Another preseason week is in the books, and it is time to take stock of what occurred during the game and some of the developments that have occurred since Friday night. After the dress rehearsal game (week 3 in the NFL) we get an idea of what the team is going to look like because the roster count drops from 90-75, which had to be submitted by 4pm today. Friday, August 31st is the cut down from 75 -53, which is always tough, especially when you have a talented roster. Multiple NFL teams will have scouts in New York to see the Patriots and the…I hate saying this- champion New York Giants (this hurts to type) because both teams will have good players going to lesser teams.
On the offensive side of the ball, things weren’t pretty, but we did get a preview of what the Patriots offense is looking to accomplish. I have been standing on soapbox regarding balance and it is clear that they recognized this in the offseason. Bill O’Brien is a good coach, but he clearly didn’t like the screen game like Josh McDaniels does. Brady has always excelled in the screen game, and it felt like he was lacking this weapon the last three seasons. Its back with a Charlie Weis type vengeance and that is good news for Patriots running backs.
There will be no more allowing of defenses to pin their ears back and come kill Brady because the threat of a dump off to Steven Ridley or the speedy Jeff Demps that teams will have to respect that. If defenses have to commit more defending the pass, it gives Brady more time. Brady will find the open receiver.
Speaking of Jeff Demps- wow, that kid can fly. OK, now that I have stated the obvious, there is more to this than just speed. Demps is a football player, which was made clear when he juked a defender out of his uniform and went for 29 yards. We heard some “experts” say that we have seen “other sprinters” in the NFL, comparing him to James Jett, Ted Ginn and other sprinters who got their shot in the NFL. The thing is, Jeff Demps was a running back, and an effective one, for Florida, which is in the SEC, a conference that is churning out more quality NFL players than any other conference. Demps can play, and like I said in my week 2 report, his spot on the team has had an effect on not just the running backs, but also the wide receivers and the fullbacks. I am looking forward to seeing if the Patriots use Demps in the slot on Wednesday against the Giants.
As I stated earlier, today was the first cut down day, and there were a few surprises and also some roster spots seemingly solidified. Wide receiver Donte Stallworth, who didn’t see a lot of action with the ones on Friday night, never a good sign when a player is in a battle for a roster spot, was released today. When Stallworth did get some time, his play was underwhelming. Jabar Gaffney, another ex-Patriot receiver brought back in the offseason to add to the veteran depth, is also an ex-Patriot again. Gaffney was injured a couple weeks ago and is rumored to be a hot commodity for teams that are struggling with receiver depth. Miami and the New York Jets are two teams that could use Gaffney or Stallworth. Either could also return to New England if an injury occurs. To round out the offensive roster moves; fullback/linebacker Spencer Larsen was placed on injured reserve and tight end Jake Ballard was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
With these cuts, it appears that Deion Branch, he of the linebacker speed but meticulous route running ability and great hands, is on the 2012 roster. I’ll admit, I thought last year was it for Branch. He is slow, but he gets the job done. This offense is more about smarts than pure speed, and Branch continues to show up on film and make plays. Another positive to take away from the cuts of Stallworth and Gaffney is the development of Julian Edelman. Edelman has had an edge to him this preseason and I think he might be due for a breakout season. With Wes Welker’s contract situation, I am betting the Patriots are hoping to see a leap from Edelman this year so they feel better when they ultimately deal Welker in March, who I think is gone after this year (just a hunch).
The Patriots broke out the vanilla defense for us this week, which isn’t much different than what we have seen. I mentioned last week that there are some fundamental changes in the Patriots scheme, which was still apparent, but they weren’t blitzing or stunting, instead sticking to a straight up style that we see a lot in the preseason. One of the positives so far in this preseason has been the play of defensive tackle Ron Brace. Brace has shown flashes in past seasons, and this preseason has been by far his best and most consistent showing and he is building on each game.
The Patriots released Jonathan Fanene this week due to an injury issue (which may get ugly), and the reason they were able to do this confidently is because the development of Brace. Kyle Love has also proven to be a solid consistent pro, earning himself a one-year contract extension.
Personnel on the defensive side of the ball have been pretty consistent since Chandler Jones moved into the starting role. The Patriots use 11-14 players consistently, which is a big difference from the last three years of constantly changing personnel. Patrick Chung was out with a “shoulder” injury, and Steven Gregory also got dinged up in week three. That is something to keep an eye on, because the depth at safety is not that strong. Tavon Wilson is untested, but as I always say, he can’t be worse than Sergio Brown, the worst player in the NFL. The Patriots will most likely sit Chung and Gregory to ensure that they are ready for week one in Tennessee, which means we should get a heavy dose of Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner (who has looked good) this Wednesday.
Marquise Cole, a New York Jets cornerback castoff who the Patriots signed in the offseason, has been a pleasant surprise in an area of where the Patriots have not just struggled, they have been bad. Devin McCourty, to me, still looks lost. I am sure he will have his moments, but I don’t see the same guy from 2010 and am beginning to wonder if we will ever see him again. McCourty is still starting, for now. Ras-I Dowling is still healthy, which is a victory in itself, and he is also showing improvement in his second year. Kyle Arrington continues to look like the Patriots best defensive back.
With Arrington, McCourty, Dowling and Cole, it looks like the Patriots might have an average to above average cornerback group that can at least avoiding losing games for them, something they can’t say about the last three seasons. Alfonzo Dennard might make the roster, but his injury cost him precious time. Not to beat a dead horse, but I would rather keep Dennard as an extra corner and cut Sergio Brown, if that is what it comes down too. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots try to sneak Dennard and Nate Ebner onto the practice squad.
Just like on offense, there were roster moves on the defensive side of the ball that gave us a vision of what this roster will look like. The aforementioned Jonathan Fanene (I wanted to say his name after a sack) was cut, which solidified Kyle Love’s roster spot. Gerard Warren was released today, which bodes well for Ron Brace and his roster spot. Warren is a player who I think will return. Ross Ventrone was released today (ooh, shocker), while safety/cornerback Will Allen and safety Josh Barrett were placed on injured reserve.
We still have 22 cuts to go before we have a roster in place, and there may be players from other teams that the Patriots have interest in, especially along the offensive line. Week three may be a dress rehearsal for the veterans, but week four is the week for players like Sterling Moore, Alfonzo Dennard, Justin Francis and Jesse Holley, players fighting for their professional lives who are trying to put as much good film on camera as possible to either make this roster, the practice squad, or get noticed by another team. The Patriots also can be helped by strong performances of fringe players by enticing teams to trade with them instead of chancing it and losing out on the player they want. I know this- I am looking forward to some regular season football. We are almost there.
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