Two games have come and gone for the Patriots this preseason. Both the showdown against the Saints at home and the scrum versus the Falcons in the Georgia Dome were great tests for this young squad, and the players met all of their challenges for the most part. Their next game, Thursday night against the Rams, will pose more challenges and could also serve as the final time before the regular season opener that starters get extended play on the field. Some players still have questions to answer, while others have passed all of their tests thus far with flying colors. Here are five things that we know so far, followed by five issues to watch in the upcoming game against the Rams.
Things We Know:
1. Tom Brady has the most weapons that he has ever had as a Patriot
Yes, he has more than he did in 2007. Back then, he had Randy Moss and Wes Welker, but not much else. Donte Stallworth was nothing special as a third wide receiver, and Ben Watson was still the starter at tight end.
Now, the Patriots still have Moss and Welker, but they also have added a bunch of new dimensions to their offensive scheme that have looked great in the preseason. Brandon Tate looks every bit the gamebreaker that Stallworth was perceived to be. Julian Edelman has been absolutely devastating with the ball in his hand. In terms of tight ends, the three-headed monster of the blocker (Alge Crumpler), the receiver (Aaron Hernandez), and the prototype (Rob Gronkowski) will allow the Patriots to line up in a scary number of formations next season. Hernandez shows great ball skills and really nice moves after the catch, while Gronkowski is a major load to bring down and still maintains nimble enough feet to get down the seam and make plays down the field. This offense is humming, and I am excited to see what Brady can do with these new toys. I think he could have his best season ever (other than 2007, of course.)
2. Dan Connolly will do perfectly fine filling in for Logan Mankins
This was a major question mark at the beginning of the preseason, but Logan's leverage has gone down by the snap. His replacement, Dan Connolly, has probably been the second or third best offensive lineman on the field for the Patriots all preseason, and he has been devastating both in the run game and the passing game. He shows great athleticism, can pull around to the other side, and has been a major part of at least two touchdown runs this preseason. He is yet another example of what master offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can do with athletic linemen.
3. The Patriots are set in the secondary...at least for the forseeable future
Leigh Bodden, Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung have been getting most of the first team snaps this preseason, and excluding the injured Bodden, all have had their moments. McCourty has looked especially impressive, most notably last game vs. the Falcons when he managed to bump Roddy White off of his route and force a fourth down. He definitely looks a lot more comfortable in press coverage than in zone or playing off his man, but, even though I am a raging Butler fanatic, I have to admit that McCourty looks just as good, if not better, as Butler did last year at this time.
Speaking of Butler, he has had his ups and downs. He gave up a crucial penalty (though it was a bit of a soft call) against the Saints in Week 1, but blanketed his side of the field against the Falcons and has looked like a true playmaker in practice. Whether he or McCourty get to start is not important; all that matters is that both have looked good and should be able to at least improve on last year's horrific pass coverage.
The safeties have looked fine as well. Chung needs to improve at covering tight ends, but he has a great motor and is always good for a hard hit after the catch. I think he will improve throughout this year and could eventually be a Rodney Harrison type for the Patriots in the secondary for years to come. Meriweather has looked great as well, and hopes to follow up on his Pro Bowl season with another stellar one.
4. Bill O'Brien has been much improved as a playcaller
This is an underrated improvement that should be pointed out. Last year, Bill O'Brien was maligned a lot for operating too much out of the spread and not providing enough diversity to his playcalling. This preseason, the team has been humming down the field, and much of it is thanks to his calls.
Against the Saints and the Falcons, he made a number of great calls that resulted in points on the scoreboard. If he continues this upward trend, I think he could have a McDaniels type rise this year as a coaching prospect.
5. This runningback by committee won't win fantasy leagues, but will win football games
First of all, I apologize that I ever called Edelman a running back.
Now that that's out of the way, there is a great tandem in this backfield. Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney have all looked great in spurts with the first team line. Some teams operate with one back, and some use two instead. However, I am fine with using four. It reduces wear on all of them and all have shown to be hard runners in the past.
I would not draft any in fantasy though. If you have to pick one, go with Morris. He is the closest thing to a power back and would probably get a bunch of goal line carries.
Things We Don't Know
1. Can Jermaine Cunningham make an impact this year?
I was s0 excited to see Cunningham take the field...but he has yet to take a snap of game action. He has had injury issues and will hopefully see extended time against the Rams. At this point, I at least want to see him on third downs along with Banta-Cain. Murrell is decent, but Cunningham's athleticism would be helpful as well.
2. What happens if a lineman on either side of the ball gets injured?
Without Ty Warren for the season and Nick Kaczur for at least its beginning, depth may be a problem on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Defensively, it may be slightly less of an issue since the line has looked pretty good thus far this preseason. Heck, even Ron Brace has had a moment in the sun!
Offensively, though, there may be some problems. I really hope that Thomas Welch is just practice squad fodder; he isn't ready to contribute yet. Ted Larsen is athletic, but he still needs seasoning. George Bussey and Rich Ohrnburger both can get overpowered at times as well, and Mark Levoir is nothing more than adequate. The Patriots had better hope that Stephen Neal does not get his annual knock, or they could be in a spot of trouble.
3. Wilhite or Wheatley?
This may be the most interesting battle in camp. Two 2008 draft picks, both maligned for various reasons, probably battling for one spot. I think that Kyle Arrington merits a position as a special teams enforcer (and as a fifth cornerback) so which of these two should stay?
Jonathan Wilhite has always been a bit schizophrenic from game to game, even from play to play. Against New Orleans, he gave up a huge 55 yard completion and looked generally horrid. Against Atlanta, however, he played a nice under man coverage to make an interception off of John Parker Wilson. Wheatley came in touted as the better player, but has yet to make an impact due to injuries and currently appears to be behind Wheatley on the depth chart. However, he can contribute on special teams and seems to be having his best camp as a pro.
Personally, I would take Wheatley, just because he has more upside and would appear to be the safer option. I think Belichick likes Wilhite a little more, just because he seems to buy into the Patriot way and he could be a good fit as a slot corner.
Who will make it? Wheatley? Wilhite? Both? We'll have to wait to find out.