It’s all about the backups and evaluating them
The Patriots and Saints open the preseason for both teams with a game tonight. The big focus is what to watch for in the game. It is unlikely we’ll see Drew Brees or Tom Brady much more than a series or two. Brady has appeared in the preseason opener the past few years but may sit this one out and Brees told the media on Wednesday that he will only play a series. Players like Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Martellus Bennett will likely not play.
So what things will Bill Belichick and the coaching look to accomplish tonight? Being the first game of the preseason, the score is pretty much secondary to getting some things sorted out. And with a solid 90-man roster heading into preseason action, it is imperative for the coaches to get each of the guys on the bubble as many looks as possible.
So here are our Five Things to Watch for Tonight:
Offensive Line Groupings/Play: The Patriots offensive line was the weak link in the team in 2015 and they suffered a slew of injuries that ruined any chance for continuity a year ago. The team brought back Dante Scarnecchia in the hope that he can get the line play back to where it was before he retired.
Injuries have once again reared their head early in camp. Sebastian Vollmer is still on PUP and is out. Jonathan Cooper was hurt early in camp and hasn’t practiced in 10 days. Tre’ Jackson will be out as well and how much Bryan Stork plays after suffering yet another concussion will be a question mark.
Rookie offensive lineman Joe Thuney has been solid in camp thus far at left guard. He and fellow rookie RG/C Ted Karras have performed well. But what will bear watching is how well the line holds up in protection for the three quarterbacks and just as importantly, can they open any holes in the running game. We should see plenty of different combinations as the game goes on. There is still plenty of room for competition here. This will be the first test to see how well Scarnecchia’s tutelage is progressing.
Quarterback Reps: The elephant in the room, everyone wants to know, who starts, how much does each play and how will the offense look under each? This overblown story line continues to be the talk of training camp and as much as Bill Belichick gets tired of answering it, it isn’t going away.
Tom Brady has taken the first reps with the offense for the majority of camp but it looks like he’ll sit for the first preseason game. Garoppolo will take over and play the first half and possibly a series to start the second half. Jimmy G. didn’t have a great week after a nice start to camp and he’ll be looking to rebound. He’ll have to process things a bit quicker and make some better decisions with the football than he did the past 3-4 days.
Jacoby Brissett would then have the second half to get some much-needed experience and get into a rhythm with the offense. This will be a balancing act with Belichick and Josh McDaniels as they’ll go with how things play out on the field. There is no right or wrong answer and I’m sure Belichick will say tomorrow night, that they did what they felt was best for the team.
Running Back Depth: One of the areas that we pointed out as a big area of need in the offseason was the running back position. Both LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis are coming off of season-ending injuries. Blount has looked quick and he’s running much better than I would have thought possible this early in camp. He should see a few reps early in the game but other than that, it is all on the backups. Check out Lee Schechter’s nice piece on the running backs from yesterday.
With Dion Lewis still on PUP, the backup positions are still wide open. James White has the most experience and he’s a good pass receiver but he goes down very easily when running the ball. He’s still too one-dimensional so who gets some reps tonight?
Tyler Gaffney is finally healthy after two lost seasons with the Panthers and the Pats where he never saw the field. He’s a big back at 6’0, 220 pounds and has shown some quickness at hitting the hole and good vision as he’s gotten more work with Donald Brown sidelined. He should get plenty of chances to show what he can do against the Saints. One possibly alarming thing I’ve noticed with him is that he tends to run upright perhaps too much so when going thru the hole, it is something that sets him up to take big hits.
Joey Iosefa and Brandon Bolden should see some work as well. Brown and D.J. Foster probably won’t play as they’ve been out nursing injuries. Foster was one of the more intriguing guys that came out of the UDFA class but he just hasn’t been on the field enough to see anything from.
Wide Receiver Competition: With Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola out, I don’t expect to see much of Chris Hogan tonight. That opens the door for the other WRs to stake out a claim for additional reps and a chance to stick on the roster.
Veteran Nate Washington is back on the field, and he, along with Keshawn Martin, Chris Harper, Aaron Dobson, DeAndre Carter, Devin Lucien and 4th round draft pick Malcolm Mitchell have been embroiled in some terrific competition this summer.
Mitchell has been coming on as of late and it will be interesting to see if the team tries to get him some work with Garoppolo early in the game. Don’t go to sleep on Dobson yet, he started out this summer very strongly although lately, his targets have tailed off. But the biggest thing for him is that, up to now, he’s been able to stay healthy.
Cornerback Rotation: The Patriots spent their top draft pick on CB Cyrus Jones this spring. But as of now, he’s the 4th CB in the rotation behind Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Justin Coleman. That isn’t a knock on Jones, it is just that Coleman, with a year in the system, has fared better thus far in training camp.
With Ryan still sporting a red non-contact jersey, he probably will sit the opener out. Will the Patriots thrust Jones into the starting right corner spot with Coleman remaining in the slot? Or will they go with the veteran E.J. Biggers or perhaps Darryl Roberts who started the first preseason game a year ago?
Like the WRs, the competition has been fun to watch this summer at corner. Biggers, Roberts, and UDFAs Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and V’Angelo Bentley are all fighting it out for essentially one spot on the roster. Jonathan Jones has flashed with his speed and athleticism thus far but the games should really bring out the best in the struggle.
Some individual players to watch for:
Trey Flowers: The second-year DE has a propensity for rushing the QB. He had a strong camp a year ago and has been ramping up his play the past few days. He’s locked in a struggle with Geneo Grissom and Rufus Johnson for playing time. All three made the roster a year ago.
Markus Kuhn: The big German defensive lineman arrived with little fanfare from the Giants and was thought to be a long-shot to make the roster. But he’s gotten plenty of reps and has shown himself to be really stout at the point of attack in practice. Now he’ll get the chance to show it in a game.
A.J. Derby/Clay Harbor: The two tight ends are vying for the coveted third tight end spot behind Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. Derby is a converted QB who spent last year on IR. But he’s shown a knack for making some plays in the passing game. He has good athleticism and has displayed good hands at catching the ball.
Harbor was signed as a free agent from the Jaguars but started the season on PUP. Now he’s back to work and has the experience and production to be a “move” tight end in the offense. He and Derby may see work together on the field in the “12” personnel sets with two tight ends.
Kamu Grugier-Hill: The rookie LB/S has crazy athleticism and could be a factor on special teams. But with the lack of depth at linebacker, he could see some significant snaps on defense as well. The team used him at times covering the TE Bennett during scrimmages. It will bear watching if he can carve out a role for himself.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2016 Patriots Draft 2016 Patriots PreSeason 2016 Patriots Roster 53 Man Roster Projection Bill Belichick Danny Amendola Dion Lewis Dont'a Hightower Jabaal Sheard Jimmy Garoppolo Julian Edelman LaGarrette Blount New England Patriots New Orleans Saints NFL Patriots Patriots edge rushers Patriots Training Camp Photos Rob Gronkowski Rob Ninkovich Tom Brady Trey Flowers