New England Patriots: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action
The excruciating wait known as the NFL offseason will finally come to an end Thursday night, as the New England Patriots will play quasi-real football against the Washington Redskins to kick off their 2014 preseason.
While most of New England's stars will see limited action, fans and coaches will get a long look at some of the reserve players on both sides of the ball.
Here are five things to be watching as we get our first exposure to the new-look 2014 Patriots.
Backup Quarterback Play
Bill Belichick knows what he has in veteran quarterback Tom Brady. His backups, however, remain somewhat of a mystery. Some are more enthusiastic about their prospects than others.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock recently heaped praise on New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett. Chris Wessling of NFL.com relayed his remarks:
I was blown away today. I saw a legitimate NFL starting quarterback today backing up Tom Brady...So as the season progresses and we get closer to draft time and what the Patriotscan or can't do with him, I think they drafted Jimmy Garoppolo for a reason, as an insurance policy. But trust me, Ryan Mallett's a starting quarterback in this league, and he popped today.
Brady usually plays only a series or two in the first preseason game, so expect Mallett to receive plenty of snaps to live up to Mayock's praise.
Jimmy Garoppolo has struggled in training camp so far—expected for an FCS quarterback turned pro—but will look to prove why he deserved to be a second-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. He will likely see some time late in the game.
Tight End Depth
The starting tight ends for the New England Patriots Thursday night will be anything but household names. Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams are all injured or being limited, leaving only undrafted free agents to fill the void.
That means only healthy TEs for #Patriots tomorrow night are rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson— shalise manza young (@shalisemyoung) August 6, 2014
Jones and Watson could play the entire game, with fullback James Develin getting some snaps at tight end as well. Both have the physical tools to be NFL players, but need to put it all together on the field.
They can't ask for a better chance than they'll get against the Washington Redskins.
Development of Second-Year Wide Receivers
With few tight ends at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' disposal, the New England Patriots wide receiver group is going to get a workout against the Washington Redskins.
The Patriots know what they have with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, so second-year players like Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins—along with free agent Brandon LaFell—will be in focus. Aaron Dobson would be in that group as well, but he is still recovering from last year's foot injury.
Boyce and Thompkins each flashed starter talent as rookies, but injuries and inconsistency derailed their seasons. Toughness, cleaner technique and an enhanced command of the playbook should hopefully be on display for their first preseason game.
One of the biggest mysteries is what sort of alignment the New England Patriots will deploy on defense to take advantage of newly signed toys like cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
According to Ben Volin of the The Boston Globe, their deployment has been very strict:
Revis Island has become Revis Hemisphere, with Revis lining up strictly on the left side of the field and fellow newcomer Brandon Browner playing only on the right side. No matter how the offense lines up or which receivers are on the field, Revis is on the left, Browner on the right.
If those positions hold, the Patriots will likely show a steady diet of man coverage with some Cover 3 mixed in as well. Revis and Browner look best in press coverage, getting their hands on the receivers and using their physicality to disrupt their release and throw off the timing of the play.
One thing to look for is how Revis and Browner's presence affects Devin McCourty. Will he serve as Browner's backstop and ignore Revis' side of the field or will he take some snaps as a single high safety and play some centerfield.
Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia certainly won't show their whole hand in the first preseason game, but it will be interesting to see what they deign to disclose.
Development of Pass-Rushers
The failure of the New England Patriots to develop pass-rushers has led in part to the team's inability over the last decade to seal the deal and win a Super Bowl. Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, Markell Carter, Shawn Crable are just a few of the lowlights over that time period.
Michael Buchanan, a seventh-round pick in 2013, and sixth-round rookie Zach Moore—are the latest defensive ends to try and buck the trend.
Buchanan had some moments early on in 2013, but his lack of consistency forced the Patriots to bring in veteran Andre Carter to bolster the defensive line. Moore has looked good at practice but is transitioning from a Division II school to the NFL.
Thursday night isn't a make or break game for either player, but Bill Belichick will want to see some progress in Buchanan's play and some upside in Moore's.