[Editor's Note: Please join me in officially welcoming Alec Shane to the Pats Pulpit team as a Contributing Writer! -Greg]
Well folks, Week 1 of the preseason is in the books. A colleague of mine at work, Hal, has made a valiant effort to remind me that his New York Jets are playing the Houston Texans tonight, but nobody in their right mind cares about that game. As far as I'm concerned, it's time to move on to Week 2. And seeing that the Patriots already have one whole preseason game under their belt during which the primary starters were on the field in full pads the entire time (that they didn't play one snap is a mere technicality), I've now seen enough football this year to feel completely confident in making a few sweeping generalizations regarding the Patriots and the state of the team moving forward. If four years of college taught me anything (NOTE: it didn't. I learned nothing in college. That line was just to appease my parents in case they are reading. Thanks for the education, Mom and Dad!), it's that gathering evidence and implementing effective research are the cornerstones of staging a good argument. And that's why I watched Thursday's preseason game not just once, but a full one and a half times before presenting my case to Patriots Nation. You can never be too careful.
So, with that, here are 4 observations I made from Thursday's 47-12 dismantling of the Jaguars that you can take to the bank this season.
1. Taylor Price is going to have a good year.
Price clearly seemed to benefit from his red shirt rookie season and came out of the box eager to show the coaching staff that he is ready to be a solid member of this year's offense. Price got a lot of looks, and he took advantage of all of them, pulling in 5 catches for 105 yards and a fantastic TD grab in the back of the end zone. But what stood out for me was Price's toughness. Twice he took huge shots, once getting his legs cut out on a punt return and then a second time getting clocked by a penalty-inducing helmet-to-helmet hit that left him slow to get up. Get up he did, though, and he got right back into the huddle. I was also very impressed with Price's ability as a blocking wide receiver on a good portion of the running plays. He has the physical and mental tools to be a valuable cog in New England's offensive juggernaut, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Price insert himself securely into that 4th receiver spot as the season gathers steam.
Three more observations after the jump!
2. The Patriots backfield just got a lot more interesting.
If you are at all like me, you watch the NFL Draft every year with your computer at the ready so you can Google whoever the hell it was that Belichick just drafted. Case in point: Stevan Ridley. Ridley spent much of his college career backing up Jahvid Best and wasn't considered one of the top backs in this year's draft. Add that to the fact that New England's backfield was already crowded and Belichick used a 2nd round pick on Cal RB Shane Vereen, and Ridley wasn't even on my radar.
However, after Thursday's performance, I'm happy to say that Ridley is now a deep sleeper on my fantasy board. Not only did he have a monster day, he has a very hard-nose running style that makes him a standout among New England's diverse stable of running backs. Ridley should make an excellent complement to BenJarvus Green-Ellis's quick first step and Danny Woodhead's elusiveness. I can definitely see Ridley taking on primary goal-line duties as the season progresses, and if he can learn effective route running and successful blitz pickup from Obi Wan Faulk, New England could have found their back of the future.
3. Other teams will come asking about Brian Hoyer.
I know that Hoyer was playing against a fairly weak defense on Thursday; not only that, he was playing against the backups on a fairly weak defense. However, you seize the opportunities you are given, and Hoyer was ready from the first snap. He looked poised, confident, and in control of the offense during his time on the field. His 15 of 21 for 171 yards and a TD is a more than respectable performance, and at no point did he look like just the guy that holds Tommy B's clipboard, brushes his hair, or does anything else necessary to ensure Brady is at peak performance. In a league where quality QBs are at a premium, having a poised, confident backup that has spent several years learning from the best quarterback in the game puts the Pats in prime position to test the trade market. Plus,
Herman Munster's Ryan Mallett's strong performance on Thursday must give the coaching staff confidence that the Patriots will have a backup ready to go should the unthinkable happen again.
4. Nobody is going to be too happy about the new kickoff rule - especially Brandon Tate.
A rule of thumb I have - if I'm able to do it successfully, then it isn't hard to do. I can splatter a can of paint on a blank canvas. That ain't art. I can boil spaghetti and make toast. That ain't cooking. And I'm fairly confident that I could stand in the end zone and catch a ball kicked at me from the opposing 35 yard line only to take a knee before running off the field in terror. That ain't football.
Touchbacks are boring. I know that starting off at the 20 is good strategy in certain situations, so the occasional end zone kneeldown is fine. But how much fun is watching a guy like Johnny Knox, Joshua Cribbs, or Brandon Tate receive a kickoff from inside the 5 and start to run? Every kickoff has that long bomb, big play potential, and this new rule just gave one of the more exciting parts of watching professional football an atomic wedgie.
We're already seeing the effects of the new rule. Last year, the NFL saw 416 touchbacks on 2,539 kickoffs - roughly 16 percent. In 15 preseason games so far, 43 of the 127 kickoffs have resulted in a touchback. That's 34 percent, more than double the number for last year - and that's not even taking into account the kicks that would likely have been touchbacks had they not been fielded by a rookie fighting for a roster spot. It's not illogical to envisage upwards of 40% of kicks ending up in the end zone until kickers are able to fully adjust and put more air under their kicks to pin teams back deep.
For Brandon Tate, whose most positive contribution to the team last year came in the form of kickoff returns, this new rule could put his job security in jeopardy. While I still think he'll ultimately end up on the roster, he didn't make too many strides forward as the legit deep threat the Patriots were lacking last year, and the emergence of Taylor Price may nudge him a little closer to the roster bubble than he'd like to be. I'm definitely going to be keeping a close eye on him over the next few weeks.
Something else I'm going to be watching for as a result of this new rule is how it changes offensive strategies league-wide. Starting field position determines a very large portion of how a team approaches an upcoming drive; the first 3 plays you run pinned back inside your own 10 are obviously different than the first 3 plays you run from your own 40. A significant number of touchbacks may force a lot of teams to alter their offensive strategies as the season picks up, and that could change the dynamic of the entire game.
On the plus side, though, I'll no longer have to hustle through my post-PAT routine of getting up, getting more beer, restocking the snack bowl, checking my fantasy scores, going to the bathroom, and getting back to my chair before the next kickoff. What is likely to be a veritable season-long schmorgasboard of commercial break/touchback/commercial break sandwiches should allow me to take my sweet, sweet time, and even put in some face time with the girlfriend. So that's also a win.
Oh, and there's that whole less traumatic injuries resulting from kickoffs thing. That's okay too, I guess.
There are more predictions I could make, but I don't want to come off as a blowhard. Plus, I'm sure that this Thursday's game against Tampa Bay will leave me with a whole new set of conclusions that I can jump to. But that's the beauty of the Jump to Conclusions Mat - the possibilities are endless.
And that's also the beauty of the preseason. We're just scratching the surface of this league year, and given the tumultuous offseason we've just suffered through, it's more difficult than ever to take what we'll see over the next three weeks at face value. But the dust is eventually going to settle, the rosters will be finalized, and The Patriots are going to fly down to Miami more than ready to defend their AFC title. All we can do until then is analyze the data, put our necks on the line, and make bold predictions that can very well come back to haunt us down the road.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to finish this TPS report.