New England Patriots: 5 Key Roster Battles to Watch vs NY Giants

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New England Patriots
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (Image via USA Today Sports)
New England Patriots
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (Image via USA Today Sports)

The New England Patriots face-off against the New York Giants in their final preseason game before the 2018 season kicks off. As always in this final preseason game, the starters on both sides of the ball are unlikely to even see the field.

For the Patriots there are a number of roster battles to watch in this seemingly meaningless preseason game. Although the Patriots are probably set with 90% of the roster set in stone, there are a number of players maybe taking the field for the last time in their career, and others who need to have a strong performance in order to secure one of the last roster spots.

Here are five key positions with important roster battles to watch on Thursday night against the New York Giants:

Wide Receiver:

The New England Patriots have received a ton of attention due to the state of their wide receiver group. With top target Julian Edelman back from missing the entire 2017 but suspended for the first four games of the 2018 season, the Patriots need to find production from somewhere out of their current collection of pass-catchers.

Chris Hogan was on pace for 70 receptions and almost 900 yards with 34 catches for 439 yards in eight games (all statistics from ProFootballReference.com unless otherwise noted) before a shoulder injury shut him down for almost the entire second half of the season. Hogan is versatile and should be the top wide receiver until Edelman returns.

Phillip Dorsett will get his opportunity in the first four games of the season as the expected starter. The 2015 first round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts had just 12 receptions for 194 yards after arriving via trade right before week one.

The third wide receiver is likely another new arrival. Cordarrelle Patterson looks locked into the role with some circus catches in training camp and the preseason games. Patterson was another former first round draft pick who the Patriots will count on quarterback Tom Brady to unlock his potential in 2018.

With likely one spot it appears that second-year slot receiver Riley McCarron has the edge heading into the final preseason game. He played 40 snaps against Carolina last week. He added four catches for 49 yards and has helped out as a returner as well.

Matthew Slater is a wide receiver in name only and is a roster lock as a special teams contributor. Devin Lucien has flashed in his second tour in New England with four catches in the first preseason game. Unfortunately, he has not caught another pass since then.

The Patriots spent a sixth round draft pick on Braxton Berrios but his best shot appears to be the practice squad at this time after being passed by McCarron on the depth chart. Both Paul Turner and K.J. Maye have struggled to make an impact and Thursday night against the Giants is their last chance to catch a team’s eye.

Defensive Tackle:

The Patriots seem set at defensive tackle with Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy all having strong a training camp and preseason. After the run defense was abysmal in 2017 allowing 4.7 yards per rush, Shelton seems to be the perfect addition to replace the ineffective Alan Branch.

Behind this trio, there is a need for depth due to the high number of injuries that come with playing in the trenches. The Patriots get back their third round draft pick from the 2016 NFL draft in Vince Valentine. He missed all of 2017 and has had limited snaps with the backups for most of the preseason so far.

New England also brings back 2017 undrafted free agent Adam Butler. Butler made an impact as a third-down pass rusher as a rookie and has appeared to add some lower body strength and is stouter against the run.

The Patriots have a pair of undrafted rookies who should get a long look on Thursday night. Frank Herron had a big second half against Carolina last week. He was solid against the run and even generated some pass pressure. Keep an eye on Herron Thursday night as he makes a push to catch another team’s eye.

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John Atkins is another undrafted free agent fighting for a spot. He was injured earlier in camp and missed some time. He has NFL size at six-foot-four and 320 pounds and was serviceable at SEC powerhouse Georgia. A run-stuffer, he is likely fighting for a practice squad spot at this point.  

Linebacker:

The New England Patriots brought in a pair of impressive young linebackers via the 2018 NFL draft. Both sixth-round draft picks Christian Sam and fifth-round draft pick Ja’Whaun Bentley have flashed impressive skills and talent in the preseason so far. Both have had their moments looking lost, but both have also shined when given the opportunity.

Right now, Bentley has been the best of a group of linebackers fighting for two or maybe three backup positions behind starters Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. There is stiff competition with last year’s undrafted free agent Harvey Langi, coverage specialist Marquis Flowers, special teams aces Nicholas Grigsby and Brandon King.

Game four of the preseason should shed some light on who is in line as the backups right now. Grigsby and King have special teams roles that could give them a big boost if they can contribute at all as backups.

Flowers got regular snaps in the second half of the 2018 season and into the playoffs. He had a sack and six tackles in the three postseason games. Langi has been injured all preseason and played just six snaps last season.

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Cornerback:

The New England Patriots are also set with their starting cornerbacks with Super Bowl 52 starters Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe entrenched. At slot cornerback, Jonathan Jones is likely to start and rookie second-round draft pick Duke Dawson should be safe due to his lofty draft position.

New England also has 2016 second round draft pick slot cornerback Cyrus Jones coming back after missing half of his rookie season to injury and all of last year. Add in veteran Jason McCourty on the outside and the cornerback position is deep without looking at some of the other impressive young corners.

Undrafted free agent J.C. Jackson has stood out as the scrappy, undrafted free agent who improbably wins a roster spot each year in New England. Seventh-round draft pick Keion Crossen has had some rough moments but flashed impressive athleticism.

Fellow youngsters Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz were brought back after spending 2017 on the practice squad. This may be their last chance to catch the attention of the Patriots (or any other NFL) coaches and earn a roster spot. The same goes for undrafted free agent A.J. Moore.

Offensive Tackle:

The New England Patriots had a challenging offseason losing both starting tackles from Super Bowl 52 in free agency. The New York Giants swooped in with an astonishing contract offer to left tackle Nate Solder and the Dallas Cowboys grabbed right tackle Cameron Fleming.

The Patriots have 2016 second-team All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon coming back after missing the second half of 2017 and his top backup LaAdrian Waddle. Cannon has been slowed by injuries in training camp and has not stepped foot on the field in the preseason. Waddle is primed to step in and start if Cannon cannot go in week one.

On the left side, the massive Trent Brown took over at left tackle in OTAs and has not relinquished the position with strong play throughout the offseason. However, Brown finished 2017 on injured reserve after a strong first half of the season with the San Francisco 49ers. Add in Waddle’s health issues since joining New England and there is a definite need for depth at tackle.

At tackle, the Patriots have a mix of young veterans competing for a spot that was designated for first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn. Matt Tobin, Ulrick John and last year’s surprise roster spot winner Cole Croston. Of that trio, John has stood out as the top performer so far in the preseason. This could be the last chance for Tobin and Croston to win a roster spot.

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