By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Here’s your weekly list of players to overreact to, or to dismiss entirely, because It’s The Preseason™.
Saturday’s game between the Patriots and Tennessee Titans is likely to feature more of the starters, including Tom Brady – for a series or two. But for roster-building purposes, it’s still more important to closely watch the backups that take over, likely by the end of the first quarter.
The Patriots have uncommon depth and competition at almost every position this season, which bodes very well for those groups – particularly on defense. That’s where the most important players to watch will emerge. Elsewhere, thinner positions like wide receiver (thanks to injuries) and tight end are presenting opportunities for players who are presumably on the roster bubble.
Below is one player from each position to keep a close eye on during Saturday’s game, assuming they all play. It’s likely you’ll see them all if you can stick it out for all four quarters. Some of them are obvious, so we’ll spend less time on them. But others could be in a surprising amount of jeopardy of missing the cut on Sept. 1 and will need to stand out.
Quarterback: Jarrett Stidham
Of course. It’s worth checking out how Stidham performs after a promising preseason debut against the Lions. His arm talent is undeniable, but his command of the huddle and poise under pressure were surprising last week. Consistency will be key for him.
Wide Receiver: Dontrelle Inman
A rash of injuries at receiver have opened up a golden opportunity for Inman, who looked good against the Lions and made more plays as training camp went along. He appears to be building more and more understanding of the Patriots offense. Inman could be a dark horse to slide into a spot on the 53-man roster if Maurice Harris can’t get back on the field and Braxton Berrios can’t continue to improve.
Assuming Harris, Phillip Dorsett, and N’Keal Harry won’t be able to go, Inman will need to strike while the iron is hot. But even so, it may take attrition for Inman to hold onto the spot he’s moved into amid the injuries. He should be considered behind Berrios at this point, but Brady and the Patriots clearly like what they’re seeing from him lately.
Running Back: Nick Brossette
It would be nice to see rookie Damien Harris on Saturday night, but he’s dealing with a hand/wrist injury, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. And he’s a roster lock anyway, but either way we’ll likely see more of Brossette against the Titans. Conceivably, the undrafted rookie out of LSU could only push Rex Burkhead off the 53-man roster, and it might take an injury to Burkhead to make that happen. He’s not likely to usurp special teams cornerstone Brandon Bolden, either.
Ultimately, Brossette could show enough to make this year’s practice squad, this year’s version of Ralph Webb (2018), D.J. Foster (2017), and Bishop Sankey (2016). He’d have a chance to be a solid reserve back for early downs if they’re in an injury pinch and need to promote him to the main roster.
Tight End: Ryan Izzo
The only hope for Izzo to last beyond Week 4 is if the Patriots opt to carry more than two tight ends on the roster. Matt LaCosse is very likely to make the team, barring a serious injury – but he reportedly only has a sprained ankle. Ben Watson looks like the starter once he returns in Week 5. So eyes should be focused on Izzo for that second spot behind LaCosse, assuming the latter is ready for Week 1.
Izzo has an advantage of a season in the system over rookie Andrew Beck and newcomer Eric Saubert. The former Falcons tight end is also worth watching, but he’s only likely as a special teamer. He may need to push Izzo for snaps as an in-line blocker to have a real shot at the Final 53. Izzo has looked solid in that department and that may be enough for him to make the team after a redshirt rookie season.
Offensive Line: Isaiah Wynn
Obviously. The rest of the offensive line is set. Dan Skipper, Ted Karras, and rookie Hjalte Froholdt are likely to make the team. Wynn is a lock, but it would be great to see him get some real (preseason) game snaps on the blind side and see how he does at that speed. His starter reps remain limited but are continually rising, but it still seems likely that Skipper will roll with the 1’s to start the game. Still, Wynn is clearly ramping it up and hopefully he gets a healthy snap count on Saturday.
Defensive Line: Deatrich Wise
The Patriots are showing more 3-4 looks on defense in the buildup to the season. Consistent with those alignments, their personnel up front shows a clear split between big-bodied linemen who can engage multiple blockers and relatively smaller, quicker edge rushers. Wise is somewhere in the middle of those two styles and hasn’t consistently excelled in either.
A pro’s pro, Wise has been putting in extra work after practice and appears to be trying to move to the interior of the D-line. With his unconventional frame for those positions, he’s probably behind all out of Michael Bennett, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Mike Pennel, and Danny Shelton. It looks like he’ll really need to set himself apart and show impressive versatility to prove he should stick around on the roster.
Linebacker: Elandon Roberts
Speaking of personnel, the Patriots look well-stocked at inside linebacker with the return of Jamie Collins and a healthy Ja’Whaun Bentley behind Dont’a Hightower. Kyle Van Noy and John Simon (listed as a DE on Patriots.com) are locked in on the outside, while Shilique Calhoun keeps getting starter snaps and making plays off the edge in practice (Patriots.com lists him as a LB). Roberts is purely an inside guy who can stop the run on defense, so he needs to stand out in that regard. Otherwise, he’s looking like simply the odd man out and an unfortunate victim of the Patriots’ defensive depth.
Safety: Obi Melifonwu
Duron Harmon has at times ceded reps to both Terrence Brooks and Meilfonwu as the deep safety during camp. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the veteran safety is in trouble. It could simply mean the Pats are conserving him and doing their damndest to find a fit for Melifonwu, who signed during the 2018 season. So like the team, let’s take a long look at Melifonwu on Saturday. His only hope may be to push Harmon off the roster, because he’s likely not beating out Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Brooks, or Nate Ebner. He may be having the same issue that he had in Oakland, which is a lack of ability to find a clearly defined role.
Cornerback: Duke Dawson
Another kind of obvious one, because the rest of this cornerback group remains as deep and talented as any positional group on any team in the league. It’s become a very unique situation for Bill Belichick, who never moves on from second-round picks before giving them two full seasons in the system. Dawson reportedly had his best practice of camp on Thursday (via Doug Kyed), but the ones before that (and last Thursday’s game) set a low bar.
The quick emergence of fellow 2018 rookies J.C. Jackson (undrafted) and Keion Crossen (seventh round) have made it unexpectedly difficult for Dawson to stick. He’s running out of time to prove to Belichick that he deserves a spot over, say, Crossen or Jonathan Jones. The rest of the corners are roster locks and Dawson, despite his second-round status, is not.
Specialist: P Jake Bailey
No one else on special teams needs to be watched. Punter is the only real battle going on here, and we already know what the Pats have in Ryan Allen. They aggressively targeted Bailey in the draft and are starting to give him chances to hold. It’s a matter of being consistent and avoiding egregious mistakes for the rookie out of Stanford. I still have him in over Allen, but he’ll need to earn it.
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@example.com.