The first preseason game is the first chance of action for rookies and newcomers to the team. The veteran starters might get a series or two, but will be sitting most of this game out. For players who aren't exactly a lock to make the roster, this is the time to make a great first impression on the coaching staff and the fans. These are the players who I think have the most to gain with a solid performance tonight:
- James White, RB, #28
- Jabaal Sheard, ED, #93
- Shaq Mason, IOL, #69
- Darryl Roberts, CB, #28
The first player to watch would be James White. White didn't see the field outside of a handful of snaps in 2014, but with Shane Vereen gone along with Dion Lewis and Travaris Cadet sidelined, he has his golden opportunity to distinguish himself. White's primary competition will be Jack of All Trades RB and Special Teamer Brandon Bolden, who can fill in as both a power and receiving back if needed in either capacity. When the Patriots drafted James White, I believed it was a 2015 move because Vereen was going to be a free agent and the team wanted to have an internal option ready. When Vereen wound signing with the Giants, I thought the role would just be passed down to White. The Patriots wound up signing both Travaris Cadet and Dion Lewis in the offseason to bring competition towards that spot.
Another player to watch is prized free agent signee Jabaal Sheard. The Patriots signed him to a "1 and 1" contract, where the team has an option for Year 2 of the contract. It's set up that if Sheard plays extremely well in 2015 that the Patriots get a very good edge player for a $7M bargain. Last year the Patriots pretty much had Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich play every down. Having a 3rd competent defensive end who can give both Jones and Nink rest while not having a drop off in play will be huge for the team, especially when the playoffs start. I've seen good reports about Sheard, who has really settled in and at times been the most impressive DL in camp.
This year's rookie class has the chance to be really special, especially in the trenches. The picks the Patriots spent there include Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, Tre Jackson, and Shaq Mason. All five will likely make the roster, but some of these players fell in the draft for reasons I consider trivial. One player to really watch will be Shaq Mason and how advanced his pass blocking is, considering he played in the Triple Option System at Georgia Tech. Tom Brady is a master of getting the ball out quickly, so Mason doesn't have to be the best pass blocking guard in football in order to keep pass rushers off Brady. The reason I like Mason is because the guy he has excellent movement skills and is very good at blocking at the 2nd level because he played in a Triple Option System. At the minimum, that could make him a short-yardage blocker as either a tackle eligible or a fullback.
The last player I want to highlight is another rookie, but taken much later in the draft. Darryl Roberts' talent extends more as a 1st-2nd round pick, but fell all the way towards the bottom of the 7th round. Roberts has already turned some heads in mini-camp and early on in training camp. He's had a pretty inconsistent training camp, but has flashed that talent. I don't think he's been consistent enough to warrant starting over the veteran corners the Patriots brought into camp unless he has a monster preseason. I do think that he will eventually mold himself into a starting corner, whether it happens this year or next year.