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Chief Thoughts: Analyzing the Patriots’ roster ahead of the third preseason game

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You ARE the weakest link.

NFL: Preseason-New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As many of you guys know roster analysis is one of the most fun things to write and debate as a fan. Pretty soon that roster will be set in stone. Let’s investigate where the New England Patriots stand as we get ready to charge into the 2019 season.

Winovich Hype

I wrote about Chase Winovich when the Patriots drafted him back in May. At the time, I called him my favorite pick in the draft. That opinion was not unique. Pro Football Focus had placed Winovich in their list of the top 25 players of the 2019 draft and considered his selection by the Patriots on day two a coup. I was not nearly as high on Winovich as PFF was: I was impressed by intelligence, motor, and speed but was deeply concerned about his size and capacity to physically adapt to the NFL. I also thought he had some run defense issues.

During the preseason we’ve seen plenty of examples to back up the strengths Winovich displayed in college. His football IQ was on full display against the Tennessee Titans. This was a big reason I was not terribly concerned about his run defense issues. I saw Winovich as a guy who would respond well to coaching and I expected Bill Belichick to beat the pass rush-first mentality out of his system. Winovich has looked solid in run defense against second stringers but I’m still a bit tepid on how he will perform against starters.

The real area his intelligence has shown itself was in pass-rushing situations. Most NFL pass rushers take a couple of years before they develop a real plan of attack, if they ever develop a plan. Winovich, on the other hand, is already flashing some of the complex pass rushing skills you see from veterans. It’s clear that this trait is translating to the NFL level.

The second thing I liked about Winovich, and probably his favorite trait for me, is his motor. This guy does play like zombie blood is pumping through his veins. There are plenty of effort guys in the NFL. Usually, they are guys cordoned to the lower rungs of NFL talent, guys who aren’t terribly good, but force their way unto NFL rosters through sheer will. Winovich is like that but he takes it to another level.

In college, the guy never stopped. Most effort guys in the NFL play 100% through the whistle. Winovich plays 120% from the first snap of the game to last. He’s like the energizer bunny without the off switch. Whether he can continue that reckless energy while dealing with NFL physicality will be interesting to see but this guy will never take plays off. Eventually, that’s going to generate production that otherwise would not exist and will hopefully happen later in the game when other guys would do less.

The final trait I want to discuss is speed because it’s also Winovich biggest potential hiccup. His speed may come with a significant downside, and we will get to that in a moment, but it does not make it any less impressive. Winovich’s 3-cone and 20 yard shuttle were both elite scores at the combine and it shows up on the football field. Von Miller’s first step is a big part of the reason he’s one of the best pass rushers in the NFL and I see glimmers of that in Winovich.

Do you want to know why speed rushers are drafted at the top of the NFL every year while more complete rushers are passed by? Because nothing wrecks a tackle like speed. Nate Solder is a great example of this. Against most pass rushers he was an above average pass protector. Put him up against speed? The corpse of Dwight Freeney makes him look like a third-stringer in the biggest game of the year. The Patriots aren’t known for having speed rushers but that doesn’t mean having one is bad.

The biggest hiccup for Winovich’s speed is that it comes at the expense of his size. He is extremely small for an NFL edge defender and it’s the reason he was still available in the third round. I’ll be very interested in seeing how he stands up to starter-level talent. Winovich’s measurables may be impressive, but they comes at the expense of size. I won’t complain too much because if he did have prototypical size to combine with speed he would not have been available for the Patriots to draft but it’s something he is going to have to overcome most of his career.

Winovich wrecked both the Detroit Lions’ and the Titans’ second-stringers. That’s about as much as you can reasonably ask from a third-round pick. I think we will see Winovich early this season on obvious passing downs. Where he develops from there is yet to be seen. He’s still my favorite pick of the draft.

Joejuan rising

That pass deflection on Corey Davis is the reason the Patriots drafted Joejuan Williams. Davis is largely seen as a disappointment because his production does not match his status as the fifth overall draft selection, but no receiver had a better game against Stephon Gilmore last year than him. The Titans defense deserved most of the credit for the regular season shell shacking, but Davis abusing Gilmore played a significant role too. Trey Burton and Davis took the Patriots’ stingy secondary for a ride. It is obvious that Belichick saw a major weakness in the team’s ability to defend big strong receivers.

Williams was drafted to fix this weakness, and as I have said numerous times, I agreed with the logic behind the pick. Williams’ athletic deficiencies would dramatically limit his ability to cover certain types of receivers but his fantastic size would make him uniquely able to defend the bigger ones. But Williams had one of the lower floors for me — he was a boom or bust player in college; when he got burned, he got burned hard. Would he bust more and boom less against NFL level competition? Williams’ athletic issues meant that he would have to play a specialized role on the team. He was going to have to be quite good at it in order to justify his second-round selection. And that’s not even getting into the second round defensive back curse.

Early on, it looked like Williams was going to be just one of a litany of second-round defensive back failures as he struggled significantly during training camp. It wasn’t just the lack of athleticism. He looked lost. Not unusual for a rookie, but it had very dangerous implications for a cornerback that would need to be that much smarter to make up for his athletic issues.

The positive news is that Williams slowly steadied the ship, culminating in his successful coverage of Corey Davis in the second preseason game. And it’s not just his excellent game against Tennessee. He had been looking stronger and stronger in camp leading up to the contest as well. The 21-year-old still has a long way to go but there is a definite heartbeat. Can he beat the curse? I certainly hope so. If Williams can grow into the big receiver specialist he was drafted to be, the Patriots could have the most complete secondary in the NFL. I expect him to get a real shot to prove it during the regular season.

Sweeping Aside Jakobi Meyers’ Concerns

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my positive impressions of Meyers and my apprehension. Since that time, he has done just about everything you could reasonably expect to solidify his status on the roster. Whatever the undrafted rookie may lack on the spider web, he’s appeared to more than make up for with his technique and talent as a player. Unless you are supremely good at contested catches, NFL receivers must have a means of getting separation. Meyers flashed talent with his release, his route running, and his ability to push off without getting the referees attentions.

These things have allowed him to compensate for his lack of quickness and speed. He’s also shown a bit of a penchant for zone coverage, likely a carryover from his time as a quarterback. In terms of catching, he’s come as advertised. He can climb the stairs and has exhibited mostly flawless hands over the summer. He’s even shown a little juice after the catch. The consequences of this has been Meyers becoming the go-to target for every single quarterback at the Patriots’ camp. He’s provided as much evidence as could be expected that he will be a solid possession receiver in the NFL.

I believe that consistent performance in camp translates to the regular season. When Alvin Kamara burst unto the scene it caught the general public by surprise. It didn’t surprise New Orleans beat reporters, though: they had been writing a steady stream of complimentary reports about Kamara all summer. The one thing I am still holding out on is that report on Meyers, giving us the inside scoop on the coaches’ perspective.

The hype for Jamie Collins, for example, started all the way back in OTAs with Jeff Howe reporting that the coaches were impressed with Collins and excited about what he would provide the defense. I have yet to read anything like that regarding Meyers. That does not mean the Patriots are not excited about him, but if they are, they have not been especially open about it. It’s possible Myers will end up being the second coming of Chris Harper and another cautionary tale on why the preseason doesn’t matter, but I don’t expect that to be the case.

Position Battles to Watch

Keion Crossen vs Duke Dawson

I am on the record saying that I expect Dawson to make the roster. But for what it is worth, Nick Underhill at the Athletic has said in no uncertain terms that Crossen should make the roster over Dawson if it came down to a choice between the two. Of course it’s very possible they both make it, but it’s also possible they are competing for the same spot. I think Crossen has been up and down this summer but he’s still performed better than Dawson and has the special teams skills that Dawson lacks. What he does have, though, is the honor of being a former second-round draft pick. Belichick has never let a second-round pick go after two preseasons. I think Crossen better hopes his spot on the roster is not dependent on Dawson failing to make the final cut.

Mike Pennel vs Byron Cowart vs Adam Butler

The Patriots may start the season with four defensive tackles but they will probably not start it with five. Lawrence Guy is a lock, which leaves the next two or three spots open. Danny Shelton seems like a natural fit for the Patriots’ potential switch to a 3-4, came on strong last season, and has looked surprisingly solid in camp. He’s not a lock but I think he’s getting close. That leaves the aforementioned Pennel, Cowart and Butler.

Pennel was a free agent signing and appeared to be a good scheme fit. I was more bearish on him than others but I know a lot of people on this site liked him. I think he went into camp being viewed as a roster lock but I’m not so sure that is true anymore. He’s not flashed in camp and he can be cut for only half a million in dead cap.

Butler has been an interior pass rush specialist but hasn’t managed to develop beyond that. I’ve always liked him but I haven’t heard a peep out of him from camp. With such a specialized role, and the ability of other players like Michael Bennett to kick inside, I’m not sure his roster spot is safe.

The last player is the most intriguing if only because of his youth. Cowart was a top recruit coming out of high school but flamed out hard in college. His production last year after switching schools was the only reason he got drafted. Cowart has had a surprisingly good camp and played well in both preseason games. His highlight was destroying — and I mean absolutely murdering — Rodger Saffold in the second preseason game. Saffold is a fairly accomplished guard; obliterating him may have ended up being little more than an anecdote but it’s a provocative one.

I really do not know where the team is on these players but if I had to pick three to make the roster today it would be Guy, Shelton and (shocker!) Cowart.

Phillip Dorsett vs Braxton Berrios vs Gunner Olszewski vs Demaryius Thomas

If the Patriots carry at least six wide receivers including Matthew Slater (which they probably will), the first five positions are essentially locks. Barring injury it would be a significant surprise to see Josh Gordon, N’Keal Harry, Julian Edelman, Jakobi Myers and Slater not make the roster. In this hypothetical scenario that leaves one spot open. Thomas has the pedigree by miles but he is also the oldest and hasn’t had the benefit of any post-injury production. He’s a complete wild card for me so I’m going to put him to the side for the moment.

The players we do have concrete information on are Dorsett, Berrios and Olszewski. Dorsett is the only player among the three with proven NFL production. He’s a game plan specific player who provides the only burner speed on the roster but has proven capable of filling that role. He got a crucial touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game and carried the offense against the Houston Texans early on last year. He’s probably the best player out of the three right now but he’s been around long enough to assume there is not a lot of upside. He also lacks the special teams credentials.

Berrios and Olszewski are both in the same boat: their best path to the roster is probably as punt return specialists. Olszewski has the size and some quickness but Berrios has the overall athletic edge. Both have been okay returning punts but neither has been particularly special-looking. Berrios’ star looked like it was rising a bit but he did not do much in the second preseason game. He has been targeted by Tom Brady as much as anyone in camp but has struggled to come down with the ball. I don’t know if the lack of production on those targets are nails in his coffin or if the targets are a sign the team is high on him. In any case, I don’t think anyone would be too surprised if one was chosen over the other. The running seems fairly even to me. My money is probably on Dorsett if you held a gun to my head.

Biggest Concern

Right now my biggest concern is offensive tackle depth. The Patriots have plenty of depth on the interior with Hjalte Froholdt and Ted Karras. The only real depth for Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon currently is Dan Skipper. Now I know Skipper didn’t embarrass himself in his preseason showings but he was not good either. He’s bounced around multiple practice squads. I’m not one to doubt Dante Scarnecchia, but it would be nothing short of a miracle if he turned Skipper into a starting-caliber tackle in one offseason. I know the odds are stacked against a Trent Williams trade but the Patriots should at least be looking to acquire another tackle. I do not want to trust the season to Skipper.

Random Closing Thoughts

Jarrett Stidham came down to earth against the Titans. Yes, he had his moments but he also got lucky and avoided some ugly interceptions. He’s a rookie. Understandable.

As commenter phal3123 pointed out over the summer most of these bubble players won’t actually matter. Very few players the Patriots get inside their building who get cut go on to have strong career. For example, I like Obi Melifonwu. His measurables are insane and he flashed enough talent in college — it makes me think he could be special with health and coaching. But it’s far more likely that he is a combine warrior than future starter. If he gets cut his athleticism will ensure he gets picked up by a worse team but it is unlikely we missed something substantial.

The biggest downgrade this season is at tight end I am not sure it matters. Tight end was only a big deal because of how incredible Rob Gronkowski was. As it stands, Gronk was not super special last year, even though he put together a strong postseason run. This offense ran through the tight end position because of Gronk. It didn’t run through Gronk because he was a tight end. I think the position is serviceable. Not above average. But not far below it either.

It absolutely blows that Derek Rivers got hurt. I thought he was going to meaningfully contribute. That’s the NFL though. A brutal and often arbitrary grind. The NFL? I meant life.

The third preseason game is likely to undercut half the points I made as we collectively devour anecdotal and unrepresentative data.

I can’t wait!