The Patriots are halfway through the preseason after going up against the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints. The team has shown steady improvement in certain areas and there are still things that need to be worked on before the Patriots square off against the Steelers on September 10th. After the 2nd preseason game, some of the remaining camp battles have gotten more competitive, which can only be a good thing.
Battle #1: Right Cornerback
Tarell Brown and Malcolm Butler did not play much in the 2nd preseason game, which meant that the CB duties were between Logan Ryan and Bradley Fletcher against the Saints. Devin McCourty started the 2nd preseason game at RCB as a move that was more of an experiment than anything meaningful. There were still some issues with Ryan and Fletcher, but they were also able to make some plays. Logan Ryan's issue is when he doesn't get physical that he gets burned on vertical routes against bigger and more explosive receivers while lacking the ability to recover once he does get beat. That's a similar problem that Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard had in their Patriots tenure. Fletcher also presents a similar issue, although he has a bit more recovery speed than Ryan on the outside. Even though I didn't see much of Tarell Brown, he's still leading the camp battle by default.
Battle #2: Receiving Back
Dion Lewis' performance in the 2nd preseason game has made this battle a bit more interesting. Lewis got most of the reps in the 2nd preseason game, like James White did in the first, and looked solid running in tight spaces and in the open field. In a 4-horse race for the role, White and Lewis have etched out a small lead over Travaris Cadet who I shouldn't underestimate once he gets back on the field. It's important to have two potential pass catching options so that way the offense doesn't go kaput when one of them is injured. There's always Brandon Bolden, who can do all the things you need for that role but doesn't do everything that Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead can do as a match up receiver. I haven't seen White or Lewis in that capacity either, but I do know that Cadet can play the matchup receiver role since he excelled in that role for the Saints last year. Bolden is someone who can be a stopgap option in case none of the other options are healthy. At this point, it's anyone's game, I'm still sticking to my guns and saying James White is still going to win.
Battle #3: Offensive Guards
Same story as last week, Tre Jackson looks to be the starter at RG and Mason is still a bit inexperienced at LG. It looks as if Ryan Wendell could be starting 2015 on the PUP list, which would leave the options at LG to be Shaq Mason, Dave Andrews, and Josh Kline. Mason has been getting the reps at LG and Andrews has been playing at center while Bryan Stork has been battling an injury. Stork's injury I don't consider serious and won't affect his ability to play in Week 1. I'd be curious to see Kline and Andrews get some reps at LG while the other is at center for the 3rd and 4th preseason games. Another tidbit is Ryan Groy, who the Patriots picked up in a trade with the Chicago Bears this camp, played a very good 4th quarter against the Saints. He opened up a rushing lane on the James White TD and kept Jimmy G from getting sacked. I wonder if he'll see more than 2nd string reps moving forward. At the left guard spot, the Patriots are trying to figure out the best of a group of unknowns. I still have Mason starting in Week 1 unless someone else is given an opportunity to start there.
Battle #4: Backup Power Running Back
Jonas Gray won this battle when Gaffney was put on injured reserve. Gray will likely get 75% of the carries in Week 1, he's put up a very solid camp and could combine with LeGarrette Blount to form a two-headed monster inside while the Patriots figure out their receiving back. Case closed
Battle #5: Backup Linebackers
James Morris surged ahead of Jonathan Freeny as the #4 LB and top backup, creating a turnover after hustling downfield to make a play in the 3rd quarter against the Saints. Freeny is still struggling in coverage, often looking one step too slow in both space and in the run game. Freeny will still likely make the roster as a core Special Teamer though and I'm not sure who else makes the team at LB. If the Patriots go with 6 LB, I think the 6th player will be a waiver pickup. I'd like to see James Morris get an opportunity with the starters if Belichick keeps Dont'a Hightower and/or Jerod Mayo out of the 3rd preseason game. I believe he has future starter potential and can play the 3rd linebacker after the Patriots give contract extensions to Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Battle #6: Dime Defensive Back
This battle is still undecided in large part to solid preseason performances by all participants. Tavon Wilson and Jordan Richards have had a solid preseason and I would not be surprised to see both on the team in September. We know Wilson can perform on Special Teams and Richards probably will see time in that role while Chung is starting at strong safety. Even if Chung doesn't start there, he can also play on Special Teams. Right now I'd have to go with Jordan Richards over Tavon Wilson, but the race is very close.
Battle #7: Slot Cornerback
Robert McClain has a stranglehold on this job. He's very competitive in his coverage and has been on the hip of his receivers. He's also a very fundamentally sound tackler, which is needed when to practice against Danny Amendola. The secondary at this point is more unproven than bad, although I think the Patriots won't have games where they outright shutdown the opponent. Unless McClain gets hurt, I don't think he cedes the job to Logan Ryan.
Battle #8: #4 Wide Receiver
Aaron Dobson has this role locked down pat. Otherwise, he would have played in the preseason game against the Saints at 90% instead of the team waiting for him to play at 100%. He should be good to go in the 3rd preseason game since he's been practicing. The more interesting battle now is who gets the #5 spot between Brandon Gibson and Chris Harper. Both players have had a great preseason and kept moving the chains against the Saints. Neither guy is a game breaking receiver like Dobson can be, but if you're looking for a solid possession guy on the outside while LaFell is on PUP those two are solid options to choose from. I think Gibson wins that battle if his knee is healthy. Dobson should get more reps with Gibson battling a knee injury this week, we'll see what happens next.
Battle #9: Strong Safety
I think Chung has already won the job for all 3 downs. We may see a bit of Duron Harmon, but not unless they move McCourty down from the FS position to play a slot or dime role. Chung has played with the first team in both preseason games and based on contract language and playing time, that shouldn't change. Chung isn't going to be much help in a Cover 2 or even a deep zone, but could play more of a 4th linebacker role instead.
Battle #10: 9th Defensive Lineman
Antonio Johnson has gotten a lot of preseason reps. After playing with the starters against the Packers, he played with the 2nd stringers against the Saints. I think at DT that the two starters are Malcom Brown and Sealver Siliga with Dominique Easley rotating in. The Patriots need a 4th player there that can play the pass and the run at a replacement level. That comes down to Alan Branch and Johnson, who both played into the 4th quarter against the Saints. I think Branch may win, but this battle is coming down to the end and I credit Johnson for making it close.
|RCB||Darryl Roberts, Logan Ryan, Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher||Logan Ryan||Tarell Brown|
|Rec-RB||James White, Travaris Cadet, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden||James White||Brandon Bolden|
|LG and RG||Shaq Mason, Tre Jackson, Dave Andrews, Josh Kline||Ryan Wendell and Tre Jackson||Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson|
|#2 Power RB||Jonas Gray, Tyler Gaffney||Jonas Gray||Jonas Gray|
|BACKUPLB||Jonathan Freeny, James Morris, Darius Fleming, Eric Martin||Matthew Wells, Darius Fleming, Dane Fletcher||Jonathan Freeny, James Morris|
|Dime DB Money LB||Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner||Patrick Chung||Jordan Richards|
|Nickel CB||Robert McClain, Bradley Fletcher, Logan Ryan, Darryl Roberts||Robert McClain||Robert McClain|
|#4 WR||Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Brandon Gibson, Chris Harper||Aaron Dobson||Aaron Dobson|
|SS||Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner||Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon||Patrick Chung|
|9th DL||Alan Branch, Rufus Johnson, Zach Moore, Antonio Johnson, Casey Walker||Zach Moore and Alan Branch|