With some of their roster reconfiguring, including more receivers fresh out of the box than at a 1980s phone store, New England is looking at rough go in their first two weeks. More on my soothsaying below, right after we see just how poorly I predicted the Patriots’ roster. (The original preview column from July 17 is here.)
No matter whom you root for, the week leading up to the season opener may be the most exciting time of year. So much hope and potential, so much heightened anticipation leading to wild overreaction to Week One results. You’d think we’d learn by now.
And now, on to the roster. I’ve italicized my mistakes, just to be masochistic. As expected, every position comes with an “as of this writing” caveat, as deals consistently occur during this opening week. So, for now, AOTW applies to everything below.
Quarterback (2): Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer
My Picks: Brady, Danny Etling
Practice Squad: Etling
Eh. Definitely a case of Shiny Object Syndrome, where my hopes in watching the new kid develop influenced me to shake up the backup QB spot. Etling will get time in Foxboro as a prospect on the practice squad, where he’s surely imitating the quick feet of Houston QB Deshaun Watson as we speak.
I have so much confidence in Brady that I don’t even feel inclined to talk about him. Tough to imagine a season – and it’s coming, eventually – where someone else starts at QB. New England drafted Brady during the Clinton administration. He should be appreciated. He’s a goddamn American treasure, you animals!
Running Back: Rex Burkhead, James White, Sony Michel, Jeremy Hill, James Develin
Practice Squad: Ralph Webb
My Picks: Burkhead, White, Michel, Develin, Brandon Bolden. I missed on Hill and failed to predict the waiving of Bolden, who, sadly for Pats fans, hopped on a plane to Miami. Bolden had high value on special teams and showed consistent production on offense. While the Patriots have adapted to the pass-first mentality of the NFL with three receiver-type backs, they still hold on to Hill, who takes the “big back” role (thus making Bolden somewhat expendable). Once Michel gets healthy, this backfield will provide some headaches for defensive coordinators scheming against it. How many Swiss Army knives can one team have?
Side note: I loved the Mike Gillislee signing last year and thought he’d have high-end production. That assumption came up short, much like Gillislee often did on third down.
Wide Receiver: Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarelle Patterson, Matthew Slater, Chad Hansen, Amara Darboh (oops! Not anymore: Pats waived Darboh, who had surgery.)
Injured Reserve: Braxton Berrios
Suspended: Julian Edelman
Practice Squad: Riley McCarron, Jace Billingsley. We could also just add names like Danny Woodhead, Whitey McQuickfeet, and Scrappy Fanfave
My Picks: Hogan, Dorsett, Slater, Patterson, Berrios, Jordan Matthews. Totally saw the Darboh and Hansen pickups coming. (HA! Nope. If I could pick like that, I’d spend more weekends at the racetrack.) With Edelman out, New England ends up with a sizable collection of number-two-type receivers: guys who can make plays here and there, but may not stand up to consistent one-on-one coverage. Still excited about Dorsett’s athleticism: great potential if he puts it all together after a full off-season in this offense. Speaking of exciting, fun to see how the team uses Patterson. The beginning of the season will help determine how many touches per game he needs to pull off that one momentum-shifting play.
As for Hansen, if he (or any other receiver who comes to Foxboro in the next month) can become a facsimile of Jabar Gaffney who joined the team as a free agent mid-season in 2006, then the signing will prove well worth it. Nice film review of Hansen via Evan Lazar of CLNS media here.
Fun trivia: In Week Two of his 2009 rookie season, Edelman started at the New York Jets, hauling in eight passes for 98 yards. The Patriots lost that game, but it showed that new guys can come into this offense and contribute. That said, no one should be surprised if Hansen gets cut by next Monday.
Such a brutal sport.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister
Injured Reserve: Ryan Izzo
My Picks: Gronkowski, Allen, Hollister, Troy Niklas. I thought Niklas could serve as an ersatz Gronk due to his similar size. I forget sometimes that size only makes up part of the requirement. Proof: at this moment, I myself have Gronk-sized measurements. (This summer, I’ve rediscovered my love for linguiça and mint chocolate chip ice cream). As I said in the original roster piece (I’ll link again, just for the hell of it), Allen as the blocker and Hollister as the receiver together constitute a Gronk-like duo. Looking for Hollister to break out after last year’s four-catch rookie season.
This past spring, Izzo declared himself “one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft,” and he set out to prove that before getting injured this preseason. Fun prospect to watch for in 2019.
Offensive Lineman: Trent Brown, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle, Joe Thuney, Ted Karras, Brian Schwenke
Injured Reserve: Isaiah Wynn
Practice Squad: Cole Croston, James Ferentz, Eric Smith
My Picks: I named all of the linemen on the roster plus rookie Wynn, whose season came to an early and disappointing end on IR. Schwenke came in recently to make sure New England had enough O-linemen on hand; having Croston, Ferentz, and Smith available also might come in handy. Solid depth here, as Waddle has plenty of experience at both tackle spots and Karras has subbed in on the interior. If Brown can hold down the left tackle position and the line can stay healthy overall, they should be fine. Will be watching to see how much running this team does with their diverse herd of backs.
Defensive Lineman: Malcom Brown, Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton
Practice Squad: Vincent Valentine
My Picks: Brown, Guy, Shelton, Valentine. Butler the interior pass-rusher gets the nod over Valentine the gap-clogger. Glad Valentine resides on the practice squad; he seems like a solid guy to have in reserve should injuries strike. Shelton has fit in well as a middle-of-the-defense stopper, and he, Brown, and Guy make up a strong early-down rotation. Wonder how many of the players in the next category will end up inside on passing downs.
Defensive End/Pass Rusher: Adrian Clayborn, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis
Practice Squad: Trent Harris
My Picks: Clayborn, Flowers, Wise, Rivers. What will New England do with its pass rush this season? More straightforward stuff to contain running quarterbacks, or a shift toward greater pressure with twists involving linebackers and/or defensive backs? The Patriots have fallen short of meshing their rush and coverage recently, putting pressure (so to speak) on new vet Clayborn and post-redshirt year Rivers to get in QB’s faces. I expect Wise to have a big year as an NFL sophomore. Could be fun.
Keeping Davis doesn’t surprise me, though I figured he’d end up on the practice squad. I thought Grissom’s time may have come to an end (I don’t pay enough attention to special teams).
Linebacker: Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Brandon King, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Nicholas Grigsby, Elandon Roberts
My Picks: Hightower, Van Noy, King, Bentley, Marquis Flowers, Harvey Langi, Christian Sam. Not a lot of hits for me, but not a lot of surprises, either. Great to have Hightower back, with Van Noy as his trusty battery mate. Loved Bentley’s aggressiveness and unrookie-like savvy in the preseason. Wasn’t sure on Roberts, but the coaches must feel that his field awareness has improved enough for him to contribute. Grigsby seemed to make the special teams cut over Flowers. He’s a little smaller than Flowers (6-0, 220 vs. 6-3, 230), and also a little quicker. Looked tough vs. the Giants, I guess, but provided only slightly less coverage than a Brazilian bathing suit. Langi’s status remains up in the air AOTW. Would love to see him get to play in Foxboro this season, especially after the year he’s had.
I feel as though, after Hightower, it’s a fine group. Not “fine” as praise in the way they’d say it years ago (“Why, what a fine skipping rock you’ve found for yourself, Billy!”) – just, you know, okay. Maybe Bentley will dazzle and Grigsby can exceed expectations.
Honestly, I’m bummed about Sam. Thought he’d get on the practice squad at least.
Cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, J. C. Jackson, Duke Dawson, Keion Crossen
Practice Squad: Jomal Wiltz
My Picks: Gilmore, McCourty, Rowe, Jones, Dawson, Cyrus Jones. Not shocked to see Jones go, but sorry. Even after watching football for as long as I have, it still amazes me how such spectacular college players can have trouble adapting to the NFL. Jones came in as the best punt returner in the nation with years of experience in an Alabama (i.e., Patriots-like) defense, yet his talent and experience never seemed to coalesce in Foxboro. (Am I using that word right? Coalesce? I think I’m using that word right.)
Gilmore has his starting spot nailed down like a roof shingle. Rowe looks to have the other side. We forget how much New England missed having Jonathan Jones on the field; looking forward to seeing what he can do on defense this season. If the rookies can contribute and show steady improvement over the course of 2018, then this position could get into good shape by December. Still not sure what they have in Jason McCourty. Is he running out of gas? I get the feeling we’ll know by the end of October.
Safeties: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner
My Picks: Samesies. So consistent; not too tough to pick when the team’s youngest player at the position got drafted in 2012. All of these guys are New England draft picks, by the way. Given their age, this has become the main position to watch with regards to injury and fatigue. Look for the preseason experiment with the other McCourty at safety to continue, something I suggested in the roster preview that was probably on everyone’s mind.
SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
Kicker/Punter/Longsnapper: Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona
My Picks: Yup. Allen won the Punter Battle, a phrase that doesn’t seem like it should exist. (Punter Debate? Punter Disagreement?) My only negative relates to Gostkowski’s inconsistency in the playoffs. Makes me wonder: if Bill Belichick could go back to 2014 and rethink his proposal to lengthen the extra-point kick, would he do it again? The kicker has missed multiple playoff PATs, most notably in the 2015 season AFC Championship in Denver. Since the change in 2014, Gostkowski has a decent 96.5 percent success rate in the regular season; this decreases to 81.5 percent in the playoffs.
Gostkowski – who has been with the team since Shakira affirmed the veracity of her hips – remains the best option at the position.
Patriots To Open Up 2-2. (I think.)
Listen: I’m not trolling, here. If I were, this would have been the headline:
PATRIOTS TO GO WINLESS FOR WEEKS
Oof. Can you imagine the clicks this column would get with a headline like that? I feel as though I’ve missed an opportunity, here.
I’m looking at Edelman’s suspension forcing New England to bring in a fresh-as-a-teenager’s-attitude receiver, plus the fact that they have a new left tackle and a right tackle who hasn’t played a competitive down since last season. On defense, they have more moving parts than a grandfather clock – and at a few positions where they seem almost as old.
Here’s the thing: slow starts haven’t held the Patriots back much. Last year, they went 2-2 (losses to the Chiefs and Panthers) in September. They also had a .500 September in 2014 before they moved on to Cincinnati. In both of those years, they made the Super Bowl. On the other hand, they started 2015 10-0 and struggled down the stretch.
Houston players feel they missed out on a win last year, falling to the Patriots in the final seconds on a long Brady pass to Brandin Cooks after a clutch, drive-saving reception by Danny Amendola. Who’s going to step up as New England’s clutch receiver? When Gronkowski gets double-teamed and every other pass-catcher gets manned, who will get open before the Texans pass rush gets to Brady? Can the defense bother Houston’s Watson enough to get him off his game? Can they both contain him and pressure him? Lots of question that need answering this Sunday at 1 p.m.
The week after that, the Patriots travel to Jacksonville to face another AFC South team that feels like they lost an opportunity to win at Foxboro. Will the familiar, pre-2017 version of Blake Bortles show up, or will he continue his surprising run of playing better-than-merely-competently? Is Jacksonville’s defense still one of the best? Will Jalen Ramsey’s trash talk force Gronk to throw him out of the club? Another tough contest, made tougher by noise from hundreds and perhaps thousands of fans who may show up.
After that, New England travels to Detroit on September 23 before returning home to take on Miami Sunday, September 30. Both winnable games, though Miami did manage to split last year’s series with a W down south.
Listen, way back in 2012, I predicted the Patriots would start 2-2, and judging by the comment section (see the column here), you’d think I’d thrown rotten hamburger at a vegan puppy. This team has to navigate through some roster changes, they’re the target of the rest of the AFC, and they’re lined up for some growing pains. Again, I’m not trolling, here: I don’t need clicks; I’m secure with my dozen of readers.
Maybe 0-2 will become a good thing for the New England fandom. Root out the bandwagoners, set up all the hot takes possible, then the team can “on to Detroit” the babbling Boston blowhards. Last year at this time, the Patriots were favored in every game, and talk surfaced about going undefeated. Bookies might have them favored again this year, but no one’s talking about going 19-0. That’s a good thing. And going 2-2 isn’t the worst thing, either. With good health and a bit of luck (as all NFL champs have), New England has a great shot not just to make it back to the Super Bowl, but to win it all.
Just weather the early storm, people. Like usual.
Chris Warner would go for walks more often if the weather outside didn’t feel like strolling through seafood bisque. He’s on Twitter: @cwarn89