NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots look to improve to 3-0 on the preseason tonight as they travel to Detroit to compete in what should be an interesting matchup with the Lions, who currently sit at 1-1. Read on for ten keys to week three of the preseason.
1. Can Ryan Mallett continue to build on last week’s encouraging performance?
Tim Tebow’s performance last week, which centered around a disastrous 1/7 passing performance in which the third-string quarterback’s sole completion lost New England a yard, proved that the divisive player is completely incapable of keeping the offense on track, and, if he wasn’t already considered a long shot before, Tebow now has the look of a roster outsider. Rather, the focus should be on Ryan Mallett, who had his best performance as a member of the team last week, completing 12/20 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown in an outing which helped re-establish his standing as a potential starting quarterback.
When he was originally drafted by the team back in 2011, Mallett was considered a potential high-reward selection whose size, arm, and collegiate production were more in line with a top pick but whose rumored character concerns evidently damaged his standing in the eyes of scouts and decision-makers. No further issues have publicly presented themselves during Mallett’s time with the Patriots, so if the former Arkansas Razorback is able to prove his play vs. Tampa Bay was predictive of his future development at the position, he may eventually be able to earn New England a high draft pick, whether via trade or as compensation for his departure in free agency.
2. Will New England’s young receivers find success against Detroit’s varied secondary?
Detroit’s play in the defensive backfield should provide some insight into the personnel decisions the organization made in that group recently, re-signing safety Don Carey, a converted cornerback, to a one-year, $630,000 contract to start opposite Glover Quin, who earned a five-year, $25 million deal from the team based upon four seasons as a starter with Houston which included five interceptions and 48 passes defensed. The Lions start Chris Houston at left cornerback, who earned an identical five-year, $25 million contract from Detroit following a successful 2013 campaign (53/94, 629 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 6 PD, according to ProFootballFocus. Opposite him is rookie Darius Slay, in whom the team invested the thirty-sixth overall pick of April’s draft; prior to the draft, New England had been considered a logical destination for the athletic specimen, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds and further increased his worth with a 6.9-second three-cone drill.
Slay replaces fellow second-round pick Ron Bartell (of the class of 2005), who began training camp as Detroit’s starter and who also started last week at Cleveland, but who also allowed a 34-yard completion to Josh Gordon. Rotating in at both outside spots is second-year player Dwight Bentley, whose career has been a considerable disappointment thus far, with opposing quarterbacks completing 17/20 attempts in Bentley’s direction last year. With New England eager to discover just how much their new wide receivers can factor into the offense in 2013, tonight’s contest should offer them an opportunity to evaluate their capacity for playing against a deep rotation of cornerback talent.
3. How could the latest Rob Gronkowski news affect New England’s other tight ends?
Recently, an article published by the Boston Herald claimed that New England’s star tight end, Rob Gronkowski, is currently on schedule for a mid-September return, which would presumably prevent the Patriots from placing him on the Physically Unable to Perform list. With one less roster spot available, New England may decide that they simply cannot carry four additional tight ends into the regular season. They released undrafted rookie Brandon Ford from injured reserve on Saturday, but are still carrying five players on the roster in addition to Gronkowski: Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, Evan Landi, and Zach Sudfeld.
At this point, Ballard has been working with the first-team offense at the “Y” spot Gronkowski typically occupies, while Sudfeld looks like New England’s new “F” tight end; assuming both of those players make the team alongside Gronkowski, there may be just one spot available for the three remaining players. In the preseason opener, Michael Hoomanawanui took the field for 34 snaps, compared with 32 for Fells, who entered the game later. However, during the second game, Hoomanawanui took 18 snaps, while Fells did not see the field. Therefore, at this point the most realistic projection would be that Fells, whose release would save New England $916,666, according to www.overthecap.com. Unless Fells can get on the field and impress tonight, there may not be a place for him on the team on opening day.
4. Will Nate Solder be able to protect against rookie first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah?
Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, who was selected by Detroit with the fifth overall pick in April’s draft, immediately made an impact with the Lions, returning a Mark Sanchez interception fourteen yards for a touchdown to give Detroit a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into their preseason opener. Ansah also recorded a tackle for loss and a pass defensed in the game, and over 45 total snaps with the team at right end, has demonstrated his capacity for defending the run as well. However, he should be well-tested by Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, himself a former first-round pick, who thus far has prevented opposing defensive ends from so much as hurrying Tom Brady during either of New
England’s two preseason games.
Both players are supremely gifted for their positions; Ansah ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds and posted a vertical leap of 34.5” at 6’5” and 271 pounds, while Solder’s massive build (6’8”, 35.5” arms) is made more impressive by his ability to move in space and mirror opponents in pass protection. Both players have a unique opportunity to assert their dominance over a high-profile opponent, making this one of this week’s most appealing one-on-one matchups.
5. Can one of New England’s offensive linemen gain an advantage in the right guard competition?
Standout defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh form the foundation of Detroit’s defense, which means that New England’s interior lineup of Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, and Will Svitek should have a difficult time. Fairley and Suh have combined for two quarterback hits and seven hurries this preseason. Protecting Tom Brady from inside penetration is a prerequisite to success in the passing game, making this a potential showcase for Svitek, who is currently attempting to capitalize on earlier injuries to Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon, the primary competition at the position. Svitek is credited by ProFootballFocus with having allowed one pressure in each of New England’s first two exhibitions, but a strong performance against the elite pass-rushing talent Detroit boasts could help him secure the starting job on opening day.
However, struggles could open the door for Connolly, who has been rotating with Svitek at the position during practice this week. With a high 2013 cap number, Connolly’s roster spot may well be in danger even after considering New England’s lack of depth along the line, especially in light of the efficient performances offered by left guard Chris McDonald and right guard Josh Kline thus far.
6. Can Lions left tackle Riley Reiff protect the edge from second-year right end Chandler Jones?
Detroit drafted Iowa Hawkeyes left tackle Riley Reiff with the twenty-third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, envisioning him as the heir apparent to Jeff Backus, himself a 2001 first-round selection
of the organization who retired this March after a decorated career which saw him start in 186 consecutive games, setting the bar high for Reiff, who allowed one quarterback hit and six pressures over his first two appearances at the position in relief of Backus. Reiff’s 336 rookie snaps, primarily at right tackle, were encouraging enough for the Lions to hand him the starting left tackle job, but he has struggled thus far in preseason, surrendering a sack and a hurry in Detroit’s opener against the Jets.
As a prospect, Reiff was criticized for his below-average 33 ¼” arms, which some have suggested will limit his upside as an edge-protector. His ability to prevent Matthew Stafford from being disrupted will be tested by Patriots right end Chandler Jones, who was selected two picks ahead of Reiff last April and has looked dominant over twenty-two preseason snaps. Reiff’s anchor strength also leaves something to be desired, which may put him at a disadvantage versus the heavy-handed Jones, who gained ten pounds of muscle this offseason and should be playing around 270 pounds.
7. Will any of New England’s young defensive tackles make their case for a roster spot?
This past offseason, at the defensive tackle position was clearly identified as a weakness by the Patriots’ coaching staff, as the team has committed itself to overhauling their personnel at the position alongside star nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Gone are 2012 starter Kyle Love, versatile rotational lineman Brandon Deaderick, second-round draft bust Ron Brace, and Terrell McClain. Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, who slid inside to defensive tackle in some of New England’s sub packages last season, appears to be on the verge of losing his spot as well. Tommy Kelly was signed to a two-year deal which could pay him up to $5 million total; at this point, he controls the starting spot opposite Wilfork.
Armond Armstead has the look of a future contributor, but he remains on the Non-Football Injury list at this point, which has created opportunities for New England’s young talent on the interior. Those who have been worked into the defense thus far – Marcus Forston, Cory Grissom, and Joe Vellano – may well be vying for only one or two spots, so they must make the most of their opportunities. At this point, Forston should be considered the most likely candidate, having received the most playing time (81 snaps) and having spent 2012 with the team as well. However, Grissom and Vellano have both graded out highly against the run, and one may be able to sneak onto the team, with both also deserving practice squad consideration. However, Jake Scott and rookie third-round pick Larry Warford, a physical specimen at 6’3” and 333 pounds, could make it difficult for New England’s aspiring tackles to stand out.
8. Will left cornerback Aqib Talib be able to limit Calvin Johnson’s productivity?
Aqib Talib competed against his former team last week, taking eleven snaps at left cornerback for the Patriots, including on seven passing downs, none of which involved Talib being targeted. Talib’s ability to sustain a high level of production this week against the league’s top receiver, Calvin Johnson, should be something to monitor. Even though Johnson will be playing with a bruised knee, he cannot be underestimated by Talib, who, even in preseason action, should be aiming to establish himself as the top cornerback in next year’s crop of free agents, where he will be competing against the likes of Brent Grimes, Mike Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Charles Tillman, and Antoine Winfield for suitors.
Although Talib’s arrival last season coincided with vastly improved production from New England’s defense as a whole, his metrics left a lot to be desired and may have contributed to the team-friendly deal he eventually signed. By turning in an effective performance against Johnson, Talib can build front-office confidence in his ability to cover top options, potentially leading to the type of long-term deal that he was widely expected to sign last offseason before finding a lukewarm reception on the open market.
9. Does Alfonzo Dennard have anything to worry about at right cornerback?
Despite his recent legal issues and absence from the defensive backfield this preseason, Alfonzo Dennard’s hold on New England’s right cornerback position appears to be growing stronger by the day, as his primary competition, rookie third-round pick Logan Ryan, has struggled thus far, last week’s interception touchdown has helped disguise problems which have been revealed in his coverage abilities, having been victimized on 81 yards of passing, including one touchdown, surrendered at Philadelphia and additionally permitting a 41-yard gain last week by former Patriot Tiquan Underwood. The other alternative, Ras-I Dowling, remains limited in practice; it is unclear if he will be healthy enough to participate in Thursday’s game, and repeated injury concerns have eroded confidence in his ability to help the team.
Undrafted free agent Justin Green has been working at right cornerback with New England’s second defense, and while his play has been effective enough to contend for a roster spot, he projects as a reserve at this point. Kyle Arrington has been playing right cornerback thus far, but last season provided enough evidence that Arrington is best suited to the slot, which should allow Dennard to escape relatively unharmed from his recent arrest. Whether either Ryan or Green can improve their standing this week remains to be seen.
10. Which Patriots punter will start the game, and can they capitalize on that opportunity?
After outperforming Zoltan Mesko in the team’s preseason opener, rookie punter Ryan Allen earned the start last week against Tampa Bay, although his performance was mixed at best, one of his two punts resulting in a touchback and averaging just 39.0 yards per attempt on the night, compared with Mesko’s 44.3-yard average over three punts, which included one punt within the opposing 20-yard line. Who gets the start this week should provide some indication of how New England’s coaching staff currently views the situation, which has become one of the most competitive battles on the roster.
This week, Allen will need to display the leg strength which offers him his biggest advantage versus Mesko, who posted an impressive 46.5-yard average in 2011 but who regressed in 2012, averaging a 43.1-yard figure which closely resembles his rookie-year production at 43.2 yards per punt. This looks like a battle which may run throughout the duration of the preseason, but it will nonetheless be interesting to see who takes first-team reps, and how they perform given the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the punter working with the second-team.