With two Patriots preseason games in the books and some interesting roster moves since camp began, the Patriots now head into their third preseason game, one in which should see starters get their final action before the regular season if the past years are any indicator. One would expect Tom Brady to play at least one half, maybe even three quarters depending on how much Belichick likes what he sees. Brady has looked sharp as usual despite all the outside noise surrounding his missing organized team activities this summer, turning another year older, and the talk of retirement. Along with Brady playing a solid chunk of this game here are some other things to watch for as the regular season and the roster cutdown approaches.
Will Gronkowski play?
This is a question that everyone always likes to ask and no one quite knows the answer. One could make the case for it both ways so it will be interesting considering Gronkowski has always had different rules as opposed to players in the past due to his injury history. If he plays Gronkowski could get valuable reps to round back into game shape, but there is also a big injury risk (although with the new rule, good luck tackling him). Despite that, the bet here is that he dresses, but doesn’t play.
Can any receivers separate themselves on the depth chart?
With the somewhat surprising release of Kenny Britt this week, the Patriots have now released four of the 10 receivers they had on the roster in April in Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Matthews, and Cody Hollister. Hollister was a long shot to make the roster, but the other three were all in most people’s roster predictions at the time. So what gives? Well, all of them are mostly due to injuries: Matthews was released with an injury settlement, Mitchell couldn’t stay healthy, and Britt has been hurt for the whole summer it seems.
With the depth chart looking very different now and the looming suspension to start the season for Julian Edelman, the Patriots will have some spots to give out and someone will either earn a spot or they will trade/pick one up during the roster cut down.
If you figure the locks are (minus Edelman who won’t be on the roster the first 4 games): Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Phillip Dorsett that still could leave two spots. The leader in the clubhouse as of now for one has to be Eric Decker considering he has a bigger body, a history in this offense, and a history of production, but he hasn’t been impressive with drops. Devin Lucien has also flashed separation skills, has a bigger body and shown reliable hands thus far. The last three are Braxton Berrios, Riley McCarron, and Paul Turner. Turner is a likely cut, but Berrios has done little to earn a spot thus far and McCarron hasn’t shown much either. Both do have punt returning skills which will be important with Edelman missing four games, but all of the players have work to do, especially considering the Patriots could easily explore outside options.
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Who will get the bulk of the 2nd and 3rd corner spots?
Another intriguing question revolves around the ultra-competitive corner spots. Eric Rowe seems to be the heavy favorite as the second corner and is very solid second corner despite some people’s anger with his play early on in the Super Bowl, which wasn’t as bad as it seemed. The slot corner is where it gets interesting though. Jonathan Jones is back from injury and is my favorite for the spot, so I am interested to see how much time he gets and how he looks. Jones can fly and really showed up last year, but Jason McCourty will also need to show up at whatever spot Belichick puts him. McCourty is surprisingly on the roster bubble and needs to have a good final two weeks to earn his spot.
Also interesting is we could see Cyrus Jones play, who could earn a spot if he looks decent at corner considering he has looked much more sure taking punt returns in warmups, something he was pegged to do ever since he was drafted. Throw in the streak of undrafted players making the Patriots roster seems to be up to the corner spot with J.C. Jackson representing the best chance, it is up to him to play well and earn a spot when he sees reps. Can Jackson do make some plays on the ball? He has flashed some good coverage, but if he takes another step in this game he could seal a spot.
How will the running back snaps be distributed and who could earn a spot?
This will be a fun group to watch in the regular season and this game could be a good indication of what the rotation will be like. White is masterful as a pass catcher and pass blocker and he is always fun to watch. An underrated aspect no one talks about is his ability to use screens. He is patient, has great footwork and has good vision.
Although White is great to watch the real question is who is the first back to be used not named Burkhead, White, or Develin? Hill has played well and looks a lot quicker after being asked to shed some weight from his playing weight last year. Another solid effort in this game and I think his spot is cemented. Gillislee and Webb have a long road ahead of them to make the roster although I think Webb is a practice squad candidate. This game is important for Gillislee especially to show better vision, more decisive cuts, and a better ability to break tackles something that a back of his size, should be able to do.
–David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani