The first preseason game of the 2018 season is in the books for the New England Patriots. It's time to assess who improved their status, and who dropped off.
For the preseason, it's particularly important to take a look at the players who are fighting to make the 53-man roster. That's what the coaches are doing, anyway. A large chunk of these games is used to evaluate players who are on the bubble. But there were also encouraging performances from players with chances to step in and contribute greatly right away.
Rising: RB Jeremy Hill
There's a clear competition for early-down duties in the Patriots' running game, and Hill has taken a clear lead. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry on Thursday, and looked quicker than he did in the previous two seasons with the Bengals. He even caught a couple of passes. If he can regain the magic of his rookie season, he'd have a chance to be one of the better pure runners the Pats have had in recent years.
Falling: RB Mike Gillislee
Gillislee was already taking a clear back seat to Hill in the running game, barely mustering anything on the ground. Then he and Danny Etling fumbled while exchanging a handoff in the fourth quarter. The fact that Gillislee was thrown out there in the fourth quarter in the first place wasn't a great sign for the former Buffalo Bills back, who was also out-shined by the rookie.
Rising: LB Ja'Whaun Bentley
The linebacker position is one that could continue to be an issue for the Patriots defense in 2018, but a strong rookie campaign from Bentley could also make a big difference. The former Purdue linebacker led the unit with six total tackles, generated pressure on the quarterback at times, and even flanked out into coverage on some plays. The word was that Bentley would be mainly a run-stopper at the NFL level, but he sure made a good first impression for the team as they look for a more versatile game out of him.
Falling: LB Elandon Roberts
Roberts lingered out there with the defense for most of the game, eventually sticking out like a sore thumb. The third-year linebacker could suddenly find himself on the roster bubble if Bentley continues to make strides, because Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy (bad night notwithstanding) certainly aren't going anywhere.
Rising: Running Game
Bill Belichick lauded the "good depth and competition" the Patriots have at that position in his postgame presser, and it showed with the eye-opening games by Hill and rookie Ralph Webb. Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel didn't even play, and James White barely got any snaps, but the runners still impressed. With the way they looked Thursday and the way they've been utilized so far in camp, the backs could turn out to be the driving force of the Patriots offense - especially if they can be more active in the passing game.
Falling: Starting Defense
Basically missing only Trey Flowers and Devin McCourty, the Patriots defense rolled out most of the players that will be expected to start this season. And for much of the second half against backup Colt McCoy, the unit struggled mightily. Van Noy got burned on the first touchdown of the game in an attempt to cover running back Byron Marshall, while Stephon Gilmore couldn't keep up with receiver Robert Davis. It's possible they're simply not ready for real game situations due to a light camp so far, and they'll look much better once they get to the third preseason "dress rehearsal" game. But either way, it certainly wasn't a strong start for the Patriots' top defenders.
This will be a continuous series throughout the regular season. But for the pre-season, the focus will mainly be on players fighting to make the roster. Next Rise & Fall comes next Thursday/Friday night when the Pats take on the Philadelphia Eagles.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].