BOSTON (CBS) — Preseason football is an interesting animal. On the one hand, fans feel a natural excitement for the return of football to their lives. It may not be the real deal, but it’s pretty close, and after six months without the NFL, seeing the hits and the touchdowns and the like is a very welcome sight.
On the other hand, it’s preseason football. By the third quarter, the game is being played mostly by guys who have no chance of making an NFL roster come the start of the regular season. The “dramatic conclusions” often play out in front of near-empty stadiums, the starters long gone and their backups resting on the bench, too.
Alas, there’s plenty to absorb during the preseason, and in the case of the Patriots this year, there will be a good number of new players to learn on both sides of the ball. The defense will be a young one, and the offense might be unrecognizable to the one that led the league in yards and points by large margins last year.
Here are the guys you’ll want to keep a close eye on as the Patriots play out their four-game preseason schedule.
No player will be under a brighter spotlight than Danny Amendola, the man unfairly tasked with “replacing Wes Welker.” To be sure, there is no such thing as replacing Wes Welker, who caught seven passes per game in his six seasons in New England.
Yet with Welker’s departure comes an opportunity for many more passes to be spread around, and with Amendola possessing the most talent (at this moment) among the receiving corps, he’ll have to be “The Guy” for Tom Brady. That’s not always easy, and he’ll have to take advantage of what will be limited playing time with Brady in the preseason to make progress before the real season begins.
You would’ve had a hard time finding much written about the 28-year-old defensive lineman prior to training camp, but since practice began, he’s forced himself into the conversation. He made his NFL debut as an undrafted rookie in 2009 with the Browns, and he suffered injuries in a motorcycle accident in October 2011. Belichick saw the potential and signed him last January, and he’s made his presence felt in camp.
Rather than blather on about Benard’s skill-set, why not just let his own words speak for themselves? This is what he said when he was asked what goes through his mind when rushing the quarterback: “I start sniffing, I start smelling quarterbacks, my eyes turn red, and I’m ready to go.”
He also added he’s thinking of one thing only: “Kill.”
Marcus, you have our attention.
Josh Boyce/Aaron Dobson
For now, we’ll group these guys together. Eventually, we’ll be able to differentiate them based on their play on the field and their roles in the offense, but right now, they’re the two drafted wide receivers who have to rapidly learn this complex Patriots offense before the real season begins. That’s no easy feat.
In the meanwhile, they’ll be making their first appearances in NFL action this preseason, and there’s reason to be excited to watch Dobson (drafted 59th overall) and Boyce (102nd overall) catch passes from Tom Brady. In the joint practice sessions with the Eagles, Dobson made heads turn with some extremely athletic grabs, so be on the lookout for some of that talent on display.
What’s been most impressive about Dobson and Boyce in the past two weeks is that they’ve done a lot to quiet the talk of how poorly Bill Belichick has drafted receivers in the past 10 years. It might take a solid preseason performance or two to really start making people believe.
The Patriots didn’t exactly use a top-10 pick to select the linebacker from Southern Miss., but Collins is still the team’s top pick from April’s draft. Selected with the 52nd pick, Collins is expected to be thrown right into the fire.
While his preseason performance won’t define his entire rookie year, a reasonable expectation would be to see at least a flash of his skills that led to the Patriots drafting him. Last year, Chandler Jones had a welcome-to-the-NFL party against New Orleans with a few dominant rushes, and Dont’a Hightower delivered a huge shot on Chris Ivory in that same game (albeit on a play in which the linebacker forgot to wrap up and learned a lesson about NFL running backs).
Collins might look like he’s just trying to not screw up much of the time, but if he does step up for a great play, it should be worth watching.
If all things were equal, Dennard would have a guaranteed spot on the Patriots roster no matter how he played in the preseason. But things aren’t equal, and Dennard will have a Nebraska court date on his mind throughout the preseason.
In addition to the inherent difficulty of trying to cover NFL receivers, Dennard is going to have to overcome the mental distractions that potential legal trouble brings. He’ll be fighting to keep his young career alive on two fronts, but if he can’t accomplish it on the field, he may make a roster decision easier for the Patriots.
On the flip side, if he performs well at corner, it might be enough to convince the team that it needs to keep him despite the legal issues. That’s a lot to deal with for a 23-year-old.
Now in his third year with the Patriots, we still don’t know much at all about Dowling, other than his injury history. He was the 33rd overall pick in 2011, but a hip injury cut his rookie year short after two games, and a thigh injury ended his 2012 season after just six.
The time is now for Dowling to show he can actually play without getting injured, because “Ras-I.R.” is a very mean nickname. You definitely should not use it.
The Rutgers Guys
Rutgers is not exactly a football powerhouse. Ray Rice is obviously a superstar, and the McCourty twins are pretty good, but Piscataway will never be confused with Tuscaloosa.
Yet, you’d never know that if you looked at the 2013 draft. Seven Rutgers players were drafted, and Belichick alone drafted three of them in cornerback Logan Ryan (83rd overall), safety Duron Harmon (91st oveall) and linebacker Steve Beauharnais (235th overall). The Patriots also signed undrafted Rutgers receiver Mark Harrison, whose draft stock slipped due to reportedly trashing a hotel room at the combine, and undrafted Rutgers cornerback Brandon Jones. The team also signed undrafted Rutgers defensive lineman Scott Vallone.
They all join Devin McCourty, Justin Francis and Kevin Haslam on the roster.
That’s a lot of Scarlet Knights. Surely, they can’t all make the team, but some of them –particularly high picks Ryan and Harmon – should be expected to be factors. At the very least, the curiosity factor is high regarding what exactly made Belichick sign all these Rutgers guys.
There’s been no bigger breakout star of training camp than tight end Zach Sudfeld. At 6-foot-7, 260 pounds and with great pass catching abilities, he’s led to some eager folks to say he’s the man who can fill in for Rob Gronkowski, who’s recovering from surgery and looks likely to miss the first six weeks on the PUP list.
On that, the brakes must be pumped. There is no way to replace Gronkowski, arguably the single most dominant player at his position in the entire sport. Yet while Sudfeld’s blocking skills remain a question mark, he seems to be a solid option as a receiver.
Of course, practice is one thing, and a game is another. Let’s see if he can do it at full speed against an NFL defense in a live game situation before we start calling him Sudkowski.
Behhh, you’re going to have to watch him. He’ll be the third-string quarterback, and it’s highly unlikely the Patriots really pull back the veil on any secret uses of Tebow as either a rusher or pass catcher. Alas, he is a one-man headline-generating machine, so you can’t help but pay extra attention to him.
No receiver has set himself apart in camp more than undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins. His story is incredible – read Jeff Howe’s feature in the Boston Herald for that – and the fact that he’s gotten to this point is amazing.
Yet he’s not just happy to be here, as he’s been one of the most consistent receivers throughout camp, perhaps second only to Danny Amendola. He’s turned a lot of heads already in camp, and now he’s earned a chance to do the same in games.
BONUS PLAYER: Tom Brady
Well, specifically his legs, ankles, knees, ribs, shoulders and arms. And his head. Just watch all those things and pray they don’t get crushed by Albert Haynesworth or something. Nobody’s more important than the QB.
Tune in to Friday’s Patriots-Eagles preseason game on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins on 98.5 FM at 4:30 p.m. and on WBZ-TV at 7 p.m..