One man’s inactivity is another man’s opportunity, that’s how life in the NFL works. During yesterday’s preseason game between the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans, a lot of players were given opportunities that way considering that the world champions opted to sit almost all of their starters on both sides of the ball. This, in turn, meant that especially the team’s rookies saw considerable action again.
And just like last week against the Detroit Lions, they generally performed well and showed their promise and developmental upside. Of course, not all rookies performed on the same level or even saw the field — N’Keal Harry and Yodny Cajuste are still nursing injuries — but the overall trend was a positive one: the group as a whole looked comfortable on the field and played an important role during New England’s 22-17 victory.
Take the statistical leaders of the Patriots’ offense, wide receiver Jakobi Meyers and running back Damien Harris. The duo combined for more than half of the team’s offensive output, gaining 185 of 363 yards. For Meyers, his six-catch, 82-yard performance was nothing out of the ordinary when considering how well he performed during training camp and last week — he appears to be a rather safe bet when it comes to making the team despite his status as an undrafted rookie.
Harris’ performance, on the other hand, appeared to come out of nowhere. He did not play against the Lions and saw only limited practice reps because of a minor injury to his hand/wrist. On Saturday, however, the team trusted him with a heavy workload and he repaid that trust with a solid performance: the third-round pick was on the field for 34 of New England’s 68 snaps and carried the football 14 times for 80 yards, while also catching four passes for another 23.
While the two youngsters were the Patriots’ offensive standouts against Tennessee, quarterback Jarrett Stidham had another solid outing as well — even though it was not as impressive as last week’s. After all, the fourth-round selection threw some dangerous passes and also cost his team two points when he held onto the football too long in the end zone, leading to a holding penalty called on tight end Lance Kendricks.
Other than his rookie mistakes, however, Stidham looked mostly solid again: he completed 14 of his 19 pass attempts for 193 yards and a touchdown, placed the football well, and also made plays with his feet if need be. His best moment, however, came on a 3rd and 12 late in the fourth quarter. With New England down 17-15, the Auburn product delivered a perfectly placed back-shoulder throw that wideout Damoun Patterson caught for a touchdown.
The play was the last true highlight of the game — the first also belonged to a rookie: on just the second play of the game, fifth-round defensive lineman Byron Cowart burst through the line to sack Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota for a loss of eight yards. Cowart overpowered Tennessee’s starting left guard, high-priced free agency acquisition Rodger Saffold, to get into the backfield and set up an unfavorable 3rd and 10 situation.
As impressive as Cowart’s play was, especially going against starting-level opposition, the most active of the Patriots’ rookie defenders from start to finish were cornerbacks Joejuan Williams and defensive edge Chase Winovich — both being on the field for 54 out of a possible 67 defensive snaps. While Williams looked stout in coverage all day long and registered two pass-breakups, Winovich was again disruptive as a pass rusher: he had a sack and two quarterback hits, and consistently found himself around the football.
All three rookie defenders therefore made an impact, something that can also be said about punter Jake Bailey. Even though the fifth-round pick played just five snaps and kicked the football on only two of them, he performed well: following the above-mentioned safety, Bailey performed a free kick that traveled 67 yards and had a hang-time of over five seconds. His 54-yard punt later during the game was no less impressive. On top of it all, he also saw action as the holder on field goals and extra points again.
Overall, the Patriots’ first-year players had another good outing after last week’s performance in Detroit. As head coach Bill Belichick pointed out after the game, however, all of the youngsters still have plenty of challenges ahead of them: “They’ve worked hard, they’ve tried hard, they’ve got a long way to go,” said Belichick during his postgame press conference. “They’re working at it and I respect that. They’ve improved and that’s a good thing.”