It is time. The first real action of the 2014 NFL season is upon us. After 14 days of training camp and joint practices in Washington, New England will take on the Redskins tomorrow night at FedEx field with a 7:30 kickoff. Crowds of close to 22,000 have flooded Bon Secours Training Center to catch a glimpse of the AFC East powerhouse. As with every first week in the preseason, the main priority is health and maintenance – don’t expect to see starters going more than a few series.
The real opportunity in this game is for rookies and at risk players to display their game speed and an early understanding of the playbook. Belichick is no stranger to bringing in proven veterans in the offseason. Whether it’s to help groom the youngbloods or add a positive presence in the locker-room, someone like Will Smith can only benefit the organization.
It’s hard not to mention new additions Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Brandon LaFell. In one off-season, the Patriots may have transformed their defensive backs to the best in the NFL. Despite a four game suspension to start the year, Browner has displayed his physical presence early and often in 2014. Remember how good Rodney Harrison was at safety? It’s hard to deny Brandon’s elite athleticism as one of, if not, the largest corner in this league. While Revis has dazzled in camp, matching up with DeSean Jackson should be an early challenge for the Pro Bowl veteran. Brandon LaFell has flashed signs of brilliance in the back of the end zone thus far. With Gronk strictly participating in individual drills, LaFell’s 6′ 2″ height has become a point of emphasis for Brady and the offense. Look for TB12 to establish a game connection with LaFell tomorrow night.
As for the rest of the squad, here are three areas to keep an eye on:
1) Defensive Line: It’s no secret that New England struggled here in 2013. Losing both Wilfork and Kelly, the plugs in the middle, left the Patriots vulnerable the second half of the year. Big Vince has showed he’s “back” with an interception and TD rumble in a recent practice; however, how will the veterans respond in real game speed? Ninkovich and Jones excelled last year and need to keep up the edge presence to take the pressure off the vets and rookie Dominique Easley. It’ll also be great to take a look at the Florida 1st round pick. Furthermore, with Sealver Siliga hurting his hand, expect Joe Vellano, Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette to get some serious playing time.
2) Quarterback: Yes, the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo ahead of a much needed tight end in the 2nd round this year. Yes, Ryan Mallett’s contract is up after the season. Yes, Tom Brady claims he will be playing until he is 40. What does this all result in? Media speculation and a little fire under Brady. Jimmy has not looked good in training camp and while Redskins coach Jay Gruden claims, “Brady is a hall-of-famer and the best of all time”, there’s no denying he is getting older. The Mallett vs. Garoppolo battle will be on tomorrow night.
3) Running Back: The early word on Wisconsin 4th round pick James White is quite positive, he is more than just a change-of-pace back. We all know the ball security issues Ridley has struggled with; however, there is no denying that he is our best pure back. Losing Blount to the Steelers will hurt, no way the Patriots get to the AFC Championship without him. Brandon Bolden may now be our “powerback” but White needs to step up in Blount’s absence in 2014. Vereen has shown great potential to be a more explosive Woodhead, but continues to nurse ailing injuries. Will this be the year he stays on the field? Let’s see who shines tomorrow night.
Prediction: Garoppolo shines, impresses doubters and the Patriots edge out a meaningless game with Belichick calling two timeouts in the 4th quarter.