The Patriots’ first test run for the 2014 season didn’t go too well — a 23-6 loss to the Redskins last Thursday in which they didn’t generate any points for 58 minutes, they put the ball on the ground too many times, and couldn’t tackle in the run game.
Not to fret, of course — many starters didn’t play, including Tom Brady and Darrelle Revis, and the ones who did were mostly off the field by the second quarter.
But coach Bill Belichick still wants to see a better effort, especially from the backups, when the Patriots hit the field at Gillette Stadium Friday night against the Eagles in the second of four preseason games.
Here are five areas to watch:
1. Quarterback rotation will speak volumes
Brady is likely to play two or three series, or about the first quarter of the game. What Belichick does next at quarterback, though, will speak a lot about the team’s intentions at backup.
The safe play is to keep three quarterbacks on the roster, like the Patriots did in Ryan Mallett’s rookie season. But there has been increasing talk about keeping only two after Mallett struggled against Washington and Jimmy Garoppolo shined.
We’ll see how Belichick views the quarterback race with the snap count Friday night. If Mallett plays most of the second, third, and even into the fourth quarter, it will be a clear sign that the Patriots are preparing him as Brady’s backup. But if Belichick lets Garoppolo play most or all of the second half, it could be a sign the team is willing to move on from Mallett and use his roster spot on a special teams player.
2. Competitions at strong safety and interior offensive line
The Patriots really have only two positions up for grabs this camp — strong safety next to Devin McCourty, and one of the interior offensive line spots, either center or right guard.
Second-year player Duron Harmon was presumed to be the leader for the safety job this spring, when he worked exclusively with Revis, McCourty, and Brandon Browner in drills, but Harmon has lost a lot of playing time in the last two weeks to Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung. Is it a sign Harmon has lost his grip on the job, or are the coaches just giving Chung and Wilson more snaps to evaluate whether they should make the team? Wilson was nicked up all week in practice and likely won’t play Friday, so it will be interesting to see how the reps are split between Harmon and Chung.
An interesting battle has also developed on the offensive line, with three roster spots to hand out among Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, and Jordan Devey. Wendell was presumed to be the leader at center after signing a two-year deal with an $850,000 signing bonus this offseason, and Connolly looked like he was on the outs with an unfavorable contract and subpar performance at right guard last season. But Connolly has seemingly taken Wendell’s place as the starting center for now, with Kline getting a lot of work at right guard. Cannon and Devey also have versatility to play three or four spots on the line. Two players, though, will eventually get squeezed, and Kline probably won’t be one of them.
3. Steve Maneri at tight end
The Patriots didn’t have great depth at tight end to begin with, and now are perilously thin with Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, and D.J. Williams all banged up and unlikely to play against the Eagles. The Patriots are picking up and dropping tight ends like candy — they released rookies Asa Watson and Justin Jones, picked up Steve Maneri, Ben Hartsock, and Terrence Miller, and subsequently released Hartsock and Miller. That leaves Maneri, a fifth-year veteran now on his sixth team, as the only healthy tight end on the roster for Friday. Maneri, who began his career as an offensive tackle and was on the Patriots’ practice squad in 2010, has a decent chance of sticking around in the “Matthew Mulligan” role as a blocking tight end and core special teams player, and he’ll certainly get plenty of snaps Friday (fullback James Develin can also perform tight end duties). But the Patriots aren’t done looking for tight ends, either.
4. Youngsters who have excelled
As always, a handful of unheralded youngsters have performed well in camp, and a good performance against the Eagles can help them lock up one of the final roster spots.
On offense, receiver Brian Tyms was the breakout star in the first exhibition game, catching five passes for 119 yards and a touchdown, all in the second half. A four-game suspension to start the season for testing positive for a banned substance will likely give the Patriots reason to keep him around no matter what, but he still has to convince the team to keep him around once his suspension ends. Devey, a member of the Patriots’ practice squad last season, also has impressed the coaches and played every snap on offense last week.
Undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler has had an excellent camp, played the most out of any defender against Washington, and is doing a good job of convincing Belichick to keep six cornerbacks on the roster. And this game is a great chance for young pass rushers Michael Buchanan and Zach Moore to lock up backup spots.
5. Veterans who need to pick it up
Left tackle Nate Solder was one of the few starters to play the entire first half last week, and he obviously needs the work after allowing a sack and committing a bad holding penalty. Veteran pass rusher Will Smith, the longtime Saint looking to keep his career going with the Patriots following ACL surgery last year, doesn’t look like he has much left in the tank and is in danger of getting cut. Browner needs to prove he can make it at least one game without getting busted for defensive holding or illegal contact, and Brandon Bolden, who sat out the last game with an injury, needs to prove to Belichick it’s worth keeping four running backs.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin