5 New England Patriots Most in Need of a Strong Preseason Showing
For different New England Patriots, a bad preseason showing will lead to varying degrees of panic. No one will blink if Tom Brady sails a couple of errant throws, but for a fringe player battling for one of the final roster spots, a series of mistakes could spell doom.
As with any preseason game, the Patriots' 31-22 win over the Philadelphia Eagles comes with a small sample-size caveat. And with three preseason games to go, virtually every player with realistic roster prospects will have a few more opportunities to correct their flaws and prove they can aid New England's Super Bowl aspirations.
Nonetheless, it never hurts to create some positive momentum going into the games that count. Though these players hold disparate degrees of importance to the Patriots' success this season, they all share a common urgency to perform better this Friday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Honorable Mentions: Injured Bubble Players
It may not seem fair to single out this group, since injuries are more reflective of bad luck than on-field underachievement. Still, there is a reason why the veteran trio of Jermaine Cunningham, Ras-I Dowling and Michael Jenkins sits squarely on the Patriots roster bubble: None of them has definitively proved he deserves a significant role.
Cunningham and Dowling fall into a category that Pats fans have become all too familiar with: the second-round bust. It may be a bit premature to condemn either one to the depths of Ron Brace or Darius Butler, but each is approaching that direction.
Of the two, Dowling probably stands a better chance to stick, if only because of New England’s relatively thin cornerback depth chart. If Alfonzo Dennard draws a suspension and/or jail time, the Patriots will need someone to play outside in his absence. Kyle Arrington has played outside before but struggled badly there last season, while rookie Logan Ryan may not be ready for the spotlight.
In a vacuum, Cunningham is probably a better player, but his value to the team may be lower. Though he graded out very impressively last season, according to Advanced NFL Stats, it appears ex-Brown Marcus Benard has taken Cunningham’s role as the interior rusher in sub packages. That leaves Cunningham competing with the likes of Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette for depth roles and a handful of snaps each game.
Nevertheless, at least Cunningham and Dowling carry some intrigue with their talent. The 10-year veteran Jenkins looks good as gone, largely due to the rookie receivers’ rapid assimilation into the complex Patriots offense. He barely played any snaps against the Eagles, which was a trend also reflected in practice. Unless a last-minute injury pops up, Jenkins will probably be out of work this September.
5. Ryan Mallett
Ryan Mallett is in a unique situation, as he is showcasing his worth for other teams rather than trying to change his role on the Patriots.
Since his draft stock plummeted amidst character concerns, Mallett has been a good citizen in New England and has consistently impressed Patriots players and coaches throughout his time. Nevertheless, that hasn't translated to discernible on-field improvement, as some of the concerns from his draft scouting report in 2011 remain:
Very streaky. Makes ill-advised decisions zeroing in on receivers and overly relying on his arm strength. Needs to learn to subtract from his fastball. Is too easily rattled by pressure and struggles to sidestep the rush and maneuver in the pocket - cannot escape his own shadow. Mechanics always could be a problem (too many moving parts) - and the ball tends to sail. Inconsistent accuracy and ball placement and it diminishes greatly on the move, where he makes his receivers work too hard for the ball.
Against the Eagles, he struggled with admittedly poor offensive line protection. He is obviously not alone in that regard, but he seemed flustered and desperate to unload the ball. Mallett's overthrow of a wide-open Josh Boyce in the end zone was the type of throw any viable starter has to make.
There is little doubt he could hold the fort if Tom Brady had to miss a game or two, but other teams will not trade a high draft pick for a mere placeholder. And until Mallett proves he is more than that, he will continue to wallow as the Patriots' starting clipboard holder.
4. Aqib Talib
Reasonable analysis does not place too much stock in a single play, let alone one on the first drive of the preseason opener. But for a defense desperate to break its cycle of mediocrity, DeSean Jackson’s 47-yard touchdown, resulting from Aqib Talib’s coverage breakdown, evoked some sore memories from the recent past.
Again, one play does not erase all the good things Talib did last season, as his midseason acquisition was the domino that finally made the Patriots pass defense semi-reliable. His ability to provide competitive man-to-man coverage against top receivers is something Pats fans have not enjoyed since the halcyon days of Asante Samuel.
Nonetheless, Talib’s acquisition was a success not because he provided Darrelle Revis-esque shutdown coverage, but because he was an upgrade over the Patriots’ old scheme. That’s a fairly low bar to clear, and the Pats allowed 5.9 yards per play, which ranked 24th, before Talib's arrival.
That average dropped half a yard to 5.4 in the final six regular-season games. Indeed, much of Talib’s value derived from his ability to limit big plays. Though Andre Johnson compiled 190 yards on 16 catches in two meetings last season, just two of those receptions went for more than 20 yards.
One breakdown against a fast receiver does not nullify 2012. And as Devin McCourty’s tumultuous 2011 season illustrates, the Patriots are not afraid to stick with a struggling corner who demonstrates the talent and work ethic to improve.
But if only for peace of mind, it would be nice to see Talib turn in a steady performance covering Vincent Jackson this Friday.
3. Brandon Bolden
Brandon Bolden may not even be on the roster bubble, as he has shown promise in limited reps on both offense and special teams. And offensively, his performance against the Eagles was passable, registering 31 yards on five touches.
But given the explosive performance of veteran LeGarrette Blount, it seems Bolden is running fifth in the running back pecking order. Blount and Bolden seem like the best complements to back up Stevan Ridley's downhill rushing style, and it's fairly clear who is ahead in that race for now.
If someone is that low on the depth chart, he will have to bring some special teams value. Bolden does have that, often playing three or four of the "Core Four" special teams units last season.
However, he also committed the Patriots' only accepted penalty in Philadelphia, a costly five-yard running-into-the-kicker infraction that resulted in a first down. There's no need to overreact to one play, but that is not what you expect from New England's typically sound special teams unit.
So while these mistakes may not hurt Bolden's roster standing, they do eat away at the limited offensive snaps he may receive. Remember, after his PED suspension, Bolden was largely banished from snaps at running back.
Keeping five running backs is already pushing it, but all of the Patriots backs looks like they will hold some noticeable value in the regular season. Bolden simply needs to solidify the belief that he belongs on the 46-man game-day roster.
2. Jake Bequette
Bequette did not necessarily play terribly against the Eagles; he occasionally generated pressure off the edge. Nonetheless, the second-year defensive end did not show up on the stat sheet, signifying how he failed to leave any tangible mark.
That has been the story of his disappointing Patriots career to date. Unlike some previous mid-round busts, he has not actively hurt the defense, mostly because he has not been on the field. Still, that does not make his situation any better, as Bequette may follow Shawn Crable and Tyrone McKenzie among those who barely played a down in Foxboro.
But the role of sub package pass-rusher may be the Patriots' most heated competition in terms of sheer quantity, especially considering the role's specific skill-set requirement. Thus, a one-dimensional player like Marcus Benard actually has an advantage because he can make explosive plays in a limited niche.
For someone with good college production and a supposedly high motor, Bequette has never made any noteworthy plays, even in significant preseason reps. Solid technique is not enough for someone auditioning for a playmaking role, especially when others are piling up sacks and tackles for loss.
If not for his third-round draft status, it would be hard to justify his inclusion on the final roster. He does technically have practice squad eligibility, so perhaps the Patriots could sneak him on there. At the moment, it appears even seventh-round rookie Michael Buchanan has leaped ahead on the depth chart, per ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss.
When evaluating Bequette, ask yourself this: If the draft statuses of Bequette and the undrafted Justin Francis were switched, would Bequette even register on the radar for a roster spot?
1. Josh Boyce
Josh Boyce is effectively guaranteed to make the final roster. But unlike Aqib Talib, for example, the fourth-round rookie has yet to earn a role and may find himself marginalized if he does not stand out in game action.
It’s not as if he has performed poorly. Reviews have been fairly solid on his smarts and route-running ability. However, Kenbrell Thompkins has arguably been the most impressive rookie receiver, and Aaron Dobson brings a vertical element that no one else on the roster can replicate.
But while those two combined for six receptions in the first-unit offense last Friday, Boyce did not even register a catch. In fact, he played the fewest first-string snaps of the rookie receivers against the Eagles, an ominous sign for potential regular-season playing time.
Consequently, it appears he is fighting for scraps as the fifth receiver, a role that may not grant him many reps in the regular season. Though Danny Woodhead caught 40 passes as the fifth-leading receiver last season, the Patriots may not want to run such a high-volume offense in 2013 with all the new pieces. Thus, even if the offense still functions smoothly, an across-the-board statistical regression seems likely.
So in an ironic twist, Boyce has not actively done anything to earn inclusion on this list, unlike all the aforementioned players. Even if his statistics barely register as a blip in the Patriots’ overall offense, it appears Boyce has a grasp over the offense, unlike past rookie busts like Chad Jackson and Taylor Price.
Still, for someone who could potentially contribute, sitting on the bench is never an acceptable alternative. If Boyce is to earn consideration for important snaps, he will have to make better use of his first-team reps this preseason.
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