Ah. Did the headline get you? I figured, as a Boston media site, it might be fun to experiment with some preseason click bait. In any case, the answer to this question – as typically befits headline inquiries – is no.
Sorry. Won’t do that again. At least not this season.
Welcome back to Thursday Observations, our weekly look at the Patriots, their coverage, and a few pop culture tidbits along the way. It’s on to 2017, though if you’d like to check out last March’s Super Bowl 51 Review With Perspective including interviews with local media members, I won’t get in your way.
New England plays Jacksonville tonight at 7:30 pm ET in their first preseason game (broadcast info courtesy of patriots.com). Crowds watching preseason practices at Gillette have often numbered around 15,000, almost as many people as the population of Foxboro itself. It’s exciting to have football back. And, yes, that excitement will last until midway through the second quarter, but still: it’s time to have some fun.
Part of that fun involves predicting who will do what and how well. Now, as we contemplate the future of the greatest quarterback ever, let’s dive into some topics for this evening and beyond.
It Takes Two To Make A Thing Go Right: Looking for the so-called Second Year Bump, let’s review some of the players we pointed to in our Roster Roundout column from February. Receiver Devin Lucien has been catching the ball well in practices, while his Arizona State teammate D. J. Foster made the catch of the week (and it was only Monday). As a defensive tackle, Woodrow Hamilton hasn’t had many chances to show off his abilities in practice, so this game will provide him with some new opportunities for the year.
With receiver Malcolm Mitchell and running back Mike Gillislee appearing to nurse injuries while defensive tackle Alan Branch remains on the Player Unable to Perform list (PUP), expect Lucien and Foster to get some preseason production as Hamilton tries to make roster headway. (Note: Lucien reportedly sat out Wednesday’s practice and may not suit up for tonight.)
He’s So Fine (Do Langi Do Langi Do Langi): The retirement of Rob Ninkovich has taken a piece out of the Patriots’ edge defender puzzle. While New England addressed the position in the draft, promising rookie Derek Rivers will need some time to acclimate to the life of a Patriot vs. that of a Penguin. Meanwhile, though he has shown some solid moves in camp, Deatrich Wise has the build (6-5, 274) and speed (4.92-second 40) of a three-point pass rusher, not a drop-back defender.
The solution, perhaps? BYU linebacker Harvey Langi, who has the size of a pocket Ninko at 6-2, 250, plus some speed (4.66 40). Langi played all over the field for the Cougars, including at linebacker, defensive end, and even running back (two rushing TDs vs. Umass). Hard to tell if he’s a long-term solution, but a live game could help determine how far he has to go.
For a review of New England’s undrafted free agents this year (including Langi), please see our “Who’s The FA? UDFA!” column.
This Is 40: Will Brady lose it, you guys? Is he going to “fall off a cliff,” as was predicted on February 6 on ESPN? (Yes, one day after the Greatest Super Bowl Comeback Ever.) Make those questions into headlines and just tell ’em “no.” We should expect a few series to get acclimated with the new guys, including receiver/Marvel character Brandin Cooks and running back Rex Burkhead. Snafus with the offense will happen. Mistakes are to the preseason what olives are to tuna salad: you don’t really want them in there, but sometimes they show up and you just have to live with them.
It’s a no-win situation for Brady, media-wise. If he struggles, the Pats are in trouble. If he shines, well, it’s only the preseason vs. Jacksonville. Can’t wait for the “Is Brady’s Performance A Concern?” debates. And by “can’t wait,” I mean “will go screen-free for the weekend to avoid.”
Oh Give Me A Home: Former Buffalo Bill Chris Hogan had his most productive year in 2016, his first season with the Patriots, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. Is similar production due from Gillislee and defensive back Stephon Gilmore? Gillislee has been held out of contact in practices with an alleged hamstring issue, so we don’t expect to see him vs. Jacksonville. Gilmore, on the other hand, this game could give us a clear window into the types of things he can do, including going up against bigger receivers like Allen Robinson (6-3, 211), Arrelious Benn (6-2, 228) and possibly Allen Hurns (6-3, 201 – though injured in practice this week) whom New England can’t provide for scout teams. Be looking for those match ups with New England’s number 24.
With This Ring, I Thee Weddle: Tackle Adrian Weddle now has the jewelry of a world champion, but can he stick around as a backup on this squad? While Ted Karras has stepped up to man all three positions in the middle of the offensive line, Weddle has yet to firmly establish himself as a reliable swing tackle. He has some competition from Cam Fleming (who has also served as a blocking tight end in heavy running formations) and from Tony Garcia, from whom little should be expected during his rookie season (the same goes for rookie sixth-rounder Conor McDermott). Beyond the typical questions of any starting five (can they continue their successful run from last year, or did they show some weaknesses in the playoffs that 2017 opponents can exploit?), depth could prove an issue. Interesting to see how the line gets switched around vs. live competition.
Run And Run: Speaking of size, six-foot, 228-pound Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette, 6-0, 224-pound Chris Ivory, and 6-1, 223-pound T. J. Yeldon will give New England’s ground defense a stout test, especially with linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive lineman Alan Branch not playing. Young interior linemen like Hamilton, Josh Butler, and Josh Augusta should get some looks, which could point viewers in the right direction regarding reliable backups in the middle of the defense.
Middle Of The Road: Speaking of the middle, who’s going to take over the middle linebacker spot for Hightower? Will Jets refugee David Harris get the responsibility of calling plays and manning the linebacker spot? Interesting to see if 10 years in the league have caught up to him physically, and whether or not he sticks on the field on passing downs. Is Shea McClellin’s experience in the middle enough to give him a shot? Can second-year linebacker Elandon Roberts step up? Anything to be expected out of rookie Brooks Ellis? New England has more questions about depth than a pack of kids about to cliff dive into a muddy lake.
Kony Island: Am I the only one who thinks new defensive end Kony Ealy may be having trouble fitting in with this team? Not sure where he belongs yet: could be a defensive end, a drop-back defender, and even a special teamer. As Mike Giardi wrote in this CSNNE.com piece, Coach Bill Belichick has given the guy a lot of new responsibilities. It’s also worth noting he was held out of practice earlier this preseason. As his former coach Ron Rivera said, “I think the biggest thing is really just do what he’s told.” With a three-year career in Carolina that included 14 sacks, five passes defensed, and six forced fumbles, Ealy could provide a disruptive presence on the defensive line. He’s a prime candidate for one of Belichick’s turnaround projects, but he has yet to show the spark during practices that would indicate progress. (Ealy earned the practice “dud” nomination from CSNNE.com’s Phil Perry, who said the end was “whiffing” on his camp opportunities.)
Feeling Good Lewis: Not the first time I’ve used this ’80s movie reference, but one of the more appropriate in terms of the health of running back Dion Lewis. When Lewis suffered a season-ending MCL injury in November of 2015, he was in the midst of a productive year, delivering on several plays so athletic as to appear computer-enhanced (this catch-and-run TD at Dallas remains a favorite). Looking at his numbers from seven games in the first half of 2015 and seven games in the latter half of 2016 tells a story, in that his averages declined last year. He rushed 49 times for 234 yards in ’15 (4.8 avg.) and 64 times for 283 yards in ’16 (4.4); meanwhile, he caught 36 passes for 388 yards two years ago (10.8 avg.) vs. 17 receptions for 94 yards last season (5.5). Almost two years removed from the injury, word has it that Lewis looks more like his 2015 self. Though he should be used sparingly, it would be reassuring to fans if he could make a few Jags miss.
Coming At Him From All Lengel’s: In our previous column (a pointed Q & A with myself) I predicted that the Patriots third tight end after Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen would be Matt Lengel, a big (6-7, 265) blocker with one touchdown catch in his career. I’m sticking with that prediction, even though pass-catching tight ends like James O’Shaughnessy, Jacob Hollister, and Sam Cotton should spend the preseason catching more balls than a dog on YouTube. That said, I’m not sure the Pats are looking for a pass-catching tight end as the third guy when they have so many targets at the receiver and running back positions. How Lengel’s talents get implemented vs. those of the “move” TEs against Jacksonville could give us a better idea of the big man’s chances to make the September roster. (Update: According to Greg A. Bedard of BostonSportsJournal.com, neither Lengel nor O’Shaughnessy participated in practice Wednesday.)
Stuff More On the Non-Football side of things…
Iced, Iced, Baby: A funny thing happened to me the other day. I made iced coffee, which entailed pouring freshly brewed coffee into a large glass, putting plastic wrap over the glass, and placing the glass into the refrigerator. When I came back later, the plastic wrap had formed a tight, concave seal over the glass. It’s almost as if the hot air coming off of the coffee had gotten trapped, then condensed once cooled. So I guess that means that air condenses when it cools?
Hmm. What a simple, straightforward conclusion that I just happened to come across without even trying.
Hey Ladies: My semi-sports-related binge of the summer? “GLOW” on Netflix. Once you get through the pilot (following a struggling, self-righteous female actor in L.A. in the 1980s is a rough go at first), it moves along well with well-conceived characters and an intriguing plot. Though fictional, it’s based on the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, a real-life, all-female wrestling show. A documentary premiered on Netflix about five years ago.
Atlanta’s Drive: Despite the results of their football team’s last game, Atlanta had a pretty good summer. This happened due to the movie Baby Driver, which contains the best car chase scene of the season. Filmed in Atlanta by writer and director Edgar Wright, some obsessed fan at Vox with just enough time on his hands came up with this fascinating look at the route of the chase scene and cued it up with the scene itself. A fun look if you’re going to waste time on the Internet today (which you are definitely not doing now).
An Ode To Football: Well, unintentionally, maybe. Anyway, Haim’s song “Want You Back” has gotten a lot of play this summer (you can see their video here), prompting comedian Ross Kimball to dream up a pitch to be their choreographer. I tried to watch this every morning this week; it puts me in the right mood.
Only The Group Of Jaguars Knows: Your animal group name of the week for Jacksonville? A pack of jaguars is called a shadow or a jamboree. The former seems much, much cooler than the latter.
Song Tangentially Related To The Upcoming Opponent: “Where’s Your Head At?” by Basement Jaxx. Preseason games can provide a decent indicator of how far teams have gotten by August. Are the Pats ready? Is Jax? We shall see.
Chris Warner came across a cache of mix tapes from 30 years ago and wonders why The Flowerpot Men didn’t break through. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @cwarn89.