Finally …. New England Patriots football is back!
What: Preseason Game One
Who: New England Patriots at Philadelphia Eagles
Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
When: 7:30 pm ET
TV: WBZ in the Boston area; nine stations in the Patriots Television Network; NFL Network
Radio: 98.5 in the Boston area; 36 stations in the northeast that are part of the Patriots Radio Network
Not expected to play:
WR Michael Jenkins, WR Mark Harrison, CB Ras-I Dowling, S Nate Ebner, OL Marcus Cannon, OL Dan Connolly, OL Markus Zusevics, OL Tyronne Green, OL Kevin Haslam, TE Rob Gronkowski, DL Jermaine Cunningham and DL Armond Armstead have missed practice all week and are therefore highly doubtful. In addition TE Brandon Ford and CB Alfonzo Dennard have missed some time, and S Devin McCourty has been in a non-contact jersey; they too are doubtful to play tonight.
While preseason games leave plenty to be desired with many starters playing for less than a quarter (or not at all) and the final score having zero significance, there are still plenty of reasons to watch these games.
Right now there are fewer than twenty players that could be considered to be locks on the Pats roster for the 2013 season. That leaves over seventy players competing for about half that many openings; about 50% will survive cuts and the other other 50% be booted off the island. Four preseason games represent their one chance to have a full dress rehearsal audition, the one time they will be going full tilt against the opposition.
It is the ultimate sport reality show, unfolding for us for our viewing pleasure on our television screen in our living rooms in prime time. One big play can catapult someone previously thought of as camp fodder into roster discussion; who is it that will maximize their opportunity? And on the other hand what player on the bubble misses an assignment or makes a key drop, possibly sealing his fate when roster cutdowns happen later this month?
What To Watch For
Aaron Dobson has had an impressive training camp
1. Wide Receivers
For months the talking heads have been regurgitating the statistics of all the receivers from 2012 who will not be playing on the team this year, and summarily concluding that this year’s offense is in dire straits, speculating that they will more closely resemble the 2012 Chiefs than the 2012 Pats. While the reports from training camp on rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins have been glowing, we all want to see how they perform under live game conditions against starters for an NFL defense. This will also be the first time for fans to see Danny Amendola in live action as a New England Patriot.
2. Tight Ends
With Gronk hobbled and that other guy sitting in a jail cell, who steps up in their place? Jake Ballard was assumed to be the frontrunner but has not appeared to be 100% healthy, and was never that fast to begin with. Undrafted free agent Zach Sudfeld has had a great camp; can he continue that tonight? Daniel Fells was going to be a big addition last year but was injured very early and never did much; can he be more productive with more playing time? Do the Pats still use a lot of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), or will they move away from the two-tight end formation they primarily utilized the last two seasons?
3. Jamie Collins
How do the Patriots utilize their top draft pick? Where does he line up? How does he (and the other linebackers) look in coverage on opponent’s tight ends, an area the Pats have not done well in over the last few years? The Eagles are deep at the TE position and utilize their running backs quite a bit in the passing game, so this will be a good test for the unit as a whole.
The Pats are set with Aqib Talib on one side. Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling are not expected to play, so we should get a good chance to check out 3rd-round draft pick Logan Ryan. With Dennard possibly being suspended for a couple of games and Dowling yet gain sidelined with an injury, the Pats could be counting on Ryan for a significant number of snaps early this season. Kyle Arrington is much better suited to defend slot receivers rather than play outside, so it could be critical that Ryan be ready to play well right away rather than be brought along slowly. If not then the Patriots may have to move Devin McCourty back to corner, which is something that they would be much better off not having to do.
5. Safeties (other than Devin McCourty)
After a couple of seasons where the safety position was the weakest link on the team, the Pats made huge strides late last year when McCourty moved from cornerback to safety. So often in past years the Pats gave up long pass plays because the safety help was not there on deep passes, being so far out of position they often were not even visible on the television screen. The pass defense vastly improved with McCourty there, but who starts alongside him? Veteran Adrain Wilson was signed in free agency, but he will soon be 34 and seemed to have lost a step last year; the Cardinals often took him off the field on passing downs. Tavon Wilson has not shown much thus far and needs to step it up after seeing his playing time dwindle as the season wore on last year. Steve Gregory was so-so last year, at times taking bad angles; he’s excellent depth but shouldn’t be relied on to start. That leaves Duron Harmon, the third round draft pick from Rutgers that many panned as being a reach. Harmon is more of a strong safety so at some point he is likely seen as their heir apparent to compliment McCourty; it seems as if Harmon has moved ahead of Tavon Wilson on the depth chart. UDFA Kanorris Davis is also available at strong safety, but barring injury he has an uphill battle; it is unlikely a rookie third round pick or second-year second round pick will be cast off so soon to make way for him. Devin McCourty has been wearing a red no-contact shirt for most of training camp so he may not play tonight. Even if he does play I would expect it to be very limited, leaving plenty of playing time for the five listed above; Nate Ebner is reportedly not expected to play.
Can Marcus Forston push Tommy Kelly for playing time next to Vince Wilfork?
6. Defensive Line Depth
I want the Patriots to have enough quality depth that they can confidently rotate players on the line during the course of a game this season to keep the best players – specifically Vince Wilfork – fresh in the 4th quarter, and fresh at the end of the season. I’ll assume Tommy Kelly will be the starter alongside Big Vince this season, but who are the backups at defensive tackle? Marcus Forston appears to be the best option at DT, followed by Cory Grissom; how productive will they be? Similarly we have already have a good idea of what to expect from Chandler Jones (though we surely want to see a progression) and Rob Ninkovich; who else can come in and apply pressure? Marcus Benard has looked good in camp thus far; he and Justin Francis appear to be in the lead right now. Jake Bequette did nothing last year as a rookie and needs to step up; 7th round draft pick Michael Buchanan is another to watch. The pass rush (or lack thereof) has been an ongoing concern with the Patriots for a few years; who is it that will aid in its improvement this year?
7. Right Guard
Dan Connolly (shoulder) and his presumed replacement, Marcus Cannon presumably won’t play after missing the last few practices. The primary backup from 2012 (Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald) are both gone, so Will Svitek – who was signed to be the swing tackle – will play guard. This is an opportunity for one of the other backup interior linemen (Josh Kline, Chris McDonald, Luke Patterson) to shine and make a case for themselves to be on the roster in September.
8. Running Backs
We know Stevan Ridley is the starter and that Shane Vereen is set to take over Danny Woodhead’s role. This will be the first time we get to see LaGarrette Blount in a Pats uniform, and it appears that he may be in a roster battle with Brandon Bolden. One under the radar player to watch in the second half: George Winn, the undrafted free agent who ran for 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns for the University of Cincinnati last year.
Ryan Allen won the Ray Guy Award for the best punter in college fottball last year. While the Pats may seem set at the poition, Allen has done well in camp; don’t assume that Mesko has the job locked up.
10. Backup Quarterback
Tom Brady will play little (if at all), so this will be a chance for the two backups to make a case for themselves. We don’t know if Belichick will go with two or three quarterbacks on the 2013 roster – they had two last year – so this could very well be a head to head battle for a roster spot, with Mallett currently comfortably in the lead.
If all you want to see is Tom Brady and the rest of the starters, then this game – especially after the first quarter – is not for you. But if you want to get a glimpse at some of the unknowns, the rookies, the new veterans, and dozens of players attempting to ace their audition while applying for a job they have trained their whole lives for, then this game is well worth watching.
Here’s to what is hopefully an injury-free game, that will start to answer some of the very many questions that surround this team.
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