Offense stuck in neutral
IF A team's third preseason game is indeed a dress rehearsal, as it's often described, there could be cause for concern about the preparedness of the Patriots' offense for the start of the regular season. On Friday night, it didn't look like a group that's anywhere near ready to raise the curtain.
There was a saving-grace series near the end of the first half, when Tom Brady connected with new tight end Scott Chandler for a pretty touchdown pass, but prior to that the Pats' attack looked pathetic. Over its first five drives, New England thrice punted after three plays and Tom Brady was twice intercepted.
The quarterback was 2-for-7 to that point in the game (and 5-for-16 in the preseason). The running backs had managed 19 yards on nine carries. In 19 plays, New England had netted 42 yards from scrimmage.
“Obviously couldn't do anything in the first half,” coach Bill Belichick succinctly put it. “Couldn't run, couldn't throw.”
The visit to Carolina marked the third consecutive exhibition in which the same was essentially true, which is not encouraging.
But it's not quite time to panic yet because as much is made of the third preseason game, its results haven't foretold much about the Patriots over recent seasons and because many of the players who joined Brady on the field Friday won't be on the roster, or in those same roles, come the for-real opener on Sept. 10.
Fifteen players will be gone by Tuesday, at which point NFL rosters must be reduced from 90 to 75. Then by next Saturday the squad will be sliced to 53.
“Not the great part of the job,” acknowledged Belichick, who'll have some difficult decisions to make over the next week, not including the big one that's beyond his control, involving Brady's four-game suspension.
With 41 percent of the team to be released over the next six days, with a number of projected starters having yet to appear in the preseason, and with another exhibition between now and the deadline, it's nearly impossible to predict what the Pats will look come Saturday night, even this late in the process. But try we will.
Position-by-position, here's a projection of New England's initial 53-man roster:
Quarterback (2): Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo. Whether through a settlement, a vacated decision or an injunction pending a later appeal of the NFL's ruling against him, the guess here is that Brady is eligible for Week 1. Sorry, Ryan Lindley.
Running back (5+1): LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden, James White, Dion Lewis, Eric Kettani. Blount is suspended for the opener, so he won't count among the 53 initially, yet running back might still be the most interesting position to follow come cut-down day. Lewis' production the past couple weeks gives him the nod over veteran Travaris Cadet, while James Develin's broken leg creates an opening for a fullback. Kettani was released last week, but is familiar with the system.
Offensive line (9): Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, Tre' Jackson, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming, David Andrews. It was a good sign that Solder and Vollmer returned to game action Friday, though Stork still hasn't played after dealing with a couple of injuries last season. Rookie Andrews, the starting center in his stead, thus gets a spot over Josh Kline or Ryan Groy.
Wide receiver (5): Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Reggie Wayne, Matt Slater, Aaron Dobson. Brandon LaFell hasn't been removed from the physically unable to perform list, so it looks increasingly unlikely he'll be ready. Wayne needs to do more than he did in 20 catch-less snaps Friday, but he gets a spot over a couple of the younger receivers the Pats will hope get to the practice squad. So does Dobson, who did a good job of getting a step on his defender, but could've fought harder to prevent Brady's first pick Friday night.
Tight end (4): Rob Gronkowski, Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui, Michael Williams. The Gronk-Chandler tandem should be fascinating in the red zone, as Friday's strike to Chandler showed. Either Hoomanawanui or Williams could be on the bubble, but the Pats just traded for Williams with the intention of converting him to tight end last week, and Hoomanawanui is a favorite of the coaches. He's also lined up as a fullback in the past, if New England chooses to keep Develin on the roster for his six- to eight-week recovery period, and get creative rather than adding another true fullback.
Defensive line (9): Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch, Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers. Easley looked explosive in making a couple plays in the backfield Friday night, and thus far Sheard (free agent) and Brown (first-round pick) appear to be good fits, too. This unit has promise.
Linebackers (5): Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jonathan Freeny, James Morris. The three starters are clear, if healthy, and so it was a good sign that both Mayo and Hightower were in the mix against the Panthers. Freeny and Morris have shown well enough this summer to suggest both can help, though if the Pats wanted to make room for another position, Friday's start of Ninkovich at outside linebacker suggests they could be thinking of keeping only four, with Ninkovich as the fallback if an emergency occurs mid-game.
Cornerback (5): Malcolm Butler, Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher, Logan Ryan, Robert McClain. The belief is that Brown has emerged as the second corner behind Butler, and upon getting the start Friday he broke up the first ball thrown his way. Fletcher has earned a spot, too, while McClain's willingness to be physical in the slot gives him appeal as the Pats try to replace Kyle Arrington. At a minimum, Friday's showing against the Panthers was a sign New England's DBs are at least good enough to hold their own against an average receiving corps.
Safety (6): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner. At least initially, the first three will handle the bulk of the business in the defensive backfield, while the others are essentially special teamers in need of a positional designation. The Pats won't get a ton from their tight ends, linebackers or running backs in kick coverage, particularly if Bolden becomes a more featured player offensively, so Richards, Wilson and Ebner could be relatively important.
Special teamers (3): Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona. This year there's no competition in camp for the kicker, punter or long snapper, respectively. So at least three guys can feel comfortable as this stressful week commences.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.