NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
Each week during the NFL season, I will be providing readers with a 15 thoughts article. These articles will be similar to those I wrote leading up to the NFL Draft in April.
It’s a random compiling of thoughts I had throughout the week, things that stood out that week, things that I learned or just random tidbits that have nothing to do with anything. In this first edition, I get caught up on all the happenings of the preseason up to this point and take a look at some roster moves that we might see in the future.
1. With training camp wrapping up last week and the second preseason game in the books one player who has taken a significant step forward in his development, but still is flying under the radar is DT Kyle Love. Love has solidified his starting role next to Vince Wilfork and has been a consistent contributor both in practices and in the preseason games. After re-watching both of the preseason games, Love has been nearly impossible to block one on one. He plays with good leverage and uses his strength to push the pocket. Eagles OC Jason Kelce was helpless against Love and it forced the Eagles to double team him on a number of occasions. Coming to the Patriots as a UDFA out of Mississippi State two years ago little was expected of him. But, Love has quickly and relatively quietly turned himself into one of the Patriots’ better defensive players. Love isn’t mentioned as one of the young building blocks on the defense like Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes are. But, it might be time more people start taking notice, he is a very good player who keeps getting better.
2.I haven’t been as excited about a Patriots positional grouping as I am about the Patriots linebacker corps this year in a long time. A young trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower brings a lot of excitement, a lot of talent and a lot of expectations. Each player has their own strengths and weaknesses but, each one brings size, physicality and a very good football IQ to the field. The Patriots were a much better team last season when Brandon Spikes was on the field with Jerod Mayo. This season the Patriots added Hightower, who is even bigger and more athletic than Spikes. When on the field together their linebacker corps will present a physical advantage over almost any offense. When the Patriots were so good on defense in the early 2000′s it was because their linebacker group of Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer and Rosevelt Colvin dominated the game physically. It’s taken awhile, but the Patriots will be able to play that type of defensive football again, because they have such a talented group of linebackers.
3. Speaking of Brandon Spikes the Patriots are such a better team when he is on the field. When healthy he brings an intensity, physicality and cockiness to the Patriots defense that the other players feed off of. Even on the practice field he plays 100 mph with reckless abandonment and brings an energy to practice that gets the troops fired up. Spikes gives the Patriots defense an identity that they lack when he isn’t playing. He plays so physical and so hard, that you know other teams hate playing against him. Spikes has a swagger and cockiness about him that can be ill-received at times, but the Patriots need him on the field. Spikes is so good at taking on blockers and attacking the line of scrimmage, that it really frees Jerod Mayo up to make plays. It’s no surprise that the Patriots defense hit it’s stride and got better in the playoffs once Spikes was back and healthy. If Spikes can stay on the field all year (and it’s a big if with how hard he tries to hit on each play) then the Patriots defense is already a lot better than last year.
4. Rob Gronkowski gets all the headlines and attention, but Aaron Hernandez might be the most important offensive player on the team (other than TB12) this season. Hernandez has looked so, good in practices and has such a unique skill set that it would be impossible to replace him if he was lost for any period of time. Hernandez is really a revolutionary player. In the coming years at the NFL Draft, we are going to hear tight ends compared to Aaron Hernandez for their skill-set and athleticism. But, I’m not sure there will ever be another tight end quite like him. He’s so precise in his route running, he’s so quick in and out of his breaks and his hands are so good, that it makes him uncoverable. He’s too fast to be covered by linebackers and too big to be covered by defensive backs. Let’s not forget the fact that he can be lined up basically anywhere, including running back because of how elusive and quick he is in the open field. I’m on record as saying Hernandez will break the 100 catch plateau this season. While he may not lead the Patriots in yards or touchdowns he will be their most important weapon.
5. The biggest question mark coming into this season, is the same question that plagued the team last season. Can the secondary improve and stop teams from throwing the ball all over the field? While the Patriots didn’t go out and invest heavily at the position through free agency, I am under the impression that they have enough in-house talent to be vastly improved. The improvement of the secondary will hinge on three factors. 1) Can Devin McCourty bounce back and play at a similar level to where he was as a rookie? 2) Can Ras-I Dowling stay healthy and make an impact as a #2-#3 cornerback? 3) Can Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner be an improvement at safety? At this point I haven’t seen enough to answer all of the questions, but I can answer one. Ras-I Dowling has been able to stay healthy and will be a huge improvement over some of the cornerbacks the Patriots were forced to play last season. Dowling was one of the most impressive players in the second preseason game vs. the Eagles. He was able to shut down Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin, to the point where I wasn’t sure if Maclin or Dowling were out on the field. His play in the game has been consistent to what I saw in practice. Dowling’s size, length and strength are tough for wide receivers to deal with. Devin McCourty will have to prove that last season was an aberration during the regular season. He doens’t have to make the Pro Bowl again, but he has to be consistent and reliable. The safeties will be thrown into the fire and will have to prove themselves. Out of that group of three players, one has to emerge as a play-maker next to Patrick Chung. Last season the position was a revolving door and the Patriots can’t afford to have a repeat of that disaster. At the very least, the secondary won’t be as bad as last year and in essence that’s all the Patriots may need to win the Super Bowl.