FOXBOROUGH – The dress rehearsal phase is over for the Patriots. They got to run their lines and tweak the script on the preseason stage against the Jaguars, Buccaneers, Lions and Giants. Ten days from today they have to go out and put on a real performance against the Miami Dolphins in the regular season curtain-raiser.
Speaking of curtains, it’s always hard to peer behind the iron one established by a certain laconic coach who is as good at disguising his intentions as he is defensive coverages. There is bound to be a surprise from Bill Belichick in reducing his roster to 53 tomorrow. Trying to play roster roulette is a futile exercise I’ll leave to others.
But here are seven points and predictions gleaned from the Patriots’ preseason:
1. Aaron Hernandez is primed for a breakout season – Call him a tight end, call him an oversized wide receiver, call him a hybrid, whatever you call him he’s the best pass catcher on this team after Wes Welker. Hernandez led the Patriots in receptions during the preseason with 16 for 178 yards and a score. More impressive than his numbers were the number of ways the Patriots deployed him.
On the Patriots’ second touchdown drive against the Giants, last night, Hernandez lined up in the backfield flanking Brady in the shotgun, then he was slot left in a five-wide, empty set, then he was lined up wide at wide receiver for two plays, and on BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s 1-yard touchdown run, Hernandez was lined up in a three-point stance as the fullback. During the preseason, the team also flexed him out, a la Indianapolis's Dallas Clark, lined him up at H-back, and put him as the slot (i.e. Welker) wide receiver in a three receiver set.
The versatility of the second-year pass-catcher allows the Patriots to create and exploit match-ups by both personnel and formation. While fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski earned most of the accolades last year for his 10 TD catches as a rookie, it’s worth noting that Hernandez actually had more receptions (45) and receiving yards (563).
2. Old is new at defensive end – Andre Carter, 32, and Shaun Ellis, 34, look like starting defensive ends. The two elder statesman ends both showed they can be three-down players for the Patriots. Carter terrorized Tampa Bay as a pass rusher. He was less effective against Detroit, but demonstrated he can hold up against the run. In his first action of the preseason, Ellis notched a sack and a pressure in the first half against the Giants’ second string. The performance of the ex-Jet might have been enough for the Patriots to send Mark Anderson, who was swallowed up in extended time against Detroit and is a liability against the run, packing. It appears Anderson and Eric Moore could be fighting for one roster spot as a pass rush specialist in sub packages.
3. The interior offensive line is cause for concern – It is not a comforting thought that with Ryan Wendell out since July 31 and Dan Connolly nursing an ankle injury, Rich Ohrnberger is the starting right guard. Dante Scarnecchia is among the best offensive line coaches in the game, but he’s not an alchemist. He can't just turn any warm body in pads into a competent Brady bodyguard. The Patriots used Nate Solder at right tackle against the Giants. They might have to try him at guard. However, Solder’s height and lanky frame are not ideal to playing in-line offensive line. Connolly was very competent in filling in for Logan Mankins last year, but has been banged up and inconsistent so far.
4. Danny Woodhead is a leading man – Labeling the Lilliputian rusher a third-down back is a disservice. He is the best running back on the roster, period. Woodhead averaged 7.4 yards per carry in the preseason and consistently found running room with quick cuts, patience and peripheral vision. Woodhead is not just good in space; he is good at creating space. His size prevents him from being a bell cow back and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the go-to guy on the goal line. But the Patriots should make Woodhead, who averaged 7 carries per game last season, toting the rock more often a priority.
5. Jermaine Cunningham is a forgotten man – This was a lost preseason and opportunity for Cunningham. Back in April at the draft, part of the reasoning for the Patriots passing on pass rushers was that they were bullish on Cunningham. The second-year defensive end outside linebacker played in only the first preseason game and beat a tight end for a sack, before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the preseason. It speaks volumes that after watching Cunningham early in training camp, Belichick went out and loaded up on veteran pass rushing defensive ends like Anderson, Carter and Ellis. Cunningham has a lot to prove when he returns from his injury, and he’s staring up at the depth chart like it's Mount Kilimanjaro.
6. Receivers not catching on – This isn’t about Ochocinco. It’s alarming the trouble the Patriots are having developing a young receiver. If Brandon Tate makes this team it’s akin to a death row pardon. Taylor Price has potential and showed flashes against the Jaguars' junior varsity, but failed to build on that momentum when given a chance to run with the ones against Detroit. Matthew Slater, who until this preseason was regarded as Larry Izzo Lite and played 43 offensive snaps last season according to Pro Football Focus, was the most impressive young receiver during the preseason. Currently, the last two homegrown wideouts the Patriots successfully integrated were Deion Branch and David Givens, drafted in 2002. Not good.
7. Safety issue – The Patriots have all but broadcast their displeasure with their safety play, outside of the excitable and likable Patrick Chung. Some have interpreted Brandon Meriweather’s presence on the field in the closing stages of last night’s game as a sign he’s headed for the unemployment line. It would be a display of marked hubris to part ways with Meriweather when it’s clear you don’t have an upgrade on the roster. Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo are not Super Bowl-caliber safeties, sorry. Ras-I Dowling could be Eugene Wilson 2.0 down the line, but he is not right now. Talk all you want about Belichick cutting Lawyer Milloy in 2003, but he had a better option in Rodney Harrison, who made Milloy redundant.
Points after – Albert Haynesworth is very bright and says all the right things, but it’s his actions not his words that will determine his career path. ... Mike Wright’s $2.315 million base salary, his concussion history and the team’s defensive line depth could make him a candidate for a surprise cut. ... Based on how he was used in the Giants game, the Patriots see Shane Vereen as a Woodhead-type.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.