Patriots

Preseason could prove to be big audition for Hoyer

833585.jpg

Preseason could prove to be big audition for Hoyer

FOXBORO -- It's an important time for Brian Hoyer.

One, it's the preseason -- which means he'll, you know, actually play. Two, he's going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year. His performance over the next four preseason games could actually go a long way in determining what his future is in the NFL.

Hoyer can play, but going into his fourth season he hasn't been given the chance to prove it outside of the preseason or garbage time in the regular season. For his career, he's just 27-for-43 for 286 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers alone aren't going to blow anybody away, but perhaps three years under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick along with a strong fourth preseason is enough for a team to take a chance.

"I'm taking the same approach I have the last three years," Hoyer said of preseason play. "For me I know this is a guaranteed opportunity, and I'm gonna get the chance to play. I'm just going to take what I've done from the media room to the practice field and now to the game when the live bullets are flying and go out there and try to do everything right. Obviously you want to prepare for a perfect game, but it doesn't always end up that way so just go out there and try to do the best I can and get the team going when I'm in there and go from there."

The Patriots put a second-round tender on the Hoyer, who was a restricted free agent over the offseason, but no teams bit. That isn't to say they wouldn't bite for a third or fourth-round pick later on in the year, especially in a time of need.

New England would have to listen, already having another highly-touted backup in Ryan Mallett potentially taking over for Brady in eight years (kidding, kind of). The Pats went with just Brady and Hoyer in 2008 and 2009, and if Belichick has the same trust in Mallett, he'd go with just two again. They value roster spots around these parts, and using two on two quarterbacks who combined to throw one pass last year (Hoyer to Rob Gronkowski in Week 17) isn't ideal, but a necessary evil at the moment.

Without playing all season, it's tough to judge progression. Hoyer does it based on practice.

"Obviously they're filming practice every day so you can watch that and learn from that," he said. "There's always room to improve and with a guy like Tom Brady and now Josh McDaniels coming in and having him give his input there's been a lot of things that I've tried to improve on. And you just try to go out there every day in practice and kind of attack those things and then go and watch film afterwards and see how you did."

But opposing teams don't have practice footage (hold the Spygate jokes, please). They can only watch Hoyer's progression from one preseason to the next and at rare points during the regular season. The preseason opener Thursday night against the Saints will be the next big audition for him, and having seen them in practice over the last two days has sharpened his skills.

"I think it makes you stick to your rules," Hoyer said of throwing against the Saints. "After you see the same thing over and over and over you kind of know where to go right away. So now when a new scheme comes in it kind of really tests what you know and how well you know the system. So you have to stick to your rules and take what the defense gives you."

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

MORE PATRIOTS

The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.