New England Patriots: What We've Learned Through Week 3 of Preseason

James ChristensenContributor IAugust 25, 2014

New England Patriots: What We've Learned Through Week 3 of Preseason

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots had taken a measured approach to their first two preseason games, choosing to focus on joint practice with the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles more than the games themselves. There was nothing measured about the beating that they delivered to the Carolina Panthers Friday night.

    The offense accelerated as the night progressed, and the defense was relentless until the waning moments of the contest. New England looked ready for Week 1 to start tomorrow.

    After three weeks of preseason games—only the often snore-inducing fourth game remains—here is what we've learned about Bill Belichick's team.

Shane Vereen Is a Weapon

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Shane Vereen might not run over linebackers like Adrian Peterson or Eddie Lacy, but he has a powerful presence on the field. Vereen's ability to run routes from the backfield or split out wide allows offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to toy with defenses.

    Vereen cashed in for two receiving touchdowns among his five catches for 57 yards against the Carolina Panthers, showing off his speed, balance and agility in the process.

    If Vereen can be used in tandem with other versatile parts like James Develin and Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady will be able to keep defenses guessing all day long.

Chandler Jones Looks Greatly Improved

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Chandler Jones was an unstoppable force against the Carolina Panthers. The six tackles—including two sacks—listed in the box score only tell part of the story.

    Jones drew multiple double-teams against Carolina, opening up opportunities for Rob Ninkovich and the defensive tackles. If Vince Wilfork is singled long enough, he is going to create problems. 

    What really impresses me is that Jones seems to have filled in the gaps that hindered his play in college, something prospects rarely do. His agility and balance dropping into coverage has improved, while he has added a few counters to his rush moves that have really diversified his game. 

    Look for Jones to have a monster year for New England.

Linebacker Depth Better Than Expected

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Going into preseason, the depth behind starters Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo could be called unproven at best. James Anderson was thought to be a known quantity, but he was released by the Patriots on Sunday, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com.

    However, Steve Beauharnais has started making plays, and James Morris and Ja'Gared Davis seemed to pass the test in getting some early play against the Carolina Panthers. Each looked adept filling in run support and were able to execute their assignments in coverage.

    Beauharnais' interception gained the approval of special teams captain Matthew Slater, who congratulated him after the play. Each of the backup linebackers will have to excel on coverage and return units if they are going to beat out a player like Chris White.

    Expect Morris and Davis to get some extended playing time in the final preseason game.

Safety Competition Still Going "Strong"

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    One of the more intriguing battles of preseason was who would earn the starting job opposite Devin McCourty at safety. Many have attempted to lock down the position, but it still seems up for grabs.

    Zuri Berry of Boston.com called out the strong safety position before their third preseason game.

    It doesn't matter if it's Kyle Arrington, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung, or even Logan Ryan. There needs to be a definitive answer for who can and should line up opposite of Devin McCourty when the season begins. Right now, it appears this position is a weak link in an otherwise stellar secondary. Veterans Chung and Wilson deserve a shot. But if they can't beat out Arrington, Harmon, or Ryan, there's really no place for them on the roster.

    I expect to see a mishmash of personnel across from McCourty all season. Against running teams, Chung or Wilson could see an increase of snaps, while Harmon, Arrington and Ryan might be used more against passing teams.

    One player to watch as the season—and his grasp of the playbookprogresses is rookie Jemea Thomas. He is a versatile player who is just as adept in the box as a "Money" linebacker as he is covering a deep half or locked up on an "X" receiver.

Offensive Line Still Experimenting

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    With Sebastian Vollmer a bit nicked up this preseason, I can confidently name only two players who will start opening day on the offensive line: Nate Solder and Logan Mankins.

    One player who has received a lot of playing time and attention this preseason is Jordan Devey. The results have been a mixed bag at best. The coaching staff obviously sees enough out of his play at multiple positions to keep him on the team, but many pundits—including Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com—just can't connect the dots.

    Starting the replay of #Patriots game. 3rd play of Game Devey-Wendell combo whipped for a pressure. No clue what they see with Devey.

    — Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) August 23, 2014

    Perhaps the Patriots are just doing some extensive due diligence on Devey, but Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon look like much better options for Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins.

Young Running Backs Abound

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen might be in the last year of their rookie contracts, but the future at the position looks bright even if they are not in the long-term plans of the New England Patriots.

    With Brandon Bolden receiving zero snaps against the Carolina Panthers, Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might be ready to move on with some youngsters. Jonas Gray and James White have been up to the task, running the ball inside and out, while Roy Finch has shown the ability to be an adequate backup to Shane Vereen in the passing game.

    It is doubtful that all three will make the team, but expect Belichick to try and finagle a way—injured reserve, practice squad, etc.—to keep his options open moving forward.

Reinforcements Coming Soon

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Aaron Dobson. Chris Jones. Sealver Siliga. Some guy named Rob Gronkowski. The New England Patriots have looked good in Week 2 and 3 of the preseason, but they will really start to hum when the aforementioned players (hopefully) return to health and start to contribute.

    Dobson can be the electrifying "X" receiver that Brian Tyms has been late in preseason games. Jones and Siliga can disrupt along the interior line. Gronkowski, however, changes the entire complexion of the offense.

    His presence on the field allows Tom Brady to create mismatches predicated on if the defense matches Gronkowski with a linebacker (pass) or a defensive back (run).

    Look for the offense to shift into overdrive when Brady has all his weapons at his disposal.

Jimmy Garoppolo Still Doesn't Look Like a Rookie

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    While EJ Manuel still looks like a rookie in Buffalo this preseason, New England's rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has played like a vested veteran. 

    All he has done is rack up four touchdowns—versus zero interceptions—and complete 24 of 37 passes for a 65 percent completion rate. What you see on tape confirms what the stats are telling you: Garoppolo is a legitimate talent.

    He has looked poised in the pocket, using his feet to buy him time. He has shown the ability to drive the ball with zip or loft it with touch down the sideline.  He hasn't been perfect with his accuracy or reads, but he looks to be a ways ahead of where Ryan Mallett was at this point with the mental aspect of the game.

    Look for Garoppolo to continue his quest for a preseason hall of fame nod in the fourth preseason game, where he can expect plenty of snaps.