Let’s get into my 10 takeaways from the contest.
1. The first-team offense struggles with a new offensive line: With Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn both absent, the Patriots shuffled their O-line, and it did not look good. The lineup of, from left to right, Yodny Cajuste, Cole Strange, David Andrews, James Ferentz and Michael Onwenu could not consistently open up holes for the running backs, and it did not protect Mac Jones that well either.
Jones missed a few throws on the second possession, and appeared to get shaken up on a drop by Devante Parker on the first possession. It has been the story of camp, that the offense has been inconsistent in large part because of the blocking up front.
There is certainly a ways to go, but it definitely wasn’t all bad, though. The unit did punch it in on the third drive, thanks in part to a long pass from Mac Jones to Nelson Agholor. I expect the offense as a whole to be just fine once the regular season starts.
2. Kendrick Bourne and Trent Brown didn’t play: In a bit of a surprise, Kendrick Bourne and Trent Brown both didn’t suit up for the game on Friday.
Bourne had been in the dog house a bit, getting kicked out of a drill by an official during Tuesday’s practice and then getting kicked out of practice for fighting. That resulted in him running mostly with the backups on Wednesday. He’s had a quiet camp thus far, when most people thought he would be a breakout candidate for the Patriots this season. Let’s not jump to conclusions, but Bourne has some work to do to get back into the rotation.
As for Brown, head coach Bill Belichick did not say whether or not he was dealing with any injuries, but one can assume he was simply given the night off. It is something that we should keep an on, though, just in case.
3. Jahlani Tavai has a rough go with the starters...: For some reason, Bill Belichick loves Jahlani Tavai and I just don’t understand it. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, but I don’t see how he gives the Patriots any upside when he is on the field. I think that they have at least one or two linebackers that should be seeing the field over him. Perhaps the start tonight was just to let other teams see what he has, but I hope he is not anywhere near the starting rotation when the regular season begins.
4. ...and so does James Ferentz: Ferentz has been a capable backup for a few years with the Patriots, and gives them some position flexibility with his ability to play center and both guard spots. His game on Friday, however, was one that he probably would like to forget immediately.
He gave up a sack on the first drive, and also took a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty later. With all of the youth along the offensive line, it is possible that Ferentz might not make the team after all and Friday night sure did not help his chances.
5. Ty Montgomery is going to be a factor in the offense: Offseason acquisition Ty has consistently produced all summer, and looks like a players who is going to contribute for the Patriots this year. He showed some toughness punching the ball in for the only offensive touchdown for the day, and is a smooth receiver out of the backfield.
With Pierre Strong Jr. a possible redshirt candidate, I expect him to get the majority of the James White reps this year. The running back room is definitely a crowded one even with White retired, but Montgomery has just been too good whenever he was on the field — both on Friday and in practice.
6. The defensive reps were curiously split: I mentioned Tavai specifically, and the guy who really should be playing over him is Mack Wilson. The combination of athleticism and power from him is impressive and that is exactly what New England had been missing from that position previously. Between him and McMillan, and even Cameron McGrone, who has looked a little better as of late, the Patriots should be able to field a fairly talented linebacker group. That’s what makes Wilson running with the backups so curious.
The other head-scratcher was Myles Bryant getting the start at slot corner and punt returner over Marcus Jones. I have some theories why that might have been — to help Bryant get some good film out there to help him get picked up by another team, or to increase his trade value — but either way I would love to see the rookie out there with the starters in that setting too.
The Patriots have built a defense that can definitely play with more athleticism than in years past, but it actually has to play those guys to be more athletic on the field. I’m going to assume the best, and say that they are simply trying to find the best pairings and help out guys who might be on the outside of the roster bubble looking in.
7. J.J. Taylor plays well again: Third-year running back J.J. Taylor had another strong game other than a drop, but I still don’t know where he fits on this team. The Patriots will not be cutting Pierre Strong Jr., while fellow rookie Kevin Harris might be able to sneak over to the practice squad. Four running backs might really be all the team needs, especially with the hope that Strong Jr. can eventually become a suitable pass catcher and return man.
If the Patriots really are going to try to have Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Ty Montgomery all catch passes, it seems that there simply will be no room on the roster for Taylor. Unless someone gets hurt before the season starts, it would not be a surprise to see him not play any snaps for the team this season.
8. Bailey Zappe shows some potential: It certainly wasn’t perfect, with a bad pick-six on a pass he never should have thrown, but Bailey Zappe flashed on Friday. When given time, the rookie showed that he can really sling the ball around the field. If not for two drops on well-thrown deep balls, the score could have been significantly more lopsided in New England’s favor.
Preseason football has to be taken with a grain of salt, but the Patriots may have drafted a hidden gem — one you would hope turns into the next Jimmy Garoppolo.
9. Who is calling the plays? I will be fully honest, I’m a little exhausted by this discussion. Do I think having a good offensive coordinator is important? I absolutely do. Do I want that to be one of the only things we talk about for the next six months? I absolutely do not.
It looks like Matt Patricia is going to be the one taking the reins here. He appeared to make all the offensive calls on Friday night, and, for the most part, they looked pretty good. Maybe this will put this whole conversation to rest, but Bill Belichick will probably just let Joe Judge call all the plays in Las Vegas next week just to mess with all of us.
10. Difficult roster decisions are looming: The Patriots are going to have some very difficult decisions to make until the end of training camp. The receiver spot is going to be hard enough, with Lil’Jordan Humphrey (who had another great night Friday), Kristian Wilkerson (who could lose out because of the concussion he suffered this week), and Tre Nixon (who I still love but might be headed for the practice squad).
That is actually not even close to the hardest decision The Patriots are going to have to make. Terrance Mitchell has looked good in camp, but so has Shaun Wade — and Wade probably has better upside. The Patriots might have enough space to keep both of them, but they certainly could be forced to choose between them as well.
Then there is the defensive line. Ronnie Perkins, Josh Uche, Henry Anderson, LaBryan Ray, Sam Roberts, and DaMarcus Mitchell all have reasons that they should be on this team, and all have flaws that could be picked apart. There is no way you can keep all of them, and the question is can you sneak the young guys on the practice squad if you decide to cut them? Perkins was a third-rounder just a year ago, so I doubt he would make it through waivers, but even though Sam Roberts was a sixth-rounder and the other two rookies are both UDFAs, they have shown enough that another team might certainly claim them as well.
And I haven’t even talked about how there are five safeties that look like they all can play. There are some very tough decisions coming for Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but that’s a great problem to have.
So, there you have it. It seems that the Patriots have once again avoided any major injuries, assuming there isn’t a Trent Brown injury to worry about and that Tyquan Thornton’s shoulder is fine, which is all that really matters in the preseason. I’m sure people will be panicked about the offense, but I think that they are taking positive steps, and the defense looks very good, which are all positive signs for the Patriots.
The upcoming week will be a great test, as they prepare for joint practices and their final preseason game against the high-powered Las Vegas Raiders. We should have some more clarity about both sides of the ball this time next week.