If you’ve ever heard a New England Patriots fan talk about their team, they will tell you that the real “season” doesn’t start till the playoffs. If this is the case, then what do these fans call the preseason?
For the actual players and staff of the New England Patriots, the preseason is obviously the part of the calendar where they can give reps to veterans, gauge new players’ skill sets during an actual game, and identify players that can and cannot make the final 53-man roster.
For the fans, there isn’t much to look forward to when it comes to the preseason. For the players and coaches of the Patriots, however, the preseason is just as important as the regular season as it sets the foundation for team chemistry, philosophies, play schemes, and, ultimately, the tone for a championship season.
There are always key players and positions to keep an eye on as the season opener approaches, but some stick out more than others. Here’s the most important things to know heading into preseason game number one (and throughout the preseason).
Much like last season, the quarterbacks will be of discussion during the preseason. The difference between this season and last season, however, is that Tom Brady won’t be sitting on four games as punishment for Deflategate. Instead, quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett will be competing for the backup spot and, in the case of Jacoby Brissett, fighting for a roster spot.
It’s been reported that Jacoby Brissett could be a potential roster cut heading into the season, which makes sense on some levels since having three quarterbacks on the team seems foolish and a waste of a roster spot. Unless head coach Bill Belichick wants to stockpile and hold onto what could be a future franchise quarterback or he just loves having insurance for his 40 year old quarterback, then this move actually makes sense as it frees a roster spot for a veteran or on the bubble rookie.
The New England Patriots’ defense has been quite stingy over the past three seasons and this can be significantly contributed to upgrades of the secondary, especially the two most recent seasons the team won the Super Bowl. In 2014, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner led the way, while Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, and company led the way in 2016. Belichick has returned to the 2014 formula by signing a second shutdown cornerback in former Buffalo Bills player Stephon Gilmore.
Coming into 2017, the Patriots secondary remains relatively unchanged with the exception of Logan Ryan signing with the Tennessee Titans. Ryan will be missed as he provided speed and was known for being able to stay with slot receivers and a team’s number two receiver. Stephon Gilmore will provide the Patriots with potentially their best one-two punch at cornerback since Belichick became head coach in 2000.
There are multiple defensive backs to keep an eye on during the preseason that could have a potential impact during the 2017 season. To start, we can pretty much eliminate some names off this list because they are automatic roster locks. These players include: Butler, Gilmore, McCourty, Duron Hurmon, and Eric Rowe. These five were on the field for more than 40% of the teams’ defensive snaps (Butler, Gilmore, & McCourty over 95%) and were heavily involved in the Patriots main defensive schemes and sub-packages.
Some players to keep an eye on are Jonathan Jones, Justin Coleman, and Cyrus Jones (I know, his name is painful for Patriots fans to hear, sorry guys and gals). Coleman and Jones played niche roles in the secondary and also added special teams duties to their resumé. These two will most likely make the team as they carved out roles for themselves last year and will look to improve their skill set during training camp and the preseason games.
Cyrus Jones, on the other hand, was a disaster mostly because of his atrocious work on special teams. He had five fumbles on his own and didn’t really contribute on defense either as he was on the field for less than 15% of all defensive snaps. He still might make this team, given his high draft selection in 2016, but unless he starts showing some signs of improvement, he won’t be on this team heading into week one.
Draft Picks & UDFA Performances
The preseason means next to nothing for fans of their teams, but for the rookies, it is the time to showcase their skills to both the fans and to their coaches under the “bright lights”.
The Patriots had four draft picks this year, two of which were defensive ends. Derek Rivers (LB) and Deatrich Wise (DE) will provide much needed depth with the departure of Rob Ninkovich and Dont’a Hightower currently on the PUP list.
Wise, although not the Patriots’ top pick, has shown promise during camp and as he has been highlighted as the teams’ best rookie so far. He could provide the Patriots with a serviceable rusher up front and could solidify a position that is somewhat thin heading into the Patriots first preseason game.
The Patriots number one pick, Rivers, will most likely see an immediate impact come September, but he will get his work in during the preseason. Rivers is big (6-4, 250) and fast (4.63 40-yard dash) and can play in a rotation that the team usually employs.
Offensive tackles Antonio Garcia and Conor McDermott will be in the mix to battle for spots on the offensive line, especially with Nate Solder coming up on his current contract ending. Having them play in real game-time situations will allow the coaching staff to further evaluate if these two can make the final roster.
We already know that James White, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis will most likely be on the team’s final roster. If you haven’t read it already, check out the article I wrote about the Patriots backfield situation.
The player that I am curious to see play is D.J. Foster. I know he probably isn’t going to make a big impact during the regular season (if at all), but Foster has shown growth from last year to this year and has already shown he can be explosive (albeit in the preseason).
The only other names that are of note are Glenn Gronkowski and LeShun Daniels, both of which will probably be relegated to the practice squad in the upcoming weeks as the team is already loaded at running back and has a great fullback in James Develin.
For someone who was as close to automatic when kicking field goals, Stephen Gostkowski is someone to keep an eye on during the preseason. While almost all of the Patriots’ starters will be either limited in playing time or sitting, Gostkowski will be out on the field preparing for the season opener.
Last season was Gostkowski’s worst season kicking the ball since 2012 when he went 29-of-35 in field goal attempts (82.9%). Gostkowski went 27 of 32 this year in field goal attempts and every kick he took never seemed like a sure thing, even from extra point distance (33 yards) where he still missed 3 extra points.
One speculation during last season was that Gostkowski was injured and this is what led to his below normal performance. We will never know if this is true or not, but hopefully he can work out any rust or kinks he had last year and return to form.
Brandin Cooks & Brady
Too many Cooks! Too many Cooks!
This isn’t a big thing to keep an eye on as these two will hardly be on the field during the preseason, but it is definitely something to look forward to during the preseason. Brady and Cooks have shown chemistry with each other in camp and might give us a sneak peak of this during a preseason game (most likely the third one).
Don’t hold your breath too much on this one as the Patriots aren’t known for showing too much of their plans until the season has started.
Just because I can’t contain my excitement for the Brady-Cooks connection:
Like most of you, the thought of preseason football makes people excited for all of one second: you are excited for the return of football, but then remember its preseason football and that isn’t fun for anyone to watch. Nevertheless, it will be nice to see the boys back on the field, even if no starters are planning on getting any reps.
The Patriots return to Gillette Stadium to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars starting at 7:30pm. Check your local listings, kids.