New England Patriots: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of Preseason
After two weeks of joint practices and preseason action, the New England Patriots' coaching staff is starting to figure out what they know and what they don't. Learning what you haven't learned is sometimes just as important as making a new discovery.
While the second line of wide receiver depth is anything but figured out—Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins are still maddeningly inconsistent—Bill Belichick has been able to draw a few conclusions from the first couple of weeks of preseason.
Here are eight things that he should have figured out over the past fortnight.
Jimmy Garoppolo Still on Hall of Fame Trajectory
A hyperbole is an exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis.
My allusion to Garoppolo's Hall of Fame trajectory harkens back to his impressive performances against the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles. While we shouldn't call the tailor to measure Garoppolo for his yellow jacket just yet, he is off to a very promising start.
Garoppolo followed up his 9-of-13 (157 yards, one touchdown) performance against the Redskins with a 6-of-12 (72 yards) outing featuring two touchdowns.
Neither set of statistics is able to capture the poise and elegance that he operated with in the pocket, gracefully switching between reads and evading would-be tacklers.
He might not look like a Hall of Famer yet, but he certainly doesn't look like a rookie.
Ryan Mallett's Demise Was Greatly Exaggerated
Ryan Mallet laughs in the face of Jimmy Garoppolo's even performances, opting instead to lull New England Patriots fans into a false sense of doom regarding his play with a poor outing against the Washington Redskins.
Mallett bouncd back with a 7-of-11 (92 yards, one touchdown) day against the Philadelphia Eagles that featured the still young quarterback making plays with his feet as well as his arm. Mallett scrambled for a six-yard touchdown and kept multiple plays alive with his movement inside and outside of the pocket.
Mallett may have fallen behind Garoppolo on the Patriots' depth chart, but he has shown that he still has value in the NFL.
Malcolm Butler Isn't a Roster Lock
After playing 116 snaps in two preseason games, everyone has gotten a really good look at the capabilities of undrafted free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Some, like Erik Frenz of Boston.com, have come away very impressed:
With one strong performance after another in training camp, the coaching staff has had a hard time keeping him out of the starting lineup. He made the start at cornerback opposite Darrelle Revis on Friday night. He also had a nice pass break-up in the end zone for the second week in a row.
Butler also forced and recovered a fumble in the third quarter. With some shake-ups at safety (including potential position changes for Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan) that may open up a spot at cornerback, Butler looks like a strong candidate for the roster.
I was as surprised as anyone at Butler's strong play in camp and his fantastic performance against the Redskins, where he gave up only two catches on seven targets, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Holes started to appear in his game against the Eagles, where he gave up eight catches for 101 yards on just nine targets. His recognition and diagnostic abilities need to improve quickly in zone coverage.
Butler also missed two tackles in addition to his forced fumble.
At first glance, Butler—who started across from Darrelle Revis against Philadelphia—seems to be a lock for the roster. However, count me as one who won't be surprised if he is the odd man out come the final cut-down day.
Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly Look Healthy
Watching the New England Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles, you wouldn't have known that Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork were both recovering from season-ending injuries.
Each of the defensive tackles were able to push their blockers back into the pocket or into the running lane on multiple occasions. They might not have made the tackle or sack themselves, but they made the play.
With Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga sidelined—at least temporarily—with injuries and Jerel Worth and Ben Bass getting acquainted with their new surroundings, the importance of Wilfork and Kelly can't be exaggerated.
Rob Ninkovich Is Still Criminally Underrated
Rob Ninkovich is like a fine wine that nobody else knows about. It keeps getting better with age, and you can still pick it up for half the price of some haughty French bordeaux.
In just 18 snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles, Ninkovich was able to prove his worth. He registered a quarterback and two stops at the line of scrimmage, setting the edge with authority. Don't expect the success to go to his head, though.
Teammate Chandler Jones talked to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald about how he and Ninkovich never stop improvising and improving:
We’ll always walk up to each other and do a pass rush move. And we’ll do something like, ‘Hey, what if I did this?’ And it will be so funky that the coaches wouldn’t even coach it.
There was a move when Rob was like, ‘You know, your arms are long. You should try this. It will really work on a guy.’ It was a certain move, and I did in a game and I got a sack. He wanted (credit for) the sack for the longest time.
Look for Ninkovich to continue his term as a top-15 defensive end in the NFL, with little to no acclaim outside of New England.
Special Teams Need Some Serious Work
While Ryan Allen looked like a savvy veteran glancing at the Jumbotron to see how much time he had while tracking down a dropped snap, he shouldn't have been there to begin with. A cacophony of special teams errors had to have coordinator Scott O'Brien mumbling to himself by about the third quarter.
Missed field goals, nearly missed extra points, blocked punts and bobbled snaps aren't the types of plays that a high school coach wants to see, let alone Bill Belichick.
While Stephen Gostkowski has earned the ability to work out his kinks as the season progresses, Allen and undrafted free agent Tyler Ott don't have that sort of leverage. Allen's job is likely safe, but another blocking failure from Ott could cost him the long-snapping competition that was already tilting in veteran Danny Aiken's favor.
One bright spot of special teams was the consistent ability of captain Matthew Slater to get down the field past the vice and harrow opposing punt returners. Nobody does it better.
Experimentation Continues on Both Sides of the Ball
Belichick has never been shy in moving his chess pieces on the board. However, the personnel groupings and changes that he has made this preseason—especially against the Philadelphia Eagles—would leave even Bobby Fischer scratching his head.
When speaking with media following the game, Belichick touched on the apparent rearrangement of personnel in the defensive secondary:
That inside position that Logan and Kyle played, I would say relates more to the nickel position that they play in sub defense than it does to the safety position in a regular defense against a two receiver set.
I'm not saying that there isn't some application of both but because it's a multiple receiver team that nickel position, the slot guy, could either be on that receiver or he could be playing some type of zone coverage more like a safety.
It's against that type of personnel group that we've done it; a lot of other teams in the league do it too. So it's not really nickel but it's not really your regular defense, it's a little bit of a hybrid there to try to match up against the multiple receivers that that offense has on the field.
While the cornerback and safety switching—if you want to call it that—looks like it is here to stay, don't get too used to seeing offensive linemen report in as eliglble. Belichick touched on that as well:
[N]one of those players are really here to play tight end. They're here to play center, guard or tackle, whatever the offensive line position or a combination is.
So which guy we move to tight end, that's kind of a function of who's available, who would cause the least disruption in the offensive line, combined with which player has the best skills to play on the end of the line. I'd say it comes down to a combination of those two things.
As the important third game of the preseason comes into focus, look for Belichick to hone in on his desired groupings and start to show some consistency.
Tight End Group Still a Work in Progress
Steve Maneri could have cut himself after botching a route early in the game against the New England Patriots and nearly causing an injury to Tom Brady, who clumsily dove in front of a smirking Cary Williams.
As Rob Gronkowski, D.J. Williams and Michael Hoomanawanui watched from afar, a string of offensive linemen and one fullback started to man the tight end position in their absence. James Develin—quickly becoming a fan favorite—is more than holding his own, but Belichick can't want Nate Solder sitting out plays as he transitions from tight end to tackle multiple times per game.
Look for New England to start pursuing some higher-caliber tight ends, perhaps that they would have to trade for. Anthony Fasano of the Kansas City Chiefs—who are enamored with Travis Kelce—is one of the first that comes to mind.