Five players you'll be talking about after Patriots-Lions preseason game
ALLEN PARK, Michigan — Odds are the Patriots who see the most time on Thursday night are players you don't know much about.
In fact, some of the names who impress you most may be names you've only seen once or twice before. They'll be guys who see third- and fourth-team reps during practices, who get a lot of playing time in exhibition contests to help preserve the regulars.
For instance, I wouldn't be shocked to see undrafted rookie corner D'Angelo Ross have a nice game Thursday night. He's been rock solid in the reps he's received, but he's way down the depth chart at a talented position group. He's someone with whom only the most hardcore Patriots fans would have any familiarity.
Putting those names aside for a second, here are five names that might be considered middle-class Patriots. They're guys you already know. But they're guys you'll want to know more about as soon as the clock strikes zero at Ford Field on Thursday night.
Stidham has lit it up in camp in certain situations. He's been dynamite in 7-on-7 periods, particularly lately. In two practices against the Lions, he went 20-for-23 without having to deal with offensive or defensive linemen in front of him. His reps in 11-on-11 periods has been much more limited, but he's had snaps that go on . . . and on . . . and on . . . as he looks for open targets. Thursday night will be a chance for him to stare down a real pass-rush, with hard-charging linemen in front of him. Coming out of college, he was labeled a passer who struggles under pressure. Can he show a quicker trigger than the one we've seen from him lately in 11-on-11 work? Can he show the decision-making and accuracy we've seen from him in 7-on-7 snaps?
You can go to dozens of training camp practices — and the Patriots have had 11 so far this summer — and still not have a great feel for a team's running game. Because no one is tackling to the ground, it can be hard to say if a running back would've had a six-yard gain or if he would've been tackled at the line. That's why it's hard for us to say much about rookie running back Damien Harris to this point. (Other than the fact that he has pretty soft hands; he's caught it well this summer.) He's solidly-built, and he had a reputation at Alabama as someone who can run through contact and protect the football. If he can do that on Thursday, we'll be talking about him as a between-the-tackles option who can spell Sony Michel and perhaps in the long-term extend Michel's career.
There have been Michigan jerseys scattered throughout the Lions practice facility grounds in Allen Park this week, and Winovich has given them a show. The former Wolverine created pressure on three different occasions Monday, sharing a sack with Shilique Calhoun. On Tuesday, he won all three of his one-on-one reps, had a "sack" in an 11-on-11 drill, and he steamrolled a blocker in a kickoff drill. He could see time on all four downs at outside linebacker and in the kicking game, and he'll flash for reasons far beyond his hair. "He's definitely got a high motor that's for sure," Dont'a Hightower said. "He's one of the guys who's working really hard, always asking questions, obviously wants to do the right things all the time. You really couldn't ask much more from a guy who's willing to do whatever and then with the way he does it."
Matthew Stafford said it all when it comes to Melifonwu's impressive physical stature. "There's some big physical guys out there, no doubt," Stafford said. "Their linebackers are really big and physical. [No.] 54. [No.] 8. And they got a safety [No.] 22 rolling around out there that looks like a defensive end." At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Melifonwu is a fascinating matchup weapon for the oversized receivers that now play tight end. But we've seen Melifonwu play the deep middle portion of the field — where his 4.4-second 40-yard dash time should help him cover ground — and we've seen him play alongside Devin McCourty as well as other perceived starters. He's also consistently had his hands on footballs. He had a pick and a pass-breakup on the first couple days of camp. He scooped up a (rare) James White fumble. He even helped lead the charge on a goal-line stop. I'm very interested to see how he's deployed and how he handles the playing time he gets Thursday. He was a second-round pick for a reason. It didn't work out in Oakland, and he had to hit the ground running in Foxboro last year. Is Year 3, now accustomed to the system in New England, the year things click for him?
That's right. You're going to be talking about him. I think. If — after two hard practices where valuable reps were taken by contributors on both sides — Etling plays a significant amount of time at receiver, you'll have something to say about him. He actually caught a few passes from Stidham on Tuesday in 7-on-7 work, and he even drew a pass-interference penalty. If he's truly a 4.5-second 40-yard dash kind of athlete at 6-3, 220 pounds, as Phillip Dorsett recently suggested he was, that's a handful. It could lead to a play or two in a preseason game, against an undrafted rookie somewhere in the Lions secondary, that stands out. Etling may have a very low percentage chance of sticking — though our buddy Mike Reiss at ESPN recently floated the idea that he had a more than reasonable chance to make the practice squad because of his unique skill set — but he's a cool story and it'd be fun to see him have some success at a new position after essentially being told that his NFL quarterbacking dream is over. It's worth noting that Etling continues to throw after Patriots practices and sometimes in practice when the team needs an extra arm for a receiver drill.