Patriots vs. Saints: Five things to watch
PATRIOTS VS. SAINTS: FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR
FOXBORO -- Five things to watch for in tonight's Patriots-Saints preseason opener . . .
GOOD SECONDARY TEST
Drew Brees isn’t going to play deep into this one, but the Patriots secondary won’t be let entirely off the hook when Brees trades helmet for visor. Luke McCown is one of the league’s better backup quarterbacks and -- while the complement of Saints receivers is pretty young (Brandin Cooks at 22 is the oldest established guy; Willie Snead and second-rounder Michael Thomas will also be out there) -- this is an experienced and dynamic system the Saints run. Last year, they threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns when they faced the Patriots in preseason game No. 2. This season, there are fewer questions at the top of the Pats secondary depth chart. Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler are the starters; Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon are the safety rotation. But rookies Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones have been particularly solid and aggressive in early training camp practices at corner and this is a good chance to see both in coverage against an offense that’s going to sling it.
OUTSIDE WIDEOUT TEST
Aaron Dobson’s been doing his routine summertime dance, making tantalizingly acrobatic plays while playing in prominent spots with the starting offense. Yet the little things that have marked and marred his three-year career -- being weak on contested catches and showing intermittent intensity -- have been spotted as well. Against New Orleans, Dobson should be one of the best players on the field. This is where starting-caliber NFL players show major separation against the scrubs. Dobson needs to do that. If he doesn’t, could Nate Washington? The aging former Steeler and Texan has been inconspicuous in practices but speaking to him this week he said he was willing to walk through “hell and fire” to make this team. And then there’s the rookie Malcolm Mitchell, who has performed capably enough often enough to make his in-game debut something I’m really looking forward to seeing just to check authenticity. Devin Lucien from Arizona State will also be out there late and is worth watching. There’s some really exciting talent in the mix inside, too with DeAndre Carter, a first-year player from Sacramento State looking every bit like the kind of player the Patriots will have a hard time releasing because of his quickness and ability to simply make plays. Last year, Chris Ha,rper was that player. This year, Bill Belichick has said Harper may have made the biggest offeason leap of any Patriot.
ZACH SUDFELD 2.0, 3.0, 4.0
I think Martellus and Rob are gonna be OK. But there are three other tight ends in camp that are going to be interesting to watch. Bear Pascoe, who is a terrific blocker Bill Belichick seems to like, fills a role. Then there’s free agent acquisition Clay Harbor (left), who is an H-back type/smooth route-runner that didn’t really get a chance to shine down in Jacksonville. Followed by A.J. Derby, a second-year player from Arkansas and converted quarterback that has been fun to watch and -- at 6-foot-5, 255 -- has great body control. Throw in Stephen Scheu and Brice Williams and there’s a fleet of big, strong, semi-fast, athletic white dudes running around trying to create the August buzz that camp phenom Zach Sudfeld did a few years ago. And I still maintain if they kept him around in 2013, they’d have looked a helluva lot better against Denver in the playoffs.
GAFFNEY IN FOCUS
I don’t much care if Tyler Gaffney makes the team or not. What I’d love to see is the kid get an honest, injury-free shot. Drafted by the Panthers in the sixth round in 2014, the Patriots claimed him on waivers after a meniscus tear caused Carolina to try and stash him on IR. Gaffney ended up on IR in 2015 after sustaining another injury early in camp. So far, he’s healthy. So far, he looks OK. He’s a big kid and doesn’t have a lot of shimmy to him but he gets his shoulders square to the line fast and runs hard and with very good lean. He can run – he went for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns in his final year at Stanford. How well he’ll run in full-contact games is the question. There’s absolutely spots up for grabs in the backfield. Gaffney could take a run at one.
PROTECTING YOUR JIMMY
The Patriots would probably love to heave Jimmy G in the deep end and let him stay there until he figures it out. Every game. Deal with the adversity of guys running bad routes or linemen missing blocks and rise above it. But the issue with that is two-fold. First, Jacoby Brissett needs reps if he’s going to be a heartbeat from starting for the first four games. And the Patriots need to figure out if he’s suited for that. Further, you can’t let Jimmy G get squashed if some Tom, Dick or Thuney misses a block and lets a dumpster-sized DT from Susquehanna land on our little Aladdin. So look for Jimmy to get the hook around halftime.