NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
On Thursday night the New England Patriots will take the field for the first time of the 2012 season in preseason action against the New Orleans Saints, who are operating on a short week following Sunday’s 17-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the Hall of Fame game.
The matchup offers a number of intriguing storylines from New England’s perspective; here are ten of the most intriguing angles in the Patriots’ exhibition opener:
1. Tom Brady’s chemistry with Brandon Lloyd
Last season, New England’s passing game was extremely effective, as Tom Brady threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez functioning as the team’s primary offensive weapons. The Patriots’ aerial attack could be even more deadly in 2012 thanks to the addition of Brandon Lloyd via a three-year, $12 million contract. Lloyd has previously found success under Josh McDaniels in Denver (77-1448-11 in 2010) and St. Louis (51-683-5 in 11 games since being acquired at the trade deadline in 2011), so his adaptation to New England’s offense was expected to be fairly smooth.
Thus far, all indications have supported that theory, as Lloyd has been consistently named among the most impressive performers in Patriots camp; it will be interesting to see how many targets Lloyd sees in the first game of the preseason against a talented Saints secondary which includes both Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson at cornerback.
2. Showcasing Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett
Tom Brady is notoriously reluctant to leave the field even during blowouts; last season, Brady attempted 611 passes while backup quarterback Brian Hoyer’s lone throw came at the tail end of a 49-21 blowout against the Bills in week 16. The 26 year-old Hoyer is set to become a free agent following the season, and New England would be wise to showcase his abilities during the preseason in hopes of drawing trade interest or helping Hoyer earn a larger contract in free agency (which would allow the Patriots to receive a higher compensatory pick via his departure.)
Third-string quarterback Ryan Mallett remains one of the most enigmatic players on the roster; New England was wise to invest a third-round pick in a player with his combination of size and arm talent and could begin to see some returns on their investment as early as Thursday. Mallett is projected to receive a substantial amount of snaps and is another player whom teams could reveal some trade interest in, although it’s certainly possible that New England envisions him being Tom Brady’s eventual successor. Mallett throws the deep ball well and gets great velocity on his throws but most demonstrate improved footwork as well as more consistent accuracy in the short passing game.
3. Running back carry distribution
Bill Belichick invested heavily in running backs during the 2011 NFL Draft, selecting Shane Vereen in the second round and Stevan Ridley in the third round; however, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (34 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps) and Danny Woodhead (33 percent) still handled the majority of the work on offense in 2011. Now that Green-Ellis has left town for Cincinnati, it will be interesting to see how New England chooses to distribute their carries against the Saints; Ridley appears headed for the primary role, but each of the other three backs on the team should see extensive action as well.
The preseason opener may offer some indication of how Vereen is developing; the second-rounder was limited to just 15 carries in 2011 thanks to nagging hamstring injuries. Rookie undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden has also impressed onlookers in camp and is in excellent position to make the final 53-man roster following Joseph Addai’s release; look for Bolden to get a healthy amount of carries.
4. Deion Branch/Donte’ Stallworth roster battle
Although Deion Branch appeared to lose some of his explosiveness during the 2011 season, New England’s lack of dynamic wide receivers led to 15 starts for the 33 year-old receiver. The Patriots made a concerted effort to overhaul the wide receiver position this past offseason, releasing Chad Johnson, signing Brandon Lloyd (see above), Jabar Gaffney, Donte’ Stallworth, and drafting Jeremy Ebert (seventh-round.) Alongside Lloyd, Gaffney, and Wes Welker, kick returner/special teams star Matthew Slater and punt returner Julian Edelman are also considered likely to make the final roster and it is unlikely that the Patriots will carry seven wide receivers, meaning that Branch and Stallworth will have to compete against each other for the final spot. Both players enjoy strong chemistry with Tom Brady; Branch is the more productive of the two receivers, but Stallworth is younger (31) and more explosive.
5. Offensive line configurations/permutations
New England’s offensive line depth is a serious concern as the team moves into the 2012 season; four members of last year’s starting offensive line must be replaced on Thursday: left tackle Matt Light retired during the offseason, left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are both on the physically-unable-to-perform list, and right guard Brian Waters did not report to training camp. Additionally, offensive lineman Robert Gallery retired this past Saturday.
2011 first-round pick Nate Solder will start in Light’s place at left tackle, and 2011 fifth-rounder Marcus Cannon will start on the right side. Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Nick McDonald, Donald Thomas, and Ryan Wendell are the most logical candidates for extensive playing time on the offensive line’s interior. Thomas and Connolly practiced with the first team on Sunday at left guard and right guard, respectively; Koppen and Wendell have both taken first-team reps at center. McDonald was impressive in limited action last season as well and should see the field. There are also a number of young players battling for depth spots along the line: Kyle Hill, Kyle Hix, Matt Kopa, and Darrion Weems at tackle, and Derek Dennis, Dustin Waldron, and Jeremiah Warren at guard.
Keys 6-10 can be found on page two.