When the NFL announced last month that there would be no preseason games as a cautionary measure while it tries to launch a football season during the pandemic, I didn’t think much about it.
It was the proper move for sure, and the outcomes and plot twists of preseason games tend to draw an overreaction, even from Patriots fans and media members who should know better.
Besides, we have the Bruins and Celtics making playoff noise a couple of months later than usual, and the Red Sox are interesting in a tragicomic sort of way. I didn’t think there was much room or need for preseason football.
Still don’t, actually. But I will acknowledge something I do miss, and something that we would have been doing much more of this year: trying to figure out which unheralded players were winning over Bill Belichick and the coaching staff, seizing a roster spot and a role, and perhaps even beginning a journey toward becoming fan favorites and cornerstones.
That’s what I miss about the preseason. Seeing who would emerge.
Yeah, I recognize it would have been cool to get a first look at Cam Newton in Patriots garb as the team begins the season with a starting quarterback other than Tom Brady for the first time since 2001. (Silly four-game suspensions excluded.)
But it’s not as if the 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player is unfamiliar. The really interesting stuff comes from trying to figure out which unsung players have caught Belichick’s eye.
These players tend to come from three categories.
1. Recent draft picks who should know the system now and push for a greater role.
James White probably will be a Patriots Hall of Famer someday. Heck, he deserves induction for his performance in Super Bowl LI alone. He has been a quintessential reliable Patriot for so long that it’s easy to forget that he was a nonfactor as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2014.
White played just three games as a rookie, touching the ball 14 times all season on offense, or six fewer times than he would in the Super Bowl comeback for the ages two seasons later.
I was really curious to see whether Damien Harris, the 2019 third-round pick out of Alabama who had just 12 rushing yards last season, could be a factor in the running game. It sounds like he looks good in camp.
I’m also fascinated to see whether Chase Winovich, impressive as a pass rusher as a rookie, seizes a bigger role with so much of the linebacking corps having departed (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins) or opted out (Dont’a Hightower).
And count me as a believer in N’Keal Harry. If not a for a blown call in the Chiefs game last year, he’d be thought of in a much different way already.
2. Young or prime-of-career veterans who didn’t pan out elsewhere but possess a skill set that Belichick believes he can maximize.
Half of the 2001 roster was made up of these types, with no greater example than Mike Vrabel. A more recent case is Van Noy, who flopped as a second-round pick with the Lions, came to the Patriots in October 2016 along with a seventh-round pick for a sixth-round pick, and ended up as a core defensive player.
3. Rookie free agents that are popping in practice.
Sure, some of these unknowns who draw good early reviews in camp or make eye-opening plays early in the preseason don’t amount to much.
I’m sure some of you fell for Bam Childress or Brian Tyms or Austin Carr, and at least one of you thought Zach Sudfeld was going to perfectly complement Gronk at tight end. Me, I’m still surprised Jeff Demps didn’t become one of the most exciting kick returners of his generation.
But sometimes the training camp darlings do become important players. The ultimate example is Malcolm Butler, who went from rookie free agent out of South Alabama to Super Bowl hero for the ages in the same season. J.C. Jackson came out of nowhere in camp two years ago and is becoming one of the better cornerbacks in the division if not the conference. Jakobi Meyers was a training camp revelation last year. Who will it be this season?
Opportunity is there for the taking. Hightower, Patrick Chung, and Marcus Cannon are among the opt-outs. Van Noy, Collins, Danny Shelton, and Elandon Roberts are among the defensive departures. The offense will have a new look with Brady in Tampa Bay and Newton (did you really buy the QB competition thing?) bringing a different skill set and perhaps even greater charisma to the huddle.
The notion that the Patriots are going to fall off in any significant way is wishcasting by those who have been waiting for that for nearly two decades now. This is still a talented team, one with one of the best defensive backfields in the league (I love the Adrian Phillips pickup), the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Stephon Gilmore, and the best coach there has ever been in the sport.
The Patriots are still going to be very good, even with new names on the marquee. It’s just that we don’t know all the good players yet, the unsung contributors, the new John Simons and Adam Butlers and Jonathan Joneses, the gems Belichick finds in his democratic roster-building approach year after year.
It would have been fun to get some clues to who they are during the preseason. We’ll have to settle for getting the most revealing answers when the real games begin.