By Christopher Price
During the preseason, the Patriots locker room has two types of lockers. There are the permanent ones made of rich, expensive-looking wood which belong to the returning players. They line the outer edges of the room in numerical order. And then, there are the cheap blue metal ones that stretch from one end of the room to the other — temporary storage facilities thrown together in the middle of the room meant to house the gear of rookies and undrafted free agents.
Rookie linebacker Oscar Lua wants a permanent locker, but he knows that it’ll take another week before he can truly become one of the fortunate 53. As the first series of cuts loom Tuesday afternoon — and the final cutdown on Saturday — it remains an anxious time for Lua and the rest of the rookies, who are going through the most stressful professional period of their young lives.
“It’s pretty tough for some of us,” said Lua, a seventh-round pick out of USC. “All us rookies can do right now is just go out there, do our job and compete within the standards the coaches have set out for us, and follow our game plans.”
The Patriots are one of the most veteran teams in the league, making it harder than most for a rookie to make the cut — it’s unlikely that more than four rookies will make the 53-man roster. But Lua has performed well throughout the first month of his professional career, which bodes well for his chances, at least when it comes to Tuesday’s cutdown. He’s is second on the team with 12 tackles through three preseason games, and came up with an interception in Friday’s win over Carolina. In addition, he has seen plenty of time on special teams.
But what might ultimately put him over the top is his football IQ, according to Head Coach Bill Belichick.
“He’s smart. He understands the defense. He communicates well,” said Belichick. “He’s able to not only do his assignment, but also control the guys in front of him, the front seven, and line calls and adjustments and things like that.
“He gets better out there everyday. He pays attention. I know he’s very attentive to what the veteran players do in the classroom and on the practice field. He’s always alert and trying to pick up more information. I think he’s working hard and he’s getting better.”
In football intelligence, overall approach and physical appearance, more than one veteran believes Lua compares favorably to Tedy Bruschi (both are listed at 6-foot-1, and Lua is 240 pounds while Bruschi is 247). It’s heady praise for a rookie who says he patterned his game after No. 54. Calling his own preseason play “fair,” he knows he’s got a ways to go if he wants to be in Bruschi’s class.
“My assignments — everything, actually — can be improved upon,” said Lua. “I think certain plays that should have been made didn’t get made. And there were certain plays that I made that were good.”
Presuming they survive Tuesday’s cuts, Lua is with a collection of rookie and undrafted free agents who will use Thursday night’s final preseason game against the Giants as their final chance to make the team. Just as long as they follow a simple maxim: just do your job, and everything else will take care of itself. Including that permanent locker space.
“I think if you try and do something out of the ordinary, you might make a mistake, and that would put you in a bad light,” Lua said of his overall approach to Thursday’s preseason finale. “I’m just hoping that myself and the rookies go out there and execute the game plan and do what the coach asks us to do.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THURSDAY
1. The battle for roster spots 48 through 53. While the upper reaches of the roster have all been decided, there are plenty of players — like Lua, Justin Rogers and Mike Richardson — who are looking to make the final 53, and a good performance Thursday against the Giants can make all the difference.
2. The kicking game. Stephen Gostkowski missed two field goals against the Panthers, and struggled the week before against the Titans at Gillette in a driving rainstorm. Belichick seemed to indicate that the two misses against the Panthers were not Gostkowski’s fault, but a perfect night against the Giants would quiet any talk of bringing in someone to challenge the second-year kicker.
3. Heath Evans. Through the first three weeks of the preseason, the veteran fullback has become more involved to the offense on a number of levels. He’s gotten more overall reps than almost anyone on either side of the football — we’ll see if he keeps his iron man status Thursday night.
4. Wide receiver. Most of the spots are already locked up, but a standout effort from one of the wide receivers on the bubble (as well as a final decision on what the Patriots decide to do with Troy Brown and Chad Jackson) could cause New England to go with anywhere between five to seven receivers when the season begins Sept. 9.
5. Overall health. The starters won’t play much, if at all, and that’s not such a bad thing. Many fans can still recall the 1989 preseason finale when Andre Tippett, Ronnie Lippett and Garin Veris were all hurt on the same night. Don’t look for a replay of that Thursday.
STAT OF THE WEEK
0. The number of successful third-down conversions the Carolina offense registered in the first half of Friday’s game.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“If you want to work on your running game, you have to call running plays. I don’t know how else to do it.” — Head Coach Bill Belichick, responding to a question about calling nine straight running plays (and 15 of the first 19 snaps overall) to start the Carolina game.
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released in October by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at email@example.com