While the New England Patriots’ fourth preseason contest may not feature much drama, it could at least provide more insight into the final 53-man roster.
At long last, we’re finally just about ready for football season.
Sure, it’s exciting to see the band getting back together again in May for voluntary OTAs and offseason workouts. Minicamp in June and then training camp in July and August also provide football junkies with just enough juice to keep them satisfied until the regular season mercifully rolls around in September.
But let’s be honest… we’ve all had Sunday, September 8 circled on our calendars since the Patriots won Super Bowl 53 and lifted Lombardi Trophy No. 6 into the air down in Atlanta, Georgia, way back in early February.
New England’s fourth and final preseason game tonight against the New York Giants represents the last hurrah until the team squares off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 of the regular season. While the Patriots will remain active with their practices, plans, and preparations for the Steelers over the next 10 days, this evening’s game against the Giants will be the last opportunity for us fans to see the team in action until Sunday Night Football on NBC.
Just what that team looks like, though, is the real question we should all be asking tonight.
Many NFL coaches consider the third week of the preseason to be their team’s final tuneup before the regular season, with the fourth week essentially playing out as a low-stakes audition for practice squad candidates. There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest that it’s better as a player not to be playing the fourth game of the preseason than to be active in it, as many roster locks never see the field this week of the year.
Such is probably the case with the Patriots tonight as well. If you’re expecting an encore showing from Tom Brady, Sony Michel, or any of the other likely regular season starters who got snaps last week against the Panthers, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Who then should you expect to see… or more importantly, who should you keep an eye on when they’re on the field?
Let’s start with defensive backs.
New England recently received a bit of bad news when starting safety Patrick Chung was indicted for cocaine possession. Chung has pled not guilty to all charges, but should he find himself in trouble with the law down the line, it could very well threaten his status on the team – either during the regular season, or more crucially: in the playoffs, should the Patriots return there.
As anyone who knows the American judicial system or who follows player criminal investigations can attest, this is probably just the beginning of what will be a long and drawn-out legal process. In the interim, it will be interesting to see if Chung’s playing time is affected at all because of his role in this scandal (aka if Coach Belichick decides to punish him at all, or decides to use another player more often as insurance in case he loses Chung in the future).
We could get some insight tonight theoretically on that situation based off Chung’s availability against the Giants. How much Terrence Brooks and/or Duron Harmon plays could also provide some illumination on the Chung conundrum, as well.
At cornerback, the most exciting camp competition should come to a head between dueling second-year players Duke Dawson and Keion Crossen. Dawson has the disadvantage of having missed his entire rookie season to injury and inactivity, whereas Crossen actually got into some games (although not many) over the course of the 2018 season.
Crossen has had a better spring and summer, but Dawson has the better tape from college – and the higher draft pedigree. Dawson was a second-round pick out of college football powerhouse Florida, while Crossen was a seventh-round pick out of FCS school Western Carolina.
Most analysts foresee the Patriots utilizing a top cornerback tandem of Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty, with surprising undrafted standout players J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones rounding out the top-four spots on the corner depth chart. This year’s second-round pick, Joejuan Williams out of Vanderbilt, is also an obvious roster lock, despite having an up-and-down preseason thus far.
Further forward on the defense, tonight’s game should be the final chance for a number of talented but underperforming linebackers and linemen to make their argument for why they belong on the final 53-man roster.
Calvin Munson, Elandon Roberts, and Christian Sam are all vying for a spot behind the likely starting foursome of Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Veteran journeyman David Parry and 2019 rookie Byron Cowart are probably duking it out for a final spot on the defensive line behind Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, and edge rushers Michael Bennett and Deatrich Wise.
Offensively, there’s not much left to settle at running back or quarterback. The Patriots are almost certainly keeping all of Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, and Brandon Bolden; they’re also almost certainly going to be cutting Nick Brossette – although it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Brossette end up back on the practice squad.
Nothing either Brian Hoyer or Jarrett Stidham does on the field tonight should change Belichick’s mind on how many quarterbacks he plans to roster this season. He’s still most likely to keep both behind Brady, with Stidham representing youth and upside and Hoyer representing continuity and veteran savvy.
The most intriguing observations from tonight’s game with regards to offense can be made at receiver, tight end, and along the line.
Just how much – or how little – Phillip Dorsett sees the field will surely speak volumes about his chances of sticking on the roster. Ditto for Gunner Olszewski, who has impressed in preseason action as a returner, but might be crowded out from a suddenly-packed wide receivers room after the returns of Julian Edelman, Demaryius Thomas, and Josh Gordon.
The offensive line recently witnessed the indefinite departure of starting center David Andrews as he treats blood clots, but it also added two intriguing players via trades on Wednesday with the Arizona Cardinals and the Baltimore Ravens. Just how Korey Cunningham and Jermaine Eluemunor perform against the Giants – assuming they both see game-action – could dramatically affect the roster status of bubble players along the offensive line like Dan Skipper, Cole Croston, and others.
Just as it has all offseason and throughout camp, the Patriots’ situation at tight end remains the biggest mystery for this roster in 2019. Unfortunately, it’s also inarguably the team’s greatest weakness – especially given the dual suspensions handed out to Lance Kendricks and Benjamin Watson, who are by far the most experienced players at tight end in New England.