NEPD Staff Writer: Jimmy Flaherty
In a game that seemed as if it was never going to end because of penalty flags, the Patriots came away with a win over the Eagles 42-35 in their second preseason match up of the year. Many top players, including Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, Darrelle Revis, and others, saw their first action after sitting out during the first preseason game against Washington in which they lost.
With the return of these players, it came as no surprise that the Patriots looked much smoother in all three phases of the game. According to Coach Belichick in his conference call on Saturday, there were many positives on film to take away from Friday nights game.
Many of the rookies stood out to me while watching the game. For me, the most exciting part of preseason football is watching the rookies battle it out in a struggle to make a spot on each and every coveted NFL roster. In the Patriots’ case, the 2014 campaign has been highly anticipated because of free agent acquisitions (Revis, Browner, Lafell) and returning starters coming back from injured reserve (Mayo, Gronkowski, Vollmer, Kelly). As a result, this makes a rookie’s chance of making the roster that much harder.
Belichick even noted in May how he felt that the Patriots could field a competitive team prior to the draft and the UDFA process.
The Eagles-Patriots tilt offered a chance for the rookies to make the most of their opportunities, and many of them did just that. Here are five rookies who I thought stood out and helped their chances of making and contributing to a very talented New England roster, one that is drawing comparisons to Patriot teams of a decade ago.
When the Patriots drafted the 6’2″ 225 pound quarterback out of Eastern Illinois with the 52nd overall pick in the draft, it confused many Patriots fans. Many were left wondering why the team opted to select a quarterback when they have Tom Brady and could use that selection to provide him with another weapon to throw to. However, Belichick and the scouting department saw the value in Garoppolo and simply could not pass. After his first two preseason games, the 22 year old has impressed. After outplaying Ryan Mallett against the Washington Redskins, Garoppolo was given the opportunity to relieve Brady of his duties around the 5 minute mark of the first quarter, instead of Mallett. Garoppolo played the rest of the first half and showcased a good skill set.
Jimmy once again looked comfortable and in command of the offense. Throughout training camp, there have been countless reports about how Garoppolo is a work-in-progress and needs much more work. Once the lights are on, however, Garoppolo finds a rhythm and displays his lightning quick release. He connected with Brandon Lafell on a 3rd and 8 by completing an out pattern for a gain of 25. The line provided solid protection and Jimmy hung in the pocket as pressure was coming and made a strong throw. He also connected with Lafell on a dig pattern in the back of the end-zone on 3rd and goal for a touchdown. Jimmy once again hung in the pocket while pressure was quickly forming and Lafell hauled in the pass through traffic.
Although it is still very early and is only preseason, it looks as if the Patriots knew what they were doing in May’s draft by selecting the young quarterback.
Every year, Belichick and the coaching staff seem to find a diamond in the ruff during the undrafted free agency process. This year, they may have found something in 5’11″ 190 pound Malcolm Butler, the rookie CB out of West Alabama. He has played the most snaps out of any New England defender in the first two games (113), and he has a nose for the ball. After a strong debut against Washington, Butler followed it by forcing two fumbles and recovering one of them, while also showing to be a willing tackler in run support.
Butler started opposite Revis in the Patriots base 3-4 alignment. This is an indication that the coaching staff is intrigued with Butler’s abilities and want to see him take reps with the first team defense. Although he got beat in coverage a few times, Butler has held his own. If he can continue making plays, it will be difficult for the coaching staff to cut him, even with the depth that New England possesses at the CB position with Revis, Browner, Arrington, Dennard, and Ryan.
Out of all of the Patriots’ rookies, James White has generated the most buzz during his brief time with the team, as he has impressed coaches, fellow teammates, and media members. He has displayed the ability to come into training camp and pick up things quickly, as well as displaying good vision and balance. The four year player at Wisconsin had a very productive collegiate career, ranking 4th on their all-time rushing list with 4,015 yards. One trait that White has valued throughout his career is ball security, as he fumbled a mere two times in 754 career touches. He even noted that “ball security is job security.”
Over the past few seasons, Patriots fans have witnessed Ridley’s fumbling issues, as he seems to fumble at some of the most inopportune times. With both Ridley and Vereen in contract years, 2014 should offer a great opportunity for James White to prove himself.
Against the Eagles, White had trouble finding holes and running room. He got a chance to play with the first team offense in the first quarter, while also standing back deep to return kickoffs with fellow rookie running back Roy Finch. White did show the ability to make defenders miss, but also missed some big holes created by the offensive lineman. He was the least productive back on the field against the Eagles.
Although his night was not all that flashy, it was interesting to see White on the field at the same time as Shane Vereen. This can create mismatches for the opposing defenses, as both are capable runners and pass catchers. His offensive versatility should allow the offense to cause headaches for opposing defenses.
Unlike James White, Roy Finch, the 5’7″ speedy UDFA scat back from Oklahoma, had a productive night against Philadelphia. The first thing you notice about Finch is his explosion and quickness. He is slippery runner and makes it hard for defenders to hit him square on. He has positional versatility as well, as he can line up in the backfield or split out wide as a receiver, as well as returning kickoffs. Finch showed his receiving ability by snatching a quick screen from Ryan Mallett when he came in motion from the outside into the slot position and then exploding up-field for a gain of 12 and a first down, arguably his nicest play of the night.
Finch also scored a touchdown on the same drive. In the third quarter on a 2nd and 9 from the Eagles’ 10-yard line, Ryan Mallett changed the play at the line of scrimmage. The pulling right guard, Josh Kline, kicked out an Eagles’ defensive back and allowed Finch to sprint into the end zone. He showed a good ability to hit the hole hard and read his block.
Could Finch be one another UDFA find for the Pats? If he can continue his strong preseason, Finch could sneak onto the roster as a fourth running back over Brandon Bolden or fellow rookie Jonas Gray.
The rookie defensive back out of Georgia Tech is a typical Bill Belichick draft selection, as he is also highly versatile. With the ability to play S, CB, the nickel, and special teams, Thomas has a unique skill set. Listed at 5’9″, he is considered undersized, but he makes up for it with his physical play and ability to play all over the field.
He was a part of the first-team kickoff coverage unit against the Eagles. He continued to play special teams for the first half before coming into the game in the 3rd quarter. Thomas played more of a safety/deep coverage role in the 3rd and then played cornerback for 4th quarter.
Thomas was targeted in coverage by the Eagles on a red-zone pass intended for rookie second round receiver Jordan Matthews from Vanderbilt. Thomas was lined up in man coverage off of the receiver and did a good of staying with him in coverage while he ran across and then up the field into the end-zone. The pass fell incomplete.
The ways the coaching staff used Jemea Thomas in multiple roles can only help his chances of making the 53-man roster.