By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Once upon a time, many moons ago, the NFL preseason was treated properly for what it is: a series of exhibitions, mostly intended to give coaches a look at their roster in game situations in order to make cuts before the real season begins.
Those days, though, are long gone, and NFL preseason games are treated almost like the real thing. TV ratings are sky-high, stadiums are mostly full (though not entirely by choice), and hundreds upon hundreds of media members flock to games in order to swarm fourth-string players in the locker room to try to snag a meaningful postgame quote.
It’s a wild scene.
Obviously, this reality speaks to the voracious appetite for football in this country, and fortunately for everybody who’s been jonesing for some football, it returns in earnest Thursday night.
And though the Patriots and Lions got in plenty of valuable work this past week on the practice field, this time, the world will actually get to watch. With that in mind, here’s What To Watch For from a Patriots perspective in their preseason opener.
The Patriots are carrying a rookie class full of players who might impactful roles right away. That includes a number of players who are likely to see action on Thursday night: CB Joejuan Williams (2nd round), DE Chase Winovich (3rd round), RB Damien Harris (3rd round), and WR Jakobi Meyers (undrafted). (First-round pick N’Keal Harry seems unlikely to play, though you never know.)
We’ve heard a lot about some of them — especially Meyers — but we know that everything is different in a game scenario.
A relative unknown who’s stolen some headlines this week has been edge defender Shilique Calhoun. The Patriots acquired the 27-year-old this offseason in a move that really flew under the radar, but Calhoun’s been showing up on the practice field thus far through camp.
He spent the first three years of his NFL career with the Raiders, who drafted him in the third round in 2016, but he never really became an impact player. We’ve seen that story play out a thousand times in Foxboro, with Bill Belichick managing to tap in to the talents and abilities of a player much better than the previous team could. (Kyle Van Noy, Rob Ninkovich and all Mike Vrabel say hello.)
It will be too soon to tell if Calhoun can become the next player on that list, but we’ll nevertheless have our eyes on him for this preseason debut.
Stidham In Action
We can deny it all we want, but we are a quarterback-crazed nation. We all understand the numerous elements involved in the complex, high-speed sport of tackle football.
And yet … we always just want to talk about the quarterback.
And, with all due respect to Brian Hoyer, the only quarterback who carries a level of intrigue for this game is Jarrett Stidham.
That’s in part because of the aforementioned obsession with quarterbacks, but also because at this point of Tom Brady’s career, we have to seriously start focusing on the succession plan. The Jimmy Garoppolo plan obviously flew out the window when Brady managed to embark on a preposterous late-career renaissance. And so now we turn to Stidham, the fourth-round pick out of Auburn who threw 48 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in college.
Expect him to look slow to process everything, expect him to look a bit confused, expect his protection to be suspect, and expect the offense to look disjointed as a whole. (Football is hard, and it’s early August. This happens.) So we won’t be making any grand conclusions on his ability or long-term viability in the NFL. Instead, keep an eye on certain traits — arm strength, accuracy, quickness, mobility, etc. — that may provide a glimpse into what kind of a quarterback Stidham may be.
The Patriots are a well-built team, coming off a Super Bowl victory and looking for another championship season. But their depth chart at tight end? It doesn’t appear to be championship-caliber.
Sure, there’s 15-year veteran Ben Watson, who should be reliable if not explosive as he approaches age 39 this season. But after him, it’s a veritable “Who? Who?!” of tight ends filling out the depth chart.
Matt LaCosse figures to have the first opportunity to play a regular role in the offense, and we don’t really know what to expect that. We likewise aren’t sure what to make of Stephen Anderson, Ryan Izzo or rookie Andrew Beck. (Lance Kendricks will be in that group, but not this week.)
What’s working in favor of these guys is that expectations are low. Any brief moments of excellence on Thursday could help boost expectations for the group, at the very least.
This may not interest anyone, but for the second straight preseason, we have a potential PUNTING BATTLE on our hands! Unlike last year with Corey Bojouquez, it looks like Ryan Allen has some real competition, after the Patriots traded up (traded up!) to draft Jake Bailey out of Stanford in the fifth round. (They traded up to draft a punter!) … The Patriots probably wouldn’t mind seeing some production out of the 2018 draft class that never got to play, with WR Braxton Berrios and CB Duke Dawson heading that list, along with the aforementioned Ryan Izzo. … Did we mention a PUNTER BATTLE?!
The Patriots kick off their preseason on Thurdsay night against the Detroit Lions, and you can watch it all on WBZ-TV. It begins Thursday at 7 p.m. with Patriots Game Day, followed by the game, beginning at 7:30 p.m. After the game, stay tuned for Patriots Fifth Quarter on WBZ.