By: Adam Wolpert
It's that time of year again. NFL Football has returned and all 32 teams are back in a little less than full force. Why less than full force, you ask? There are a few reasons.
The first reason is that there are a multitude of roster moves that have either been made or are yet to have been decided. There are former starters who have retired (Rob Ninkovich), guys who have been traded (Sammy Watkins), stars who have been suspended (Zeke Elliott), former stars left unsigned (Revis Island?), players nursing injury, and players who have yet to even see the practice field due to their inclusion on the PUP list. Yes, that's certainly a lot to take account for, but bear with me. Mainly we see all 32 teams at being less than full force because this is the preseason, a time meant for the roster locks to rest and the non-locks to perform at a high level and earn their spot on the team. In the Patriots preseason debut, they fielded a starting offense without the likes of Tom Brady, James White, Brandin Cooks, and Rob Gronkowski (just to name a few) and a starting defense without Dont'a Hightower, Trey Flowers, Malcolm Butler, and Devin McCourty. The Jacksonville Jaguars came out victors with a 31-24 win, but Patriots fans have no real reason to be worried. This season, we are fielding the strongest roster on paper since the 2007 season in which we went 18-1, losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. This roster however is a lot younger on both sides of the ball and in all honesty much more deep. I'd take Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen at TE over Benjamin Watson and Kyle Brady any day of the week, and if you disagree, please @ me or leave a comment to explain why.
Next, as is the case for every team, there are also many players, whether they be UDFA's, rookies, and journeymen, who have earned roster spots and future starting positions despite playing with weaker units in preseason play. Some of those guys who've done so recently in New England include Nink who was signed as a long snapper in 2009, Super Bowl 49 hero and starting CB Malcolm Butler who was signed as a UDFA in 2014, and RB Dion Lewis, an injury prone speed demon signed to a futures contract in 2015, who was a big part of that season's offensive attack before suffering a season ending injury. Instead of dwelling on the loss, lets take a look at some players who stood out, a unit that faltered all night, and a few honorable mentions worth noting. Remember, there's a lot of stuff that can happen from now to the 53-man cutdown. Don't count anybody out just yet. If they can be an asset in the #BlitzForSix, they'll get their chance!
QB Jimmy Garoppolo (QB2): My first stud of the game deservedly goes to Jimmy Garropolo. The QB2 finished with a solid stat line completing 22-of-28 passes, racking up 235 yards, and throwing 2 TD passes. The biggest thing that stood out to me was Garropolo's command of the offense. Although he started off slow in the first quarter and looked like he has for most of the start of training camp, he completely flipped the switch in the second quarter to lead a couple strong drives. His shining moment was when he led the two-minute offense, going 7-for-7 with 65 yards and a TD to cap off a scoring drive and cut the deficit to 17-10. He showed poise in the pocket, made accurate throws, and was able to escape the pressure in the red zone to find WR Austin Carr for a beautiful TD. Thumbs up, Jimmy.
WR Austin Carr (UDFA, Northwestern): My second stud of the game is a player who I've been enamored with ever since the Patriots picked him up as a UDFA after the draft. Northwestern's Austin Carr was the Big Ten Receiver of the Year this past collegiate season. His knack to make catches over the middle of the field and great hands stand out in his highlights. While he has decent enough build at 6'1, 195 lbs to man the outside spot, his skill set better suits the slot receiver position where he has more experience. In his Patriots debut he was the best wideout on the field displaying good, clean route running ability, field awareness to go along with it on a great sideline grab, and an ability to get open often (especially as a key cog in the two-minute offense). One of the knocks on him in his scouting report was that he may struggle to get separation from DB's, but Thursday night was a step in the right direction. He posesses great athleticism and showed this on his phenomenal TD grab to cap of that drive. He finished with five catches on seven targets for 44 yards and the aforementioned TD. If he keeps up a strong level of play and Slater begins the season on the PUP, Carr may be able to grab a spot on the 53 man roster. If he wants to do so, it will also help his case to perform better in training camp. While he won't be stealing many targets from Cooks, Edelman, Hogan, Amendola, or Mitchell bearing that they remain healthy, he could be really good injury insurance.
TE Jacob Hollister (UDFA, Wyoming): Jacob Hollister, my third stud of the game, is not a name that I've heard mentioned that much during training camp. But boy did he look impressive! Hollister looked like the complete package, displaying good speed, athleticism, strong run blocking, and the ability to quickly secure the ball and brace for a hit. He caught seven of nine targets for 116 yards and was an instrumental blocker on some big run plays. He had two really notable standout plays, the first being a catch over the middle in which he took a big hit, and the second being a hurdle over a Jaguars defender late in the second half. His stat line was obviously better than Carr's which it should be since he saw more minutes/snaps and received more targets. Nonetheless, a very strong performance. Hollister will have to show up more during camp, but if James O’Shaughnessy and Matt Lengel remain unhealthy, Sam Cotton is the only guy in his way of cracking the 53. Definitely a player to watch and somebody who I pray doesn't go down the path of Zach Sudfeld, who had a strong preseason showing in 2013 before flatlining in regular season play and being cut a few weeks in. He's a cautionary tale, but there is reason to believe that a more athletic and complete player like Hollister could make an impact at the TE3. I believe he has a strong chance due to his run and pass blocking capabilities.
The Secondary: The first dud of the game, and it's a big one, goes to the secondary. Jonathan Jones and Justin Coleman were the only guys who really showed up to play, and it's important to note that the defense on the field last night was nothing close to what we'll see during the regular season. More importantly, it is also worth highlighting that the improvement Cyrus Jones (2nd round pick in 2016) and Jordan Richards (3rd round pick in 2016) teased on defense in training camp did not translate to the field. With the Jaguars backed up into the end zone, Cyrus Jones surrendered a 97 yard TD pass to CHAD HENNE. Yes, that is correct. On the play, Jones showed bad technique getting beat off the line and then lost the ball with his head turned and eyes to the sky. If he plans on earning playing time in a pretty good positional group at CB, this will absolutely not fly. Not that the safeties played very well collectively, but I at least thought Richards would stand out. He did, but for the wrong reasons. He took a terrible angle on a 79-yard TD run and later provided no help over the top on a 43-yard TD pass. For a second and third round pick respectively, these guys have to be a lot better than this. Richards had a strong start to camp, so there's some reason for hope there. And Jones looks better fielding punts; he should, as he was the nation's top returner in his final collegiate season. But they have to show it on the field and against opposing teams to earn their spot, and they have yet to do so. If there is anything keeping these guys around long term, it will be their special teams contributions.
The Defensive Front: As I mentioned before, the starting defense that we fielded Thursday night was nothing close to the what our starting defense will look like Week 1. As players looking to either earn a spot on the roster or earn more playing time, they didn't do themselves much justice. Our first selection in this year's draft, DE Derek Rivers (3rd round pick, Youngstown State) didn't provide much pressure at DE on the edge and didn't make any big plays like I was expecting. In fact, LB/DE Harvey Langi (UDFA, BYU) was far more impressive providing pressure. For a guy who is still learning the system very early in his NFL career, Rivers can get a free pass for this game. Another draft choice this offseason was DE Deatrich Wise Jr. (4th round pick, Arkansas) who looked more promising before sustaining an injury early on. This was a bit of a concern as he had injury issues in college. Wise has been the more impressive of the two so far in camp and will look to continue his strong level of play that made him an underrated standout for the Razorbacks' strong defensive front. The DT's (all who are likely roster cuts) were not great at wrapping guys up, moving the line, or providing additional pressure on the inside. Throughout the game, they also let up a lot of big runs, namely that 79-yard TD that I don't even want to link because it was so bad. Some blame can be put on LB Elandon Roberts for a missed tackle there, though RB Corey Grant exploded through the defensive front to get the play started. Still, they made a few nice tackles for a loss. Matt Patricia didn't look happy all night, and I can't blame him. Look for a stronger performance from the DT's next week if they want any chance at a win or any chance at cracking the 53.
RB's Brandon Bolden and Dion Lewis: Both Bolden and Lewis are interesting cases when it comes to shaping out the roster. The RB position is the second strongest unit next to WR and features Super Bowl 51 hero James White who was the best statistical receiving back since Faulk, offseason pickup Rex Burkhead who is a special teams wizard, strong runner, and able pass catcher, and another offseason pickup Mike Gilislee who figures to fill the power back/goal-line role once healthy. While Bolden and Lewis both have the ability to contribute to special teams in different aspects, and each recently was resigned (Bolden this offseason) or extended (Lewis win 2015), there are a lot of guys who they will be sharing touches with baring that they do in fact make the final roster. Lewis is a solid return man, while Bolden is great at getting downfield and an able tackler. In the preseason debut, they were leaned on more for offense and each performed at a high level. Bolden namely had some great runs showing good strength and some elusiveness, and he was also able to add some nice catches to go along with his strong running; he carried the ball five times for 33 yards and caught two passes for 24 yards. Lewis on the other hand looked as healthy as he has since 2015. He was less explosive in 2016 and suffered a minor injury at the end of the 4th quarter of the greatest game of all time, so it is slightly alarming that he played so much into the first preseason game. While I don't think his spot is in major jeopardy, and his 32 yards rushing along with 23 yards receiving on four catches certainly helped, he would not be a huge cap casualty if cut and could be a trade option if DJ Foster (who also played well) outperforms him. It's hard to believe that a player of Bolden's caliber on special teams could be cut, and it's also hard to believe that Lewis could be gone after his record breaking playoff performance against the Texans. Ultimately, I hope to see both make the 53-man roster, but won't be shocked if one ends up on the market, despite their strong skillset. Thumbs up.
DE Kony Ealy (Offseason trade acquisition): Ealy, acquired from the Carolina Panthers for a second round pick, was one of our many offseason acquisitions. He is in a contract year and has had a rough start to training camp. He didn't see a ton of play last night, though I'd like to think that he's going to stick around because of the upside he provides and the lack of depth at that position. Think back to his three sack performance in Super Bowl 50; a distant memory, but the potential is there. He is definitely a guy to keep an eye on, and we can hope for improvement. He didn't get too many minutes with a solid group so I can't really judge his performance all that accurately. I believe that he could be a good fit in the defensive scheme and come Week 1, I think he'll be out there with the starting unit.
The Offensive Line (Fleming and Karras): Thank god Dante Scarnecchia is back because the offensive line was a heck of a lot better last year than in 2015, and hopefully this season will be more of the same. He was able to turn Marcus Cannon into a premier blocker after his terrible performance against Von Miller in the 2015 AFCCG. Who could be this season's Marcus Cannon? I have a guess. Either Cameron Fleming (4th round pick in 2014) or Ted Karras (6th round pick in last year's draft). Although there were a few breakdowns in protection last night, and LaAdrian Waddle was not very impressive, Cam Fleming and Ted Karras looked really good in both the run and pass game and played a part in some big plays. There was some shuffling around and Belichick is likely trying to find a solid swing tackle within this group, but thumbs up for this unit. Most of the guys who were out there are probably practice squad players, but Fleming and Karras both impressed at a good enough level that they should be able to earn a final roster spot.
Cover photo: Pats Pulpit
Video Sources: (@Espngreeny) (@ghaugii7) (@NFL)