Tomorrow, the New England Patriots will be suiting up for their second preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. While starters mostly sat in the first exhibition game last week, the backups and rookies played with the Patriots dominating the match against the Detroit Lions from start to end. Against the Titans now, the Patriots may use their starters for a quarter at most before putting in the backups and rookies that likely will be depth options this year.
These are five things I’ll be paying attention to when the game starts:
Encore performances for Jakobi Meyers and Jarrett Stidham
Both Meyers and Stidham had a strong first preseason game, the question is how to they build upon it. Meyers has continued to turn heads at camp, taking the Titans’ defensive backs to task this week. With injuries to N’Keal Harry and Maurice Harris, Meyers might be in line to start the game at the X-receiver spot although he could see some action in the slot as well. A strong showing in this game could have him pushing for a starting role in the offense despite being a rookie.
For Stidham, there is still a long way to go. The preseason showing against the Lions was a solid start considering he had mostly clean pockets while also adding a couple good throws under pressure. The physical tools are there, he has good accuracy, mobility, and was solid on decision making even for a rookie in his first ever game action. The question is now can he do it again? If the answer is yes, then I believe that Stidham will develop into a quality backup quarterback at worst, but with a nonzero potential to succeed Tom Brady in 3-4 years. I’m not holding my breath on the latter but only because of Brady himself.
How much does the first string offense and defense play?
When I say first string defense, I usually highlight the front seven in base defense and the top five defensive backs on the roster.
From the reports from the joint practices, it appears that the Patriots will be keeping Michael Bennett for nickel where he presents a matchup nightmare on interior linemen while keeping him out of base defense in lieu of Danny Shelton and Adam Butler. In terms of the top defensive backs you have the safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung along with corners Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, and J.C. Jackson. Gilmore and McCourty are one and two on the depth chart and did not play last week, with Jackson being the top cornerback and having a solid showing against Detroit.
On offense, it os more about who plays and how long. Tom Brady, James White, Sony Michel, and the starting offensive line sat in the first game, the question is how much will they be on the field tomorrow. Given the injuries at the receiver position, the Patriots might not showcase more than Jakobi Meyers, Braxton Berrios, Gunner Olszewski, Maurice Harris (if healthy), and maybe Damoun Patterson in this game.
At the tight end position, Benjamin Watson is a lock for the top spot and another roster lock in Matt LaCosse is likely not playing with an injury sustained in the previous preseason game. At the running back position, meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how much action White, Michel, and Rex Burkhead get and if we’ll see the debut of third-round draft pick Damien Harris, who has been battling a hand/wrist problem this week. I don’t expect the starters to play more than the first quarter.
Shilique Calhoun vs. Derek Rivers for the 5th edge rusher spot
This has turned into a somewhat intriguing battle for one of the final roster spots available. Michael Bennett, John Simon, Chase Winovich, and Deatrich Wise Jr. seem to be locks to make the roster, although Bennett and Wise aren’t stand-up rushers. Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins Sr. , and Dont’a Hightower can moonlight on the edge from time-to-time, but the team could certainly use more depth there in case of a run on injuries either inside or on the edge.
Both Calhoun and Rivers had solid first games against Detroit, although I noticed Calhoun as he ended getting a sack then creating a sack for a teammate (Rivers) in back-to-back plays. Both players were former third-round picks who had magnificent college production and solid measurables at the combine, but haven’t carved out a role in the NFL yet.
Can Braxton Berrios make more progress to grabbing the final receiver spot?
Compared to the rest of the roster, Berrios has the best chance of making the team as a punt returner and rotational slot receiver when the Patriots go to 11-personnel. With Julian Edelman, Jakobi Meyers, and Phillip Dorsett as likely bets to make the roster at the receiver position, with core special teamer Matthew Slater not counting towards the position total, the Patriots only have one potential spot up for grabs. Between Berrios, Harris, and Gunner Olszewski, Berrios complements the rest of the receiver group the most as a guy who can handle kick and punt returns in addition to receiver duty.
Punter Battle Part 2
Last week, the Patriots opened up with rookie Jake Bailey as the punter in the first half before sending in six-year incumbent Ryan Allen for the second half. One of the strengths of the rookie is better distance and hang-time although the latter will be more critical with pinning opponents deep in mind. Allen’s strengths are directional punting and the overall consistency prior to a down year in 2018, although it’s hard to isolate if the weaker results in punting were the result of the punter himself or a drop-off in punt coverage. Allen is coming off a tremendous Super Bowl LIII performance, in which he was mentioned as a potential MVP candidate with nine terrific punts (only one had a return more than 5 yards).
Given that Bailey can also perform on kickoffs, which would help Stephen Gostkowski focus on place-kicking as he continues to age, if it’s close at all the team is probably going with the rookie with the stronger leg. The loser of this battle will likely end up punting for another team, although Allen wouldn’t have to go through the waiver process if released with his six accrued seasons. I believe we’ll see Belichick flip the script and send Allen out there first and continue to alternate throughout the preseason until making a decision on who punts in 2019.