6 observations from the Patriots’ preseason opener
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey (83) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants during the second half of a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots played their preseason opener against the Giants Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. It was the first time we’ve gotten to see the team play live reps after three weeks of training camp practices.
A number of observations made during training camp hinged on the qualifier ‘but we need to see it in a game.’ Now that a game has been played, what has been confirmed and what new information was added? Here’s five takeaways from Thursday night.
Final wide receiver battle getting closer and closer
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Tre Nixon (82) returns a kick against the New York Giants during the first half of a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Whether or not the Patriots keep a sixth receiver is a question of its own. If they do, the battle for that spot is a tight compeition.
Second-year wideout Tre Nixon has had a strong summer. He appeared to be the leader for that spot coming into the game, and backed up his case with an overall impressive performance after a shaky start to the game with a drop. He finished with four catches for 81 yards.
However, Lil’Jordan Humphrey has done his part to close the gap. Signed by the Patriots in June, he was a little slow getting started in camp but made a number of standout plays the last week. In the preseason, he continued to show a knack to get open. He caught six passes on eight targets, scoring one of the team’s two touchdowns through the air on an impressive slot fade route.
After the game, Humphrey said he’s feeling more comfortable after being to settle in with the Patriots. “I feel like it’s, kind of getting back into the groove of playing football. It’s been a minute, I didn’t get to do OTAs, minicamp, anything like that,” he noted (Humphrey was unsigned throughout this spring until joining the Patriots in mid-June, after the spring practice period). “Coming back and getting back in condition, learning the playbook, I feel like I’m catching my groove back again.”
Kristian Wilkerson is in the mix as well. He was the most involved of the three Thursday night finishing as the team’s leading receiver with eight catches on 12 targets for 99 yards.
Jul 29, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Pierre Strong Jr (54) walks onto the field during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Pierre Strong Jr. was on the field quite a bit in the second half. He finished as the team’s leading rusher with six carries for 25 yards. He also caught a pass for no gain – but more importantly looked the part as a pass blocker.
Strong’s involvement is notable because he only starting taking part in team drills late last week after being limited for most of training camp. Generally, the Patriots will ease those players into action while they ‘catch up’ to the rest of the roster.
Putting Strong in the game as much as they did may be a sign that he’s not as far ‘behind’ as a player typically would be after missing as much time as he did, and the rookie could still be in line for a contributing role early in the season.
Depth on the defensive front
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55) tackles New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) during the first half in a prison game at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Collectively, the Patriots’ best position group was the defensive line/edge rushers. They showed up throughout the game, especially as pass rushers.
Josh Uche, Henry Anderson, and Anfernee Jennings made up the main group of edge players. Jennings inclusion is notable and highlights how far he’s come this summer. After missing all of last season, Jennings has worked his way into a rotational role with the top defense in practices, and was treated like a starter Thursday night. He was credited with one QB hit, but had a few other pressures as well.
Two rookies also stood out on the defensive line in sixth-round pick Sam Roberts and UDFA LaBryan Ray. Roberts showed an impressive ability to bull rush from the interior – the kind of overly-physical play that players can’t show off during camp. As for Ray, he lined up in a number of spots across the defensive line – on the interior and on the edge – and looked like a natural in all of them. That kind of versatility is key as he pushes for a roster spot.
Boundary cornerback depth still a question
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Joejuan Williams (33) walks onto the field before a preseason game against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
One position we didn’t learn a lot about Thursday night was the boundary cornerback spot. Presumed starter Jalen Mills didn’t play, and while Terrance Mitchell had a solid game including a forced fumble, the group didn’t offer much beyond that.
Malcolm Butler and Jack Jones both had some highlight moments, but were inconsistent. Joejuan Williams struggled in the second half. This all highlighted the lack of depth at the position, which remains a likely spot for an outside addition before Week 1.
A surprise contender at safety?
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Richie James (80) and New England Patriots safety Jalen Elliott (36) battle for the ball during the first half in a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Third-year safety Jalen Elliott was one of the last players to arrive at Patriots training camp. He was signed by the team on August 2, a few days into camp. It may have taken him a few days to get acclimated to the system, but now he’s started to make plays.
After a solid week of camp, Elliott was one of the most visible players on the field Thursday night, leading the team with eight tackles. Two traits that stand out about Elliott. First, he’s explosive off his cuts which allow him to cover ground quickly. That’s a key ability for a safety, one he showed to halt a screen pass midway through the third quarter. He’s also competitive at the catch-point, something the Patriots traditionally value highly in all of their defensive backs.
With the depth ahead of him at the position, Elliott still may be on the outside looking in at a roster spot. But he’s making a strong case as a potential practice squad player who could see elevations in the regular season. It’s also worth noting that Elliott was originally signed as a UDFA by the Lions in 2020 – when Matt Patricia was the team’s head coach.
Given the fact the Patriots have two proven elite punt returners on the roster in Jabrill Peppers and rookie Marcus Jones, the punt return battle in this camp figured to be a fun one. It might be tighter than expected though, as it was a third player shining in that role on Thursday night.
Third-year cornerback Myles Bryant got the nod as the punt returner against the Giants. He got two chances, running one kick back 30 yards and another 16. On both attempts, he shook multiple tackles to extend the run.
After the game, Bryant told the media it was the first time he’d returned a punt in a game since his final high school game. It’s not something he started doing until OTAs, giving credit to Troy Brown for helping coach him up.
Heading into Thursday night, Bryant appeared to be on the roster bubble. The Patriots added a number of corners this offseason, including using a top-100 pick on another slot corner in Marcus Jones. If Bryant can prove to be a factor as a returner, it significantly boosts his roster chances.
Myles Bryant out of Washington returns the punt 30 yards for the Patriots
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.