By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
At long last. Real, actual football.
For those brave enough to read every last salacious scoop and cynical think-piece that's come out since the Super Bowl, coverage of the New England Patriots has been a harrowing, interminable seven-month slog. And to be fair, by now it's impossible to deny that there were at least some issues inside the walls of Gillette Stadium. But the real question is, and has always been, how it'll affect the team between the white lines.
Sunday's season opener will be the first opportunity for the Patriots to, for the 938,482,284,275,837th time, prove the doubters wrong. This particular offseason has harvested an unusual number of those right in the backyard. If Tom Brady's press conference comments on Friday are any indication, he's ready to put any and all B.S. behind him and just focus on football.
Hopefully, everyone on the other side of the podiums and TV screens can do the same. But if the Patriots falter early on, that might be too much to ask. That being said, let's get to some actual football topics as it relates to New England's football team.
Can Jacob Hollister Make The Jump?
Jacob Hollister has been hobbled by a hamstring injury in recent weeks. He's questionable for Sunday. Unfortunately, based on his status and usage in recent games and practices, there's a chance that the second-year tight end is inactive for the season opener against the Houston Texans.
But once Hollister does get on the field, he'll have his first opportunity to make that vaunted Year 2 jump. Bill Belichick certainly likes what he's seen from the 24-year-old.
"Jacob improved a lot last year and he's gotten off to a good start this year from the offseason program to our spring workouts to the start of training camp," Belichick told reporters early in training camp. "He's still got a long way to go. He has a lot of football in front of him. He didn’t have a lot of experience – had some – but has gained a lot and will gain a lot more.
"I think he’s got a great future. He works hard, he’s a tough kid, he plays hard, practices hard and has become much better at his fundamentals and techniques at his position."
Hollister stands at 6-foot-4, so he's got typical tight end size. He sprinkled a handful of head-turning catches throughout his time on the practice field, flashing his potential as a second weapon at the position for Brady. In a year where the offense could use a new weapon or two to emerge, Hollister looks like one of the team's top sleepers.
The most important thing for him and the team is that Brady can simply depend on him.
"You’ve got earn trust from your teammates, that's the No. 1 thing," Hollister told reporters on Thursday. "It's really like a family atmosphere over here. You’ve got to earn trust from your coaches, trust from your teammates. That just comes from doing your job every day, the right way, so they can count on you."
If you want to earn Brady's trust, it starts with getting comfortable and being confident in your ability to execute plays when called upon. Hollister saw plenty of targets in the early portions of training camp, prior to his hamstring issue. The hope is that he gets to see how his work translates to a real game as soon as Sunday.
Hollister's injury may keep him out for Week 1, along with the similarly promising Sony Michel. But that certainly won't take away from what Hollister has already accomplished in his work toward earning a bigger role. With top 2017 targets like Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola gone, someone new is inevitably going to have to get the ball. Hollister is as good a candidate as anyone.
"I’ve learned a lot, so I think that confidence comes from learning, and I’ve learned so much from these older guys and the coaches also," said Hollister. "That's helped me a lot. I feel good going into the second season."
5 Patriots To Watch Against The Texans
With Houston coming to Foxboro for Sunday's 2018 regular season opener, there are plenty of names that go without saying. Brady is probably a pretty important player for the Pats. Rob Gronkowski has a chance to have a big day. On defense, Stephon Gilmore could be counted on to help slow down the Texans' DeAndre Hopkins.
But it's also worth highlighting the Patriots who aren't necessarily at the forefront of the discussion heading into the game. Players who could be grabbing evening headlines for the way they stepped up and helped lead New England to victory (as most of us are predicting) in unexpected ways.
You might just react to these names with "Well, duh." Surely you're quite familiar with this 2018 New England Patriots roster by now. No one's exactly going to sneak up on anyone at this point. Just don't be shocked if they have more of an impact than expected.
RB James White
Especially for the first four weeks of the season, White has a chance to be counted on perhaps more than any weapon in Brady's arsenal. Gronk is obviously the big-time playmaker of the group. But on key third downs, inside work, and most definitely on those beautiful screens ... White could find himself at the top of the target hierarchy. There's a good chance that Brady is going to have to get the ball out of his hands quickly on Sunday, and he's likely to look White's way early and very often.
DT Adam Butler
There's been all kinds of talk about the Texans pass rush, and rightfully so. But the Patriots' defensive line against the Texans' offensive line may actually be the biggest mismatch in the game. Houston has four new starters in front of quarterback Deshaun Watson, and none of them exactly scream All-Pro. So it'll be intriguing to see how the entire Pats defensive front affects this game. But it's Butler who will be counted on to generate pressure up the middle on Watson, and could be the key piece to causing plays to break down. The second-year defensive tackle has a chance to make a Hollister-like jump on the defense.
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley
In a 2018 Patriots draft class snakebitten by injury, Bentley represents the beacon of hope for 2018. He's looked like a real find in the fifth round so far, likely supplanting Elandon Roberts as the third-in-command of the Patriots linebacking corps. If the Texans plan to get running back Lamar Miller involved a lot, especially in the passing game, Belichick could be turning to the rookie to slow him down. The idea that Bentley could already be earning that level of trust from the coach is a strong indicator of his potential, both short and long-term.
CB Jonathan Jones
Gilmore vs. Hopkins is the marquee matchup everyone's expecting. But if Gilmore and the safeties are at their best, they have a good chance to keep him contained. So Watson may have to look elsewhere, and slot receiver Bruce Ellington could be that guy. He made four catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in last season's game. Slowing him down is where Jones will come in. With rookie Duke Dawson on injured reserve to begin the season, Jones is the clear go-to guy against Y receivers. If he can pull his weight along with the boundary corners, it'll be that much harder for Watson to make plays through the air.
C David Andrews
Brady has always had more trouble with pressure coming up the middle than off the edge. Bill O'Brien and the Texans know this, and it's why you'll see guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus trying to disrupt things on the interior. It's going to be up to Andrews to work in tandem with Brady to set the proper protections. It'll be an even bigger challenge to execute those protections against some world-class pass rushers.
1. Why is there (seemingly) no concern whatsoever about Watson in his second season? This isn't about his long-term outlook. Watson has flashed superstar potential and could very well be a great quarterback in the big picture. But his sophomore season could be more trying than people are anticipating. We're talking about a 23-year-old with only six games under his belt, coming off a torn ACL, with film on him helping teams prepare. It really shouldn't shock anyone if he takes a step back in his sophomore season, before bouncing back and elevating himself in year 3. If he goes right back to lighting it up like he did as a rookie ... then Watson may be even more special than anyone imagined.
2. It's hard to fault the Steelers for hesitating to pay Le'Veon Bell. Despite other top running backs getting paid groundbreaking money, it's always going to be a risky proposition to sink multiple years for an AAV north of $12-13 million into a single player at that position. Despite that, it's quite easy to fault Bell's teammates for speaking publicly about his contract. That's a no-no. And while the Steelers have been able to withstand similar internal issues, this particular problem is coupled with one of their best players being absent. If Bell is truly as valuable as he believes he is, his absence is inevitably going to be a detriment to the team on the field.
3. Who has the bigger test on Monday night: Matt Patricia or Sam Darnold? It'll be Patricia's first crack at improving the spotty legacy of the Belichick coaching tree in his debut as Detroit Lions head coach. Darnold, meanwhile, gets thrown right into the NFL fire as the Jets' clear starting QB. If Patricia has learned anything from Belichick, it's how to confuse young quarterbacks on defense. But Patricia was also at the helm of a Patriots team that had trouble with Watson just last season. This game presents one of the most fascinating early matchups of the season, and one with plenty of relevance to New England fans.
Check out Matt Dolloff's Sunday Shift every game day for the NFL, where he covers both big-picture topics and detailed feature stories as it relates to the New England Patriots. You'll also get various thoughts and opinions about the league with his "Three-Point Stance".
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].