The preseason is in the books for the New England Patriots as they now turn their attention toward getting prepared for next Sunday's season opener against Tennessee on September 9th.
It's been an interesting start and taking a look back at everything that's transpired so far - including Friday's roster cuts - here are five thoughts:
- From a Deep Receiving Core to Just Four: New England originally started training camp with nine receivers, including bringing back former targets Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth, both of which had experience in this system and a relationship with quarterback Tom Brady. The two were released when they cut down to 75 earlier last week and after Friday's cuts they're down to just four, with just Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker as the two established veterans left standing. That leaves Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater as the only other two left in this mix, so what started out as a deep group now seems to be surprisingly thin.
Lloyd and Brady didn't exactly light things up this preseason, with Lloyd having been targeted 4 times with just one reception for 12 yards. So far they still appear to be a work in progress, leaving Welker once again as potentially their top target heading into the regular season. He was their go-to guy for the early part of last year, having been targeted 57 times with 40 catches and 616 yards during New England's first four games of last season, just 20 catches and 300 yards less than he had the rest of the year (he had 82 catches for 953 yards over the final 12 regular season games last season). Judging by what we've seen during the preseason it wouldn't be surprising if they lean on him a little bit again early on until things start clicking with Lloyd, and with additional personnel moves likely being made in the coming days as the dust settles, it should be interesting to see how this group comes together in the weeks ahead.
- Pray that Brady Doesn't Get Hurt - Don't get me wrong, Brian Hoyer is no longer a Patriot because of the simple fact that he didn't play well this preseason and because Ryan Mallett showed enough improvement for them to feel comfortable enough to make this move. Both he and Mallett struggled throughout each of New England's exhibition games, and neither one made you believe the offense would be in good hands in the event Brady went down. However, it was a bad sign for Hoyer after Bill Belichick called the race between them "tight" following Wednesday night's game. He was cut on Friday and it likely came down to both financial (he was due $1.9 million this year and was scheduled to become a free agent after this year) as well as their need for depth at other positions. Every roster spot counts and if he wasn't the clear number two anymore, it made sense to finally move on and free up his salary to make other moves to help them bring in guys who could contribute immediately. Hoyer had expressed a desire this offseason to be a starter elsewhere after this year, and it appears he'll now get his opportunity.
- The Patriots Defense is Going to be Exciting this Season - The defense actually was one of the bright spots this preseason, which was a refreshing change from past years. Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones looks like he's going to be making plenty of noise this season, while linebacker Dont'a Hightower also appears to be a guy who is going to be an interesting player to watch in what is now a young and fast group of linebackers for the Patriots. Up front the defensive line has plenty of depth and we saw multiple occasions of the pocket getting collapsed and opposing quarterbacks getting disrupted. The secondary also looks better and we saw plays being made by safeties Patrick Chung and new addition Steve Gregory, who appear will give them a solid safety tandem. The cornerbacks also had some good moments, which is a good sign for a group that gave up a lot of yards last season. Needless to say, expect a much improved performance from this group this year.
- The Patriots Offensive Line Suddenly Seems a Little More Stable - One of the biggest concerns this preseason was watching the lack of protection given to each of the Patriots quarterbacks, who were sacked a total of 10 times. The return of guard Logan Mankins, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and potentially Brian Waters (all indications seem to point to him coming back, including a report from Tom Curran of CSNNE.com on Friday that deliveries were made to his locker, which has been intact all preseason) should make this group look much different by the time opening day arrives. That's good news, because as we know the offense will only go as far as Brady can take them, and it's tough to be effective if he's constantly under durress.
- The Runningbacks Should be Exciting to Watch - With BenJarvus Green-Ellis now wearing stripes out in Cincinnati, New England obviously felt comfortable enough with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to let Green-Ellis go. Both second year backs were excellent during this preseason, but Ridley was probably the most consistent. He finished with 34 carries for 152 yards (4.5 avg) along with a touchdown and seems to have the inside track for being their lead back this season. Vereen meanwhile had moments of his own, and was a threat catching the ball out of the backfield while finishing tied with five other players for the team lead in receptions with six. Brandon Bolden could also be a factor after finishing with 36 carries for 128 yards (3.6 avg) and showed enough potential to earn a roster spot. They're young and they're fast, with Ridley already having shown some of his ability to make big plays after finishing with 7 of the team's 10 longest carries from scrimmage last season. You would have to believe we could potentially see more of the same from him this year.
- Jeff Demps Being Placed on Injured Reserve was a Disappointment - Having the former Olympian end up on injured reserve on Friday was a disappointment, but it's a smart move. Demps got nicked up Wednesday night against the New York Giants with an apparent leg injury and the initial news seemed promising after he told ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss following the game that the injury wasn't serious and that he was O.K.. The bad news is it was also somewhat of a sign that he needs to get himself back into football shape. The former Florida standout was a bit underweight as a runningback (5'7" 175lbs - nearly 25 pounds lighter than Danny Woodhead who is just an inch taller) and it's obvious that he needs to put some weight back on and get his body ready for the rigors of an NFL season. The good news is he did enough to let Belichick know that he's a guy who can give them a threat both in the return game and out of the backfield, and he'll get to spend 2012 making sure he's ready to go next season. Unfortunately for those wondering about the new IR rule and hoping to see him this year, it's not going to happen. Under new IR rule, Demps would have had to have been on the original 53 man roster, and then wouldn't have been able to be given that designation until after 4pm on September 4th. As a result we'll have to wait until 2013 to see what he can do. However, if what we've seen so far is any indication, he should be an exciting player to look for next season.
Overall fans should be excited because there is definitely plenty to look forward to, and it all begins next Sunday down in Tennessee.
(Ian Logue has been covering the New England Patriots for over 13-years and is the owner and senior editor for PatsFans.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @IanLogue)
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