By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
This year’s Patriots training camp, more so than any other year in recent memory, was filled with positional battles. With no spring practices or preseason games, it was really difficult to get a read on where the depth chart stood at certain positions.
Sunday’s season opener was a great chance to clear that up. Based on the snap counts, we got definitive answers at some positions, while others are clearly still up for grabs.
Before we get into specifics, here are the snap counts for each players for Sunday, with offense first then defense:
Special teams-specific players are not listed here, but gunners Justin Bethel, Cody Davis, and Matthew Slater each played 14 snaps (78 percent of the Patriots’ special teams total). Slater also had one play on offense – the end-of-game knee. Punter Jake Bailey played 11 snaps (61 percent), long snapper Joe Cardona played seven (39 percent), with kicker Nick Folk on the field for four (22 percent). Guard Hjalte Froholdt also got in on four special teams snaps, and didn’t play on offense.
Now let’s focus in on four positional battles that were on display Sunday – running back, wide receiver, right tackle, and linebacker/box safety.
At running back, we learned it’s still very much an open competition. James White, Rex Burkhead, and Sony Michel all played 19 snaps each (30 percent), with Josh McDaniels employing multiple dual-back looks throughout the game. Rookie J.J. Taylor was a bit behind the main group with nine snaps (14 percent), but still was a factor, carrying the ball four times.
Diversity in the backfield is always a good thing, and all four backs bring their own unique skillset to the table. It’s not a bad thing to mix and match based on the situation, as the Patriots did on Sunday. Not only does it keep the defense off balance, but it’s a good way to keep everybody fresh and healthy – especially if the Patriots plan on running it as much as they did Sunday (the 42 team carries were the most by the Patriots since 2018).
It will be interesting to see if this trend continues once Damien Harris returns from IR. Wil he take the snaps from Taylor? Will he be incorporated into the two running back sets? Or will the Patriots expand to some 30-type personnel with James White essentially lining up as a receiver? That last option is especially intriguing, because as we learned on Sunday…
…the Patriots plan at wide receiver is still somewhat of a mess. It jumps out almost immediately that no single Patriots receiver played more than 90 percent of the total snaps, a reflection of the offense focusing on heavy personnel all afternoon. The receiver who did play the most, Damiere Byrd, didn’t see a single target on any of his 56 snaps (88 percent).
Cam Newton’s most targeted wide receiver Julian Edelman, had a particularly odd day in terms of usage. He played just over half of the team’s snaps (58 percent), a significant drop off from his usual role. Yet, he was thrown the ball on seven of his 37 total snaps, which is almost 20 percent. That’s a pretty high concentration of targets, even for a guy used to an elevated workload like Edelman.
On top of that, Edelman was on the field for 20 of the Patriots’ 22 passing plays, according to CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar. On the other hand he played just 17 of the Patriots 41 called runs. Could he end up being a giveaway?
Remember those takes during Sony Michel’s rookie year about how it was a tell when he was in the game, because the Patriots never threw the ball with him in the backfield? This is, in a way, the passing version of that.
N’Keal Harry seemed to be the only player whose time on the field correlated to his production. With 51 snaps (80 percent) he was the second-most used receiver, while being the second-most targeted pass catcher, with six balls coming his way.
So what to make of all of this? Julian Edelman is the No. 1 receiver. When he’s in the game, they’re probably passing, likely to him. Damiere Byrd has earned a ton of playing time, but with no targets. Decoy? N’Keal is a secondary receiver through and through. And despite having the second-most experience in the Patriots offense of any of the four, Jakobi Meyers is still buried in the depth chart (7 snaps, 11 percent).
Granted, the Patriots were never really put in a situation where they needed to pass the ball. We’ll see how much things change once they have their backs up against the wall. Gunner Olszewski’s return from IR will also likely shake things up. For the time being though, there’s a lot to be desired when it comes to the Patriots’ wide receiver usage.
Following Marcus Cannon’s opt out, the Patriots right tackle job was wide open for the taking as training camp began. It looked as though Jermaine Eluemunor has locked the position up handily, and he did in fact start the game on Sunday.
However it quickly turned into a rotation with guard Mike Onwenu. Eluemunor played three quarters of the offensive snaps (48), while Onwenu filled in during obvious running situations. The rookie also lined up next to Eluemunor occasionally in tackle eligible sets. In total, he played 22 offensive downs, good for 34 percent.
Is this part of an ongoing battle at the position? It seems kind of unfair Bill Belichick would have a player audition live in a game at a position he hasn’t played since high school.
Maybe instead, this was a piece of strategy. Belichick has been uniquely creative on the offensive side of the ball before, and we may have witnessed a new innovation on Sunday. Given their run-heavy game plan, it would make sense for the team to want Onwenu, a stronger run blocker, in the game.
One of the helpful things about the Patriots new offensive scheme is it’s almost purely execution-based, so it’s ok to telegraph things here and there. While Onwenu playing right tackle may tip the Patriots’ hand at times, if everybody on offense does their job it won’t matter much. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that package, as well as plenty of tackle-eligible formations with Onwenu (and fellow rookie Justin Herron, who got two such snaps on the goal line) this year.
The Patriots entered Sunday’s game thin at linebacker, even before second-round pick Josh Uche was a surprise scratch. The common question was ‘what are the Patriots going to do with no linebackers?’ Turns out, they didn’t really need any.
Ja’Whaun Bentley, as expected, stayed on the field for most of the game quarterbacking the Patriots defense. With 51 snaps (82 percent), he was the third-most used Patriots defender, behind Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore. Besides Bentley though, no linebacker played more than 33 snaps (Shilique Calhoun), with the other two active players at the position (Brandon Copeland and Anfernee Jennings) playing less than 10.
Instead of using linebackers, the Patriots took advantage of their wealth of big, athletic safeties to stop the Dolphins. For about half of the Patriots’ defensive snaps, Adrian Phillips (43 snaps, 69 percent) was the primary strong safety next to McCourty. For the remaining half, Phillips rotated into the box as a hybrid linebacker with Terrence Brooks (29 snaps, 49 percent) and Joejuan Williams (27 snaps, 44 percent) joining him or McCourty in three and even sometimes four safety sets. Rookie Kyle Dugger got a few turns in the rotation as well (11 snaps, 18 percent).
While the Patriots’ running game looked to be something pulled out of the 1970’s, the Patriots defense was almost futuristic. In a league where players are getting smaller and quicker, and tight ends are becoming more common receiving threats, teams have been trying to figure out how to get more athletic on the defensive side of the ball. Bill Belichick’s answer? Replace linebackers with safeties. It worked Week 1, now we’ll see if they can replicate it against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks offense.