Considering the players out for the Patriots, a second look at the first exhibition game against Atlanta on tape proves encouraging, if not perfect, on the whole. Many of the younger players had very good or at the least flashes of good performances Saturday night. Lets take a look at the individual units to evaluate these performaces:
QUARTERBACKS: Tom Brady really didn’t play long enough to make any substantial evaluation of where he is at. But suffice to say, nothing stood out to indicate he’ll be anything but Tom Brady this season. Which is all we really need to see in pre-season. Matt Cassel had an uneven performance. At times he looked in command of the offense, and he made some good throws particularly in the second half. But he also showed he is still a work in progress and at times appeared a little unsure of himself, made poor decisions and was too hesitant. His habit of looking to run, while it produced decent results about half the time, is not what the Patriots are looking for from their quarterback and a tendancy they have tried to correct in Cassel unless it truly is a last resort. The talent is obviously there, but he is still not a finished product. Still, there was a sense he has improved from last year. Its just not going to be the amazing transformation we witnessed in Tom Brady from year one to year two. More evidence is needed, but the performance was good enough for Cassel to still win the backup job on the Patriots with some improvement in the next three exhibition games.
RUNNING BACK: While in there, Corey Dillon ran hard and with determination. He showed some improvement in his quickness from last year, probably because he is now healthy, and was productive in his first outing. But the story was rookie first round pick Laurence Maroney. Maroney was eye-popping good in his debut. Quick, strong, shifty, he really had the Falcons spinning in their tracks and not sure how to bring this young runner down on several carries. A very impressive showing. Still, one must temper their enthusiasm by noting the Falcons, like most teams, aren’t doing the full contact hitting in camp and this was their first time all year bringing runners to the ground. This may account somewhat for their trouble bring Maroney down on first contact. But still, it was a very encouraging, even exhilirating debut overall for Pats fans. Unheralded free agent Patrick Cobbs came in and showed a bit both in the receiving and running game. He led the nation in rushing last year in college, he must be doing something right. However, Cobbs is a project at best despite his good night Saturday. Not big or strong or fast enough to be a every down back in the NFL, he’ll have to make his niche somewhere else. The best thing he showed was in the passing game, where he fit in well and made some plays. He even did a decent job blocking. These could be the skills he has which helps him earn a spot on the Patriots practice squad this season. Another rookie, H-back Garrett Mills showed good hands and a knack for getting open. A good debut for him as well.
WIDE RECEIVER: This was clearly the area of the team that played the worst Saturday night. Only three catches between all the receivers and only one thru the first three quarters. Reche Caldwell had that first catch, but also got some criticism for a “drop” in the end zone on the first drive. While the drop was a much tougher play than portrayed in the local media as it was rifled at a short distance between a crowd by Tom Brady, it could have been caught. Not the worst incompletion you’ll see and a pretty tough play for any receiver, still you’d like to have seen him snare it if only to shut up the critics just looking for a reason to appear observant when it comes to a new player. The rest of the receivers didn’t show up at all. Kelvin Kight, who started and had played well in practice, didn’t show anything in the game and had no catches. The rest were equally non-descript. The Patriots will have to hope for a better performance Saturday in their next exhibition game.
TIGHT END: Ben Watson had a big catch and run and showed he’ll be a major factor in the passing game. Rookie David Thomas had a solid debut, blocking well, appearing completely coherent in the offense and had a couple catches as well. Good stuff.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Matt Light at left tackle appeared solid and back from his leg injury of last year. Rookies Ryan O’Callaghan and Dan Stevenson played well for their first NFL game and looked to belong as players. O’Callaghan in particular, a fifth round choice by the Pats this year, appeared comfortable in the running and passing games and made some really nice blocks to both give Cassel time and spring good runs. On the downside, rookie free agent Brian Barthelmes playing center was overmatched and clearly not ready yet, if ever, for this level of competition. He simply got overpowered too often and didn’t display much ability to get movement in his blocks even when not overpowered. Veteran Gene Mruczkowski was inconsisitent. He made several very good blocks, only to blow assignments a few plays later. He will have trouble making the team as a backup this season unless he can perform better from play to play.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Two young players stood out, Santonio Thomas and rookie draftee LeKevin Smith. Thomas was among the best Patriots on the field Saturday night. Playing mostly end, but some tackle as well, he shed blocks easily, held his ground when needed and was effective on almost every play he was in for. He looked outstanding and his versatility to play both end and tackle will help him. Smith also flashed similar versatility and had a very solid debut. Both these players are fighting each other for roster spots and both acquitted themselves well in round one.
LINEBACKERS: Two more young players showed up here, Pierre Woods and Jeremy Mincey. Woods was particularly good, showing power in the passing game and the ability to hold his ground when run at. Very encouraging debut by this 250 pounder who only started one year at Michigan. Mincey also showed up well, though perhaps a notch down. He flashed some pass rush ability and in general held his ground on running plays. The only negative was on a couple running plays he seemed to get sucked either too far inside or outside and thus left a gap in the defense. But a good debut overall. It should be noted linebacker Eric Alexander played well on special teams, which will help him earn a spot as a linebacker on the Patriots roster.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Safety and draft pick Willie Andrews had a good night in general. It wasn’t perfect, he was late getting to one downfield pass to help, but he showed good ability defending the pass and stuck his nose in there on the runs as well. He had very nice range and was all over the field, which is what you want to see from a safety. On special teams, he also showed up so he is in good position to make the team if he can keep up the solid performances. No one else in the defensive backfield showed up much, but the lack of quickness from Chad Scott makes one wonder if he has anything left. Apparently a smart, hard working veteran who coach Bill Belichick respects, he is getting up there in years and appears a step slow at times. He’ll have to show more for him to continue his NFL career.
KICKERS: Both Martin Gramatica and rookie Stephen Gostkowski did nothing to hurt their chances or make any critical mistakes. They go in round two this week still dead even.
The story of the night was the young players, particularly Maroney, O’Callaghan, Santonio Thomas, Mills, Smith, Woods, Mincey, and Andrews. First looks can often be wrong, but based solely on that, it appears the Patriots are off to a good start in restocking their roster this year. It remains to be seen if these players can build off this good start Saturday in Foxboro against Arizona. And for those who didn’t play well, its time to turn it around as two bad performances or even mediocre performances for a borderline player could be fatal to their chances to earn a job with the Patriots. It should be interesting to see who sustains their showings and who takes a step forward or back. Until then, thanks for reading.