NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots conclude the 2013 preseason tonight with a matchup against the rival New York Giants in a game which represents a final opportunity for players on the roster bubble to distance themselves from their closest competition before the 53-man roster cutdown deadline on Saturday afternoon. Read on to find out what to watch for in New England’s preseason finale.
1. Will Tim Tebow impress in his last chance to do so before final cuts?
Tonight’s preseason game may well be a make-or-break game for quarterback Tim Tebow, who has perhaps sparked more debate than any other Patriots player on roster, deserved or not. The case for Tebow is as follows: owner Robert Kraft is squarely in Tebow’s corner, having publicly expressed his desire for Tebow to make the team on numerous occasions. When Tebow was signed by the Patriots, he was brought into the fold on a two-year deal, suggesting at least the possibility of a long-term vision from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. The addition was almost undoubtedly influenced by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who drafted Tebow in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft and who, for better or worse, appears to have significant sway in New England’s decision-making process. In the preseason, we have seen a substantial commitment on McDaniels’ part to get Tebow involved via plays which would otherwise not be in the Patriots’ offense. Of course, Tebow also makes some financial sense given his popularity with fans and ability to sell merchandise, which is uncommon for a bottom-of-the-roster player.
The case against Tebow has basically everything to do with his play on the field so far. While New England has benefited from his running skill at times, he has also demonstrated a complete inability to throw the football, which is the cornerstone of virtually every pro offense, and particularly New England’s. While the Patriots have been successful largely because they judge players based on what they contribute to the team, for some reason Tebow’s status appears to have shielded him from New England’s typical pragmatism to some extent. Nonetheless, another performance like his first two would make it hard to keep him on the final roster.
2. Will any reserve running backs prove themselves worthy of a spot?
Three running backs deserve your attention in the final exhibition of the preseason: LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and Leon Washington. The trio of backfield options may be competing for just two roster spots, increasing the pressure on each to perform. Entering the preseason, it appeared most likely that Leon Washington would assume help ease the burden of Danny Woodhead’s loss in free agency while also assuming kick returning duties and providing veteran leadership in the locker room. That may still be in the cards, but Washington’s grasp on a job appears somewhat tenuous after disappointing production as a return man coupled with a limited on-field role. It may be possible that the Patriots are resting him during the preseason, but it’s also possible that, given their alternative options at kick returner, they may opt to move forwards with a younger group of backs, giving Blount and Bolden an advantage in the competition.
Blount stood out in New England’s initial preseason game, potentially securing a roster spot, which could create trouble for Bolden, who earned a spot in Bill Belichick’s doghouse after testing positive for performance-enhancing-drugs as a rookie and has made key mental mistakes throughout the preseason, including one special-teams penalty in the debut and a fumble in last week’s debacle at Detroit. However, Bolden is a powerful, decisive runner whose youth and overall versatility may still convince the Patriots that he is worth keeping on the final roster. Don’t rule out a decision to retain all five options while making a corresponding move elsewhere.
3. Is this the last we’ll see from Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui?
When tight end Rob Gronkowski returns to the field, which may happen as early as September, the Patriots will have a talented group of tight ends which also includes Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld, both likely candidates for final roster spots. However, whether the Patriots carry any additional options remains to be seen, as none of their three other options at the position have secured roles on the team. Daniel Fells was held off the field last week and seems like a logical cut, given the $916,666 in cap savings New England would save by releasing him. Michael Hoomanawanui, who was on the field for twenty-nine snaps last week and who has played in eighty-one total snaps with the team over the course of the preseason, is probably the most likely candidate for a spot, but his $1.323 million restricted free agency tender becomes guaranteed if he’s on the roster at the beginning of the season.
Ultimately, given that he is set to make more money than Ballard and Sudfeld combined but sits behind both of those players on the depth chart, the Patriots may be inclined to part ways with him before the season and attempt to re-sign him later to a more team-friendly, non-guaranteed deal later. Therefore, the Patriots may be forced to carry a player such as fullback/H-Back James Develin on the final roster, as entering the season with just two tight ends does not hedge against potential injuries. How New England opts to use these players this week may give some insight into their thought process at the position. Adding a third tight end after teams trim their rosters is another option. Notable players currently on the market include Visanthe Shiancoe, who was with the Patriots for a brief stint last year, and Zach Miller, a personal favorite who has an intriguing combination of size (6’4”, 233), athleticism (4.53 in the 40-yard dash, 37.5” vertical leap, 7.06-second cone drill at Nebraska-Omaha’s pro day in 2009), and who New England put through a private workout during the pre-draft process that year.
4. Will New England’s offensive line reserves be able to handle New York’s interior linemen?
Whether New England’s reserve offensive line is able to get any sort of push in the run game remains to be seen, as they will be asked to block against a Giants interior line which features considerable size. Once starters Cullen Jenkins and Linval Joseph have left the game, New York has rotated in the likes of Marvin Austin (82 snaps), Johnathan Hankins (71), Mike Patterson (62), and Shaun Rogers (57), all of whom figure to be competing for reserve roles on the team. Perhaps the most notable of the aforementioned players from New England’s perspective is Hankins, who was considered by some to be a desirable draft target for the Patriots prior to the 2013 NFL Draft, where New York opted to bring him into the fold during the second round with their forty-ninth overall pick. Hankins lined up in various different positions with the Buckeyes under the tutelage of defensive line coach and former New England Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, and his imposing size at 320 pounds could overwhelm Patriots linemen. Austin too is a former second-round pick (2011), one whose future role with the team is uncertain after playing just 103 snaps over eight games with the club last season.
Strong performances against two recent second-round selections could help an interior lineman such as Josh Kline, Chris McDonald, or Matt Stankiewitch make their case for a roster spot. Kline has logged 129 snaps along the line this preseason, second only to Will Svitek, and may be the most likely candidate for a roster spot. However, it’s also possible that New England will opt to carry only seven offensive linemen on the active roster, relegating Kline, McDonald, and Stankiewitch to practice squad candidacy.
5. Will Giants defensive end Damontre Moore, a third-round pick, be active?
Damontre Moore played thirty-one snaps in New York’s preseason debut, being credited with one hit and three hurries while working into the mix at right end at Pittsburgh. However, he was unable to build on that production the following week against the Colts or last week against the Jets, being listed as one of the team’s inactives on both occasions due to a shoulder injury. Moore was a highly-productive pass rusher at Texas A&M whose motor and work ethic in pass rushing situations helped create first-round hype before disappointing workouts, potentially combined with rumored concerns about Moore’s character and overall maturity, caused him to slide into the third round, where New York selected him with the eighty-first overall pick.
If Moore ends up returning to the field this week, he could create trouble for whoever New England opts to play at left tackle, which thus far has been manned by reserves Will Svitek and Luke Patterson. Svitek, who has taken the majority of snaps at the position, became a candidate for the starting right guard position after beginning preseason there and turning in two adequate performances, but his disastrous third performance now makes him appear to be more of a swing reserve along the line, the role he was originally expected to fill upon signing with the team. Svitek needs a strong performance in the preseason finale in order to rebuild confidence in his ability to step in when necessary. Moore was a participant in practice throughout the week, so chances look good that he’ll play despite Giants head coach Tom Coughlin’s noncommittal remarks regarding his availability.
6. Can Giants rookie quarterback Ryan Nassib rebound from two poor preseason performances?
Lauded as a potential first-round draft pick, and being projected to go as high as eighth overall to the Buffalo Bills during the pre-draft process, quarterback Ryan Nassib’s slide into the fourth-round of the NFL Draft and subsequent selection by New York was seen as a coup by many onlookers. Over his two initial preseason games, though, Nassib has looked lost on the field, completing just three of ten passes and being sacked on four other occasions. Nassib’s seventy-seven passing yards and 7.7 yards-per-attempt have helped disguise Nassib’s lack of downfield accuracy, as only one of his completions traveled past the line of scrimmage; two others, screens of twenty and twenty-eight yards, skew the total. Nassib’s struggles kept him sidelined throughout the Giants’ third preseason contest, with Curtis Painter closing out the game for New York after Eli Manning’s departure.
In the finale, however, we should see Nassib take the field once more, although whether he demonstrates improvement remains to be seen. As a collegiate passer, Nassib’s size, bulk, and overall toughness gave him the look of a potential pro starter, even as he struggled with ball placement and exhibited somewhat unorthodox throwing mechanics. At this point, he must be considered one of the top third-string quarterbacks in the league, so an opportunity to evaluate his future prospects in a game typically filled with fringe pro players should be a treat.
7. How will New England’s second-and-third-team defensive ends perform?
While New York’s starting offensive line should end up coming together to provide respectable protection once the regular season begins, their reserve offensive linemen have struggled to stand out, with center Jim Cordle (141 snaps), right guard Brandon Mosley (119 snaps), tackle/center Stephen Goodin (102 snaps), and guard/tackle Selvish Capers (98 snaps) receiving the most substantial playing time. Last week, Justin Pugh received his first start with the team at right tackle; Pugh, a rookie first-round pick, had been considered a potential draft target of New England’s after a decorated career as Syracuse’s left tackle. Pugh’s arm length, or lack thereof, concerned some talent evaluators, who felt he may be physically unprepared to protect the edge, although it appears that New York envisions him as their right tackle of the future, having started him there last week against the Giants opposite left tackle William Beatty.
This week, assuming New England’s coaching staff chooses the rest their starting defensive linemen, rotational pass rushers such as Marcus Benard, Jake Bequette, and Michael Buchanan, along with interior players such as Marcus Forston and Joe Vellano, will have the opportunity to make their case for roster spots against a relatively unseasoned assortment of Giants blockers. Bequette’s situation in particular will be one to monitor, as the 2012 third-round pick essentially redshirted as a rookie and hasn’t demonstrated much of the second-year improvement that head coach Bill Belichick expects. Jermaine Cunningham has been absent throughout the preseason and is not expected to play in tonight’s game.
8. How will the competition for New England’s sixth linebacker spot be resolved?
Five Patriots linebackers can safely be considered members of the 2013 squad: weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, strongside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, rookie second-round pick Jamie Collins, and sub-package option Dane Fletcher. However, it’s still possible (or perhaps even likely) that the Patriots will opt to carry a sixth player, the most likely candidate being Steve Beauharnais, a seventh-round pick out of Rutgers back in April who has played on the weak side and in the middle for a combined 117 snaps, more than any linebacker other than Collins (118.) Given Beauharnais’ special-teams contributions, he is the linebacker most deserving of the sixth spot, but his practice squad eligibility muddies the situation a bit, considering that middle linebacker Mike Rivera, who spent last season with the Patriots, exhausted his own eligibility by playing in ten games.
Rivera, who has seen the field for fifty-five snaps this preseason, has played substantially more than Jeff Tarpinian, although Tarpinian remains eligible for the scout team and may very well end up there following final cuts. Beauharnais is easily the most valuable of the three players, but if New England is willing to take a risk, they may opt to retain Rivera on the final roster and hope to sign Beaharnais to the practice squad, although doing so would expose him to other clubs and may very well result in Beauharnais being added to another team’s active roster. Recent signing Ja’Gared Davis is another option (see below.)
9. What will we see from New England’s two recent waiver-wire additions?
New England added two players via waivers this week as teams cut down their rosters to the league-mandated limit of seventy-five players: nose tackle Gilbert Pena (released by Green Bay) and linebacker Ja’Gared Davis (released by Houston.) Both players are rookies who will obviously be starting their Patriots tenures without the benefit of having been around the team long enough to fully learn New England’s defense, but the team’s interest in signing both this late in the process suggests that they may have an opportunity to secure spots on the practice squad, making them both players to watch tonight, assuming they are given an opportunity to impress.
Pena, who measured in at 6’3” and 330 pounds at Mississippi’s Pro Day back in March, possesses intriguing movement skills and also contributed as a personal protector on the Rebels’ punt units last season. Give New England’s lack of nose tackle depth – the team recently released nose tackle Anthony Rashad White – Pena may well rotate into the game and faces relatively little competition. Davis, at 6’0” and 238 pounds, and who posted underwhelming workout numbers at SMU’s Pro Day, may not necessarily be the most physically gifted player, but he was a playmaker over four years with the Mustangs, starting in four bowl games and contributing as both a pass rusher and a coverage linebacker. That diverse skill set is intriguing, although he’ll be forced to compete with the likes of Jeff Tarpinian for a spot on the practice squad. Avoiding mental mistakes and showing something on special teams would be two ways to stand out.
10. Can safeties Adrian Wilson and Tavon Wilson work their way onto the final roster?
Considered one of the deepest positions on the roster following an offseason in which the Patriots signed Adrian Wilson and selected Duron Harmon in the third round of the draft, New England’s personnel at safety has been somewhat disappointing throughout the preseason. There is no doubt that defensive back Devin McCourty will remain one of the team’s cornerstones, but when Steve Gregory’s been off the field, the Patriots have struggled to replace his production. Many hoped that either Adrian or Tavon Wilson would be able to supplant Gregory, thus allowing New England to save $990,000 in cap space by releasing last year’s starter, but neither player has inspired much confidence to this point.
Adrian Wilson was used sparingly over the first two preseason games and surrendered catches on all five of his targets in a more substantial role against Detroit, with thirty-seven of his forty-three receiving yards allowed coming after the catch; now it is unclear whether or not he will even make the final roster. Tavon Wilson has been disastrous as well, with his overall instincts and awareness leaving plenty to be desired. Harmon established himself as a physical presence in the secondary early in the preseason, but after turning in two respectable performances against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, the rookie missed four tackles against the Lions and may be best suited to a reserve/special teams role at this point. While it’s possible that all five players may make the team, it should come as no surprise if either Adrian or Tavon Wilson are released during final cuts. Both players will need to demonstrate their value in coverage in order to stick around.