In the Patriots second preseason game, there is still quite a bit of uncertainty about the overall makeup of the team’s roster. Position battles have slowly enflamed over the course of training camp and while there were once just a few hot spots of competition, there now appears to be widespread contests for bottom of the roster positions as well as for key starting roles. Injuries have not helped.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles, a number of Patriots will no doubt get an opportunity to prove themselves and stake their claim. Here’s a look at that overall picture, particularly for what means the most to the team and how it’ll affect the team’s makeup.
The play in the trenches
It can’t be ignored that the offensive line has returned all five starters and there is still change occurring in the group. Dan Connolly, last season’s starting right guard, started at center in the team’s opening preseason game. Josh Kline, an afterthought last year, started at right guard after a strong camp. Kline’s mixture has been a camp surprise, upending a competition that was supposed to be infused by rookies Jon Halapio and Bryan Stork. Stork is injured and Halapio is still learning the ropes. But there’s no telling how things will go for the group, including Connolly and the team’s other center Ryan Wendell if the offensive line struggles. Not so similarly, the Patriots backup defensive line has failed to do well in competition, both in joint practices and in the team’s first preseason game. That led to a couple of transactions by the team this week to bring in new defensive tackles, particularly after injuries to Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones. Players like Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette, Zach Moore, and Will Smith have had disappointing stretches. Between the backup defensive linemen and the offensive line, quite a number of players have to play well Friday.
Ryan Mallett’s development at quarterback
The former star Arkansas quarterback may dismiss his bad preseason outing against Washington, but it’s anything but a serious matter for Mallett. In his fourth year, he has yet to show he can rise to an elite level of play in preseason competition — mostly against second- and third-team defenses — and it has been glaring. His porous play has caused numerous reported trade discussions to be hampered and will continue to do so until he has a marginally good outing. But, mostly, this is his final year in his rookie contract. This is the only time he can build a resume for his next team because Tom Brady (the present) and Jimmy Garoppolo (the future) aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. He has to do better than 5 of 12 for 55 yards, his finishing stat line against Washington last week.
Two tight ends or three wideouts?
In just five days, the Patriots released two of the three tight ends they signed after parting ways with rookies Asa Watson and Justin Jones, both of whom were perceived as pass catchers. Steve Maneri, along with fullback James Develin, are the only healthy tight ends the Patriots have with Rob Gronkowski limited and Michael Hoomanawanui (unknown) sidelined. Would it surprise you if the Patriots were more three-wide centric in their offense this season? This Patriots team is not shaping up to look like the team’s 2010 roster, when Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were on the field for nearly every offensive snap. Instead, it appears players like Maneri, a former offensive tackle, and Develin will only supplement the team’s top two tight ends in Gronk and Hooman. And only Gronk will be expected to be a receiving threat. The Patriots look like they will lean heavily on their wide receivers group, which appears to be stacked. Those suspicions should be confirmed Friday night.
The battle at wide receiver
If the Patriots’ offense is suspected of being more three-wide centric, then how many wide receivers do they intend to keep on the team’s 53-man roster? That’s the question I’ve been pondering since the signing of Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman’s return. Between Edelman, LaFell, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater and Brian Tyms — the team’s leading wide receiver candidates — there’s not a lot of room for sentimentality. Tyms obviously surprised with his exceptional outing against Washington (5 receptions, 119 yards, 1 TD), but still trails the likes of Thompkins and Boyce on the depth chart. Boyce, who has so far not impressed in camp or otherwise, needs to make a dent at some point to either solidify his spot or at least fend off the newcomer. It appears Thompkins just has his head above water. And between Dobson and Slater, who is the team’s special teams ace, the healthier these two get in their return the more they cause complications for the others. So Friday night is a matter of playing well and, for some, not playing poorly. Jobs are on the line. How many though is undetermined.
Increased attention at strong safety
Last week, Tavon Wilson got the start against Washington. This week, it could be Patrick Chung or Duron Harmon. This is important to note because the starting safety spot is still up for grabs. Harmon was once believed to be the leading candidate to start opposite of Devin McCourty, but as camp has gone on, his reps have decreased dramatically and players like Wilson and Chung have taken the lead. With Wilson not participating in yesterday’s walkthrough, there’s a really good chance we’ll see Chung and Harmon split the snaps down the middle so we can get a good gauge on both players.