There’s a “Help Wanted” sign just outside Patriot Place. I assumed it was for one of the retail shops but after last night’s preseason finale for Bill Belichick’s team, maybe it was Bill himself who put that sign along Route 1.
PAPER THIN FRONT SIX/SEVEN: An unimpressive summer from bottom end of the roster players trying to make an impression. Defensive tackle Darius Kilgo got more snaps than any lineman. He didn’t make the most of them. We saw a lot of Caleb Kidder. He was the skinny end getting pushed around versus the run. Kidder’s already been released (injury designation). Josh Augusta is only noticeable because of his overall shape (it’s messy). That leaves Woodrow Hamilton as the best of the bunch. Very sound against the run throughout the preseason but not someone who makes you feel all warm and fuzzy should something happen to the quartet of Alan Branch, Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine.
On the edge, the combo platter of Rob Ninkovich’s retirement, Kony Ealy’s failure to fit in (or scouting’s inability to project him as a bad fit) and Derek Rivers torn ACL has left a lot of questions and very few secure answers. The “easy” fix is to let Dont’a Hightower play more on the edge than ever before. One problem: we didn’t see him for more than half of camp and Hightower didn’t take a snap in the preseason. Can he hold up outside? Can he help make up for the loss of production caused by the departures of Nink/Jabal Sheard/Chris Long? Hightower is a terrific football player but removing him from the middle may actually cause as much harm as putting him on the edge may help. Plus, he’s definitely more outside linebacker than defensive end.
Undrafted rookie Adam Butler had a nice camp and got elevated status in the final preseason game, not having to play. But can you count on him for a full and productive season? In my best Belichick voice, ‘I’m not saying it can’t, but I’m not saying it can.’ The Pats will surely mix and match the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin (assuming he doesn’t end up on IR with an undisclosed injury) but there are obvious limitations with those players. And don’t get me started on Geneo Grissom, an excellent looking athlete but not one that’s ever proven to be a productive defensive player.
PUNT RETURN PROBLEMS: Yes, i feel bad for Cyrus Jones. The non-contact knee injury that knocked him out the Giants game Thursday night was tough to watch. And just when he was making strides. Assuming Cyrus is done for the year, and with Julian Edelman already lost, the Pats most experienced punt returner is Danny Amendola. He ran back 18 a season ago. But exposing him to those extra plays seems like a recipe for disaster considering the depth at wide receiver. So then who? Patrick Chung was the only other roster player who field a punt in a game last season, and he did that exactly once. DJ Foster dabbled in the preseason last year (three times) and another undrafted kid, Will Likely, got a shot last night; he was the Big 10 Returner of the Year two years ago. This situation to me reeks of 2015 all over again. An inability to consistently handle kickoffs led to a mid-September trade for Keyshawn Martin. Problem solved. I see a repeat here in 2017, though with a massive amount of cuts forthcoming, a player for player deal -- your soon-to-be-cut for mine - would seem a real possibility.
WONDERING AT WIDEOUT (AND TIGHT END FOR THAT MATTER): My, oh my, how a deep group suddenly has as many questions as answers. What’s with Malcolm Mitchell and that knee? Can he make it though 16 games and the playoffs healthy? Hell, can he be ready for Week 1 after his stop-and-start summer? Inquiring minds want to know. Amendola is always a health risk. He plays like his pants are on fire but his body has betrayed him more than a couple times. Brandin Cooks is a proven player, and, at 23, appears to have his best days ahead of him. But Cooks proved himself in New Orleans. As complex a system as that is, the Pats' isn’t easy to grasp either. How quickly will he climb Tom Brady’s trust tree? That leaves Chris Hogan as Mr. Reliable, and he caught 38 passes last year. Now he’s being projected for 70-plus all across the internet. Hogan’s had a great camp and a leap is inevitable, but he’s never been asked to be that guy in his NFL career. So we shall see.
Does that mean the Pats should keep everyone’s darling, Austin Carr, an undrafted rook out of Northwestern, or second-year pro and former seventh-rounder Devin Lucien? Maybe, if Mitchell’s availability is in question, but I think both players remain developmental projects and the idea of them assuming a heavy amount of snaps seems unlikely. Cody Hollister is better than you think. Skinny, but there’s a reason he didn’t get released and hit with an injury designation after Jacoby Brissett did his best to ruin the kid’s shoulder with an errant pass (he caught it, by the way). Hollister also does more on special teams than the other two. He might be the sneaky pick. Or he too could easily find himself getting through waivers and hanging out on the practice squad, just in case. Bet here is seeking out a veteran wideout who can also run back punts. Two birds with one stone.