 12, Gronkowski will look to get back to his dominant ways. However, health is always the story with Gronk and it will be interesting to see how he is managed over the course of camp as he begins to take the bumps and bruises. The addition of Dwayne Allen could ease some of the blocking responsibilities for Gronkowski, which would undoubtedly increase his longevity. Gronkowski is always a star of camp, and the way he has rehabbed I would expect nothing different this year.
The growth of Jacoby Brissett
Look, we all know that Tom Brady is and will be the starting Quarterback of this team as long as he desires. That doesn’t mean that Quarterback isn’t an area to keep your eye on in camp this year. With the impending free agency of Jimmy Gorropolo, the Patriots need to gauge their options at the position going forward, and Jacoby Brissett’s growth in year two will undoubtedly factor into their decision making on keeping Jimmy G or letting him walk. Brissett saw more of the field than we expected in 2016, starting two games and did a nice job given the situation he was put in. With a better knowledge of the playbook and a better understanding of what it takes to play Quarterback in the NFL I would expect a big leap for Jacoby in year two.
Backfield in Motion
LeGarrette Blount is out, Mike Gilleslee and Rex Burkehead are in, and while it’s likely to be a running back by committee approach once again for the Patriots someone is going to have to step up and take on the lead role. The Patriots are going to have to replace the touchdown production Blount has consistently given them over the years and with a plethora of options to choose from its not crazy to think more than one guy could have ten plus rushing touchdowns. Also unlike Blount, all the backs on the roster have the ability to factor in heavily in the passing game. Ultimately the Pats will go with the Back that brings the best combination of rushing receiving, and pass blocking.
Pass Rush Issues?
Scanning the Patriots roster it’s very difficult to pick out an area that would be considered a weakness. With that being said I would not rank their group of pass rushers amongst the better in the league. Trey Flowers has the chance to blossom into a star (See what I did there) but outside of him this team could have issues getting to the Quarterback. Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long found new homes this offseason and while they are replaceable it is uncertain if the Patriots have the guys to do so. An aging Rob Ninkovich has seen his sack production dip as he advances in age, and Kony Ealy has been far too inconsistent over the course of his career. Rookie defensive linemen Derek Rivers and Dietrich Wise will be two guys to keep an eye on, as we will find out just how ready they are to contribute as rookies.
Locked and Loaded
The 2017 edition of the New England Patriots have somehow managed to draw comparisons to one of the greatest teams in NFL history before they have even stepped foot on the field. While the similarities to the 2007 team are uncanny it could ring true that this year’s cast of weapons is even better. The big offseason addition of Brandin Cooks gives Tom Brady another weapon to go along with a loaded Wide Receiver group. With guys like Hogan and Cooks who can stretch the field, as well as Julian Edelman and Gronk to attack the middle of it, it’s likely TB12 puts up a similar stat line to his historic 07 season.
Cornerback- While we know who the top two corners on this team are, but is still up in the air who the third guy in that rotation will be. The winner of this battle really hinges on whether they plan to play Butler on the inside or the outside. If they prefer to have Butler stick on the slot I would look for Eric Rowe to step in and play opposite of Stephon Gilmore. Rowe had a nice year after being traded to the Patriots following a poor rookie season with the Eagles. With a very similar frame to Stephon Gilmore the Patriots could have two big corners to jam receivers on the outside while having one of the league’s best in Butler covering the inside. If they choose to play Butler on the outside the two names id keep an eye on are second year players Cyrus and Johnathan Jones. Cyrus Jones had a tough rookie campaign to say the least. Last year’s second round pick was downright awful in both defensive and special team duties, but with a full offseason under his belt could rebound into the player we expected him to be coming out of Alabama. On the other hand Johnathan Jones played a pivotal role on special teams after making the roster as an undrafted free agent. Jones racked up 14 tackles as a core special teamer and while it’s likely he will maintain that role don’t be surprised if he makes the leap to becoming a contributor on this defense.
Linebacker- The Patriots made a move to sure up their Linebacking corps recently, signing former Jet David Harris to a two year deal. However, don’t think Harris will just coast his way to a starting spot alongside Donta Hightower. Several different players have a chance to carve out a role both in base and sub packages. Elandon Roberts showed flashes as a rookie, including absolutely blowing up one of the league’s best tackles in Joe Thomas, but was far too inconsistent in pass coverage to earn increased playing time. Kyle Van Noy proved to be a solid mid-season pickup, racking up 30 tackles and an interception, but also looked lost in coverage at times. Shea McClellin will not only be fighting for a starting job, but could find himself competing for a spot on the 53 man roster altogether. An undrafted free agent to keep an eye on here is former BYU stud Harvey Langi, who the Patriots made the highest paid undrafted player in the class of 2017. Overall the Patriots will want to find the guy who can best fill the pass coverage void left by Jamie Collins. With Hightower being more of a run stuffer it should be a point of emphasis that the backer next to him excels in coverage.
3rd Tight End- The third Tight End is always a spot that could become much more down the line for the New England Patriots. Given Rob Gronkowski’s injury history and the track record of inconsistency from Dwayne Allen, the third tight end spot could be more important than ever in 2017. Matt Lengel held down the spot for the majority of last year catching only one pass, albeit for a touchdown. Lengel is a solid blocker and in all likelihood the favorite to return in 2017. The Patriots entered the 2017 NFL Draft having little to work with. After selecting four rookies at more pertinent areas of need the Tight End spot was left unaddressed via the Draft. However, many forget the team flipped their fifth round selection to Kansas City in exchange for James O'Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy is far from a threat in the passing game, as he managed to catch two passes for negative yardage a season ago. Where he can carve out his niche on this roster is as a blocker and special teamer. He tied Cincinnati's Tyler Kroft for most special teams tackles by a tight end with seven. With only 53 roster spots to give out versatility is a commodity highly valued by NFL coaches. O’ Shaughnessy should be able to handle the duties of the third Tight End spot, and out duel Lengel on special teams
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