The long wait since the Super Bowl is over, the field at Gillette has the goalposts back up, the lines are painted on the turf and the Patriots will once again take the field for a football game. But don’t call it meaningless, because there remains a lot to accomplish.
OK, we get that the final score of tonight’s game is secondary to both Bill Belichick and Doug Marrone but for the 90 players on the roster, many of them are fighting for jobs. And the coaching staffs will attempt to find those depth players and those valuable guys who fill roles on the team that makes such a big difference during the course of a season.
Many of the Patriots starters won’t play tonight, I don’t expect to see Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Nate Solder or Mike Gillislee on the field for the Pats offense. So what are we looking for tonight from a New England perspective as the Patriots take on the Jaguars in the first game of the 2017 preseason?
The Patriots Pass Rush and Specifically How the Rookies Fit:
This will be a big storyline for the entire preseason and into the regular season. Gone are Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, and Chris Long. Trey Flowers is the elder statesman in terms of time with the team. He, Kony Ealy along with rookies Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers and Harvey Langi will be watched closely in their first game action this year.
Wise has had a very good start to camp and seems to be much farther along in his development than was expected at this point. He’s shown to be explosive and has had good penetration from the edge and along the interior.
Before people pile on Ealy (and there’s been a lot of it), something to keep in mind is that early in camp the team has asked him to do a lot of different things that he was never asked to do in Carolina. He’s played a lot inside and that is a new position for him. Rivers seems to be getting in sync a bit more in the last few days, it will be interesting to see how he fares in his first game action. Langi has been moved around by the coaches. They’re trying to see all the things he can do and look for him to play outside linebacker and down as a defensive end tonight.
Jacksonville’s offensive line has a lot of issues right now. There are at least two starting spots wide open for competition. So this will be a good test for both teams to see how their players are coming along.
How Will Jimmy Garoppolo Fare in Game Action:
We know that Jimmy G. hasn’t had the greatest camp, but he’s never been the best practice player for some reason although he’s fared better during the games. Well at least initially, he’ll be playing with some very good weapons. I would expect Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan to play a series or two tonight. Coupled with Dwayne Allen at tight end, James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead coming out of the backfield, this will be a very good group to work with.
I’d expect to see Garoppolo play most of if not all of the first half. He should be able to lead the Patriots offense and get the unit clicking, especially when the above-named players are taking the field. Things to look for in his play, his decision-making, his processing of what he sees in front of him and his ability to get the ball out quickly and accurately.
Many people thought that this was the year that he may push Tom Brady a bit for the reins to the offense. That hasn’t come close to happening yet. Brady is still head and shoulders far above him. But he must be ready to take over in a pinch and tonight we’ll be watching how he looks in the starting role.
Secondary Looks Strong, But This May Not be the Best Test:
Thus far in camp, the Patriots corners, Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones have been very solid. They bring the physical element to the game and contest everything thrown at them. Rowe probably won’t play as he’s been dinged up a bit but that will still leave the other three to watch for the probably the first quarter.
Jacksonville has some very good wide receivers in Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns with Marcedes Lewis at tight end but the problem with them has been getting them the football. The quarterback play in camp so far has been spotty at best and that’s what we saw in the two days of joint practices. Blake Bortles and Chad Henne were not doing a good enough job of getting their skill players the football during the 11-on-11 team drills. On the first day, they were a combined 8-22, on Day 2 they didn’t fare much better.
With the largely vanilla schemes on defense in the preseason, the time may be right to see Bortles and Henne open things up a bit and see the field a bit better. In which case the Jaguars receivers will provide a solid first test for the Patriots secondary. But after what we’ve seen in the two practices, the Jags quarterback situation may preclude that.
Let’s See Some of the Running Game This Week:
With LeGarrette Blount in Philadelphia now, the Patriots running game will definitely have a different look and feel to it in 2017. Gillislee has been slowed by a balky hamstring so I don’t expect to see him tonight. But the team has a lot of players who could see some significant snaps trying to earn a roster or practice squad slot.
In the early going, I am intrigued to see how Rex Burkhead fares in his Patriots debut. He’s been an intriguing player to watch in camp as he brings the element of both running and catching to the mix. Dion Lewis looks back to full health and I’d expect the team to give him a few reps early in the game along with James White.
But later in the game, D.J. Foster who is very quick out of the backfield is fighting for a roster spot. I’d look for him to get a ton of reps as the receiving back out of the backfield. Brandon Bolden who has gotten a lot of work with Gillislee on the shelf and LeShun Daniels will handle the heavy lifting in the running game between the tackles.
Time for the Young Players to Shine:
Invariably during these preseason games, especially the early ones, a couple of the unheralded undrafted free agent players step to the forefront. It seems every year the Patriots have one UDFA who not only makes the roster but contributes some meaningful snaps during the season.
We’ve already mentioned Langi above but the team has several to keep an eye on this week. Wide receiver Austin Carr has made some nice catches this summer and has struggled to get separation at times as well. He’s a guy to watch tonight. CB Kenny Moore has been around the ball making plays all summer, he and fellow rookie Will Likely are players to watch. TE Jacob Hollister is a move-tight end that has the speed to get separation and attack the seams, this may factor in later.
Some of the players who have been on the team and are on the bubble this summer will bear watching. CB Justin Coleman, WR Devin Lucien who has had a strong camp thus far and CB/KR Cyrus Jones. Jones it should be noted, dropped his first kick of the summer and hasn’t had an issue since. He’ll be watched closely in Year 2 and much will be expected of him in the return game in 2017.
It will be interesting to see how Patriots fans respond to Mark Brunell who does the color commentary for the Jaguars radio network tonight. Brunell had the famous crying jag (no pun intended) on ESPN after the news of Deflategate broke.