Five takeaways from the Patriots’ fourth and final preseason game, a 17-12 win over the Giants that sets the stage for the roster purge looming for Saturday afternoon – by which point New England’s football focus will be shifted to the season opener coming eight days later…
J.C. JACKSON MAKES A STATEMENT
One place where roster spots and roles appear to remain unsettled is in the defensive backfield, and if last night represented a chance for J.C. Jackson to stake his claim to either of those, the undrafted rookie cornerback certainly seized the chance to make his case.
After a strong show during the public training camp portion of the preseason, Jackson had some struggles in the Pats’ earlier exhibitions. He wasn’t perfect in coverage Thursday night, either, though he showed up in a big way on the stat sheet, snagging two interceptions and breaking up four passes in total.
On one of those knockdowns he initially appeared to be beat deep, but showed a late burst to recover and bust it up. Then, on his second pick of the night, he not only got himself in position to make a play, but he flashed a good set of hands by hauling in what was not an easy catch.
Given the closeness of the competition for jobs at his position, Jackson’s fate could come down to what the Patriots coaches believe they need in terms of size and skill set – though Jackson’s demonstrated strength is his ability to make plays on the ball, and that is a talent that the Pats have sorely lacked of late. Last year they rated in the bottom half of the league with 12 interceptions, and 25th in takeaways. They were no better than mediocre in either category over the two seasons before that, too.
Preying on the likes of rookie Kyle Lauletta doesn’t necessarily project success against better, veteran, starter-caliber quarterbacks. But if Jackson was on the bubble, it certainly gives Bill Belichick something to consider.
JASON McCOURTY STARTS – AT SAFETY
With the emergence of Jackson and fellow rookie Keion Crossen (for whom ball skills have appeared a weakness this preseason), veteran defensive back Jason McCourty looks like he could be the odd man out – unless he can save himself with the savvy that would be required to play multiple positions in the backfield.
When McCourty was initially signed, some projected him as the replacement for Malcolm Butler opposite entrenched starter Stephon Gilmore. Over time it became apparent that Eric Rowe would be given the first crack at that role. And as the preseason ended, McCourty found himself on the field in the fourth exhibition. That’s never a place a 10th-year veteran with 122 games of experience wants to be.
The saving grace for McCourty, though, was that McCourty was taking those snaps as a safety. He’s been a corner by trade, but if he can prove himself adequate at multiple positions he could parlay that versatility into a roster spot. (Assuming, of course, that he could also contribute on special teams, which is almost a requisite for reserve defensive backs.)
Also working in McCourty’s favor is that he is considered a leader, like his twin brother, and has a reputation for being a positive presence. That could bode well for him, not only in this initial cutdown to 53 players, but also after the fact. If he doesn’t make the team initially, he would likely remain an option for the Pats if injuries require a roster tweak after the start of the regular season.
WHO’LL RETURN PUNTS?
Another fascinating factor in New England’s roster construction figures to be – of all things – a punt returner.
Danny Amendola has departed for Miami, and as good as Cordarelle Patterson is on kickoffs he’s never caught punts at the pro level, so there’s no obvious option to field those among the players who are likely to be on the team anyway. Julian Edelman could be that guy, but he’s suspended for the first four games, and returns Week 5 as a 32-year-old coming off of major knee surgery.
That could mean the Pats keep a player for essentially the sole purpose of punt returns, something they did a grand total of 32 times all of last season. And what’s especially interesting is that the choice they make for that role will almost certainly have noteworthy ramifications.
The two leading candidates appear to be receiver Riley McCarron and cornerback Cyrus Jones, who’ve shared most of the duties this summer. McCarron is a receiver, and in that capacity he has played some with Brady’s cast of first-teamers. Jones, meanwhile, is another player who is returning from ACL surgery, but who is a former second-round pick that selected with his explosiveness as a returner in mind. He hasn’t shown good ball security when given such opportunities in the past, and he has hardly proven himself as a defensive back.
But if the Pats need a returner, perhaps he sticks. Or if McCarron is the choice, that means between him and Matthew Slater the Patriots are carrying two receivers who are essentially only of value as specialists, which might limit their flexibility when exploring trades or outside-the-organization possibilities.
DANNY ETLING IS FAST … BUT THERE’S NO REASON TO ROSTER HIM
Tom Brady showed enough throughout the 2000 preseason to merit the Patriots keeping four quarterbacks on their roster. A year ago, Jacoby Brissett played so well in the preseason finale that it appeared to elevate him from a roster casualty to a trade commodity, and he was subsequently shipped to Indianapolis.
Danny Etling didn’t do enough this preseason to join that list of young quarterbacks who flashed enough to earn himself secure employment in Foxborough.
The rookie seventh-round pick may stick around as a member of the practice squad, and probably will. He’s still developing as a passer who comes out of a run-heavy attack at LSU. And late Thursday night he made a couple of eye-catching plays that highlighted his athleticism, first by aggressively lowering his shoulder to complete a 13-yard pickup on third-and-12, then by turning a run-pass option into an 86-yard touchdown run on which he sprinted away from the defense. The kid can really run.
But he hasn’t yet shown whether or not he can really throw.
Thursday night he went 18-for-32 for 157 yards and two interceptions. He did throw a touchdown, which came a couple plays after a 45-yard hookup with KJ Maye, though even on that big completion he was plagued a bit by his inaccuracy. Maye had his defender easily beaten, and Etling had half the field to lead his receiver into, but the quarterback’s throw hung up and Maye had to slow down to wait for it.
In the event the worst-case scenario should play out, and an injury to Tom Brady were to thrust Brian Hoyer into the starting role, the Pats would need another quarterback. In that capacity, Etling hasn’t made it clear that he’d be a better option than what New England could bring in off the street.
WHO PLAYED … AND WHO DIDN’T
In the fourth preseason playing time often previews the roster choices that are forthcoming, so it’s worth noting who played – especially who played significant minutes – and who didn’t.
As such, it’s interesting that McCarron reportedly worked out with Brady and Co. beforehand, but didn’t play in the game. That would seem a good sign for him. On the flip side, Will Tye, a veteran trying to score a job as a tight end, was still on the field in the fourth quarter. That would seem to be not so good.
Eric Lee, who went from the scrapheap to significance last year, was another playing deep into the contest. Lineman Vincent Valentine was out there, too, as was fellow trenchman Adam Butler, plus linebacker Marquis Flowers. Nicholas Grigsby, a strong special teams player looking to prove himself a down-play depth option was on the field a bunch, as well, wearing a green dot and making a team-high 13 tackles. Those will all be names to watch ahead of Saturday’s decision day.
Injuries will play a factor in decisions, as well. Linebacker Christian Sam missed Thursday with an apparent injury, which history suggests could open the door to the possibility of placing him on injured reserve and essentially redshirting the season. (Fellow rookie Ju’Whaun Bentley, a preseason star, didn’t play per a coach’s decision, suggesting he’s played his way onto the team.)
More meaningful in that sense are the injury concerns surrounding players who haven’t yet appeared in game action, but could be relied upon sooner than later. That includes running backs Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, and cornerback Jonathan Jones. If the Pats unexpectedly keep an extra body at any of those spots, it doesn’t speak well of the condition of someone else in that positional group.