New England Patriots at Philadelphia Eagles: Ten Keys to Preseason Week 1

Rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld has impressed onlookers thus far; will he continue to do so tonight? (Photo: US Presswire)

NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones

The New England Patriots begin the preseason tonight with an exhibition against Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles; read on for ten keys to the preseason opener.

1. How will the overall offensive tempo affect defensive performance?

One of the most intriguing elements of New England’s preseason opener at Philadelphia is how both defensive units will handle what should ultimately be the two fastest offenses in the league in terms of game tempo. In 2012, New England led the league in plays from scrimmage (1,191), while Philadelphia ranked sixth (1,079 snaps) and figure to finish even higher in 2013 as a consequence of hiring former Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly to succeed Andy Reid. To date, the biggest mystery regarding Kelly’s initial pro campaign has been how he will adapt his collegiate offense to meet the demands of the pro game, as the Ducks were wildly successful over the course of Kelly’s tenure as head coach by utilizing a blazing no-huddle which prized snap volume but which most closely resembles New England’s more pro-style no-huddle.

Although Kelly appears willing to deviate from the specific details of his Ducks offense, it appears to be a safe bet that his overall football philosophy will manifest itself via a more pro-style scheme which nonetheless retains the same underlying principles which have made him such a prized commodity. That figures to limit the variety of personnel groupings possible on defense as well as challenge New England’s defensive communication.

2. How much have New England’s backup quarterbacks developed?

Patriots fans are already well-acquainted with Tom Brady, but how New England’s other quarterbacks perform will be one of the most-scrutinized aspects of the game, with both Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow projected to receive significant playing time. For Mallett, the preseason is his most substantial opportunity to convince teams that he represents a legitimate starting option at the pro level, while Tebow is fighting to make the roster at this point and needs to show that his ability to conduct both pre-and-post-snap reads has developed to the point where he is not a complete liability at the position.

Mallett figures to work as New England’s second-team quarterback, where his best opportunity to increase his value is by showing tighter footwork and, in what could perhaps be considered a byproduct of that, improved accuracy. Some speculation has centered around whether Tebow will be worked into New England’s offense in any ways other than as a traditional quarterback, although it seems unlikely that the Patriots will ruin any potential surprises by employing Tebow in an unorthodox manner during the preseason. For now, the team may be better served by exploring his skills as a passer.

3. How will New England’s new receiving corps perform?

Among all of New England’s personnel groupings, the wide receiver position is probably the most fluid at this point, with eight players possessing a realistic chance at earning one of the five or six spots available on the final roster: Kamar Aiken, Danny Amendola, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Michael Jenkins, Matthew Slater, and Kenbrell Thompkins. At this point, it would come as a surprise if Amendola (due to New England’s $28.5 million investment in him back in March), Dobson (a 2013 second-round pick), Boyce (a 2013 fourth-round pick), or Slater (New England’s special teams captain) were left off the roster. Therefore, the final spot or two will be pursued by Aiken, Edelman, Jenkins, and Thompkins.

Thus far in training camp, Thompkins, an undrafted free agent, appears to have the inside track on a roster spot, while Edelman’s versatility on offense as well as on special teams could push him ahead of a strict receiving option such as Jenkins or a strict special teams option such as Aiken. However, the preseason should be a factor in dictating not only the players on the final roster, but also New England’s depth chart at the position, which remains unresolved as well.

4. What will New England’s offensive personnel groupings look like?

Without Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez, it remains to be seen how the Patriots will operate offensively. It’s possible that the team’s two-tight end sets will remain with different personnel, in which case the offense should be stylistically similar,if not as efficient. Among the players currently on roster, undrafted free agent Zach Sudfeld has drawn the most praise for his work during practice; at this point, he appears likely to make the final roster and could even end up as a starter thanks to his comparatively superior athleticism. Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui return from last season, while Jake Ballard, claimed last year when subjected to waivers by the New York Giants, intrigues for the receiving acumen he displayed before undergoing serious knee surgeries (ACL reconstruction and microfracture surgery.) Brandon Ford also possesses an outside shot at a roster spot.

If the Patriots opt to get as many of their most appealing weapons onto the field as possible, however, we could see a variety of three-receiver sets, in which New England floods the field with receiving options. This may ultimately be the case, as the most salient characteristic of New England’s offensive philosophy under Bill Belichick has been a willingness to adapt the team’s schemes to best take advantage of personnel. Keep in mind that New England did not become heavily reliant on two-tight end formations until Gronkowski and Hernandez originally joined the team, so there may not be a significant inclination towards those particular offensive looks.

5. Can any of New England’s reserve offensive linemen impress?

Currently, New England’s depth along the offensive line is limited at best, especially in light of the team’s recent decision to cut swing reserve Nick McDonald; this figures to create opportunities for an underdog candidate or two to make the final roster. At this point, five players can be considered safe bets to make the team: left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard/right tackle Marcus Cannon, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer; two-year starter Dan Connolly could also factor into the starting mix at right guard or provide a versatile reserve with the capacity to play any of the three interior positions in a pinch. However, Connolly has missed time during training camp while recovering from a shoulder surgery and could potentially be jettisoned in favor of one of the various reserves on roster, a list which includes Tyronne Green, Markus Zusevics, and Chris McDonald (brother of Nick.)

Green could be the most talented player listed, and would allow the Patriots to save additional money by leaving Connolly off of the final roster. The line should be rounded out by swing tackle Will Svitek, who projects as New England’s primary backup tackle this year but has recently been worked in at guard as well. Philadelphia’s deep rotation of linemen and linebackers, a list which includes talent such as Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham, and Vinny Curry, should make protecting their quarterbacks difficult for New England’s offensive linemen.

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