Five players you'll be talking about after Patriots-Panthers game
The expectation was that Julian Edelman would be back for the start of the regular season. He'd been included in every 53-man roster projection we put together. It was assumed he'd be good to go. Demaryius Thomas? Not so much.
Having the veteran receiver now available to the Patriots for the start of the year — he was removed from the physically unable to perform list on Tuesday — further complicates an already cloudy picture at receiver. At 31 years old, coming off a torn Achilles late in a "down" season for him (59 catches, 677 yards), Thomas can't be considered a lock for the active roster. But might he take a spot from Phillip Dorsett, Maurice Harris or Braxton Berrios? And how might his addition, if he's added, impact the roles of the other receivers who make the team?
Hard to say right now, but that's why it's worth watching how guys we've seen all summer at the receiver position are used on Thursday night in preseason game No. 3 against the Panthers. We start this week's Five Players to Watch list with a guy who shouldn't have an issue making the roster. But he's someone whose usage could clue us into how the rest of the receiver room will shake out for the start of 2019.
We've seen all we need to see from Meyers. Really. We have. There's no doubt he should be on the roster. He's caught just about everything thrown his way. He's created separation with his releases at the line of scrimmage and with deception at the tops of his routes. Tom Brady has shown confidence in Meyers in practices, and the undrafted rookie has taken more and more reps with the first-team offense as the summer has progressed. But the reason to watch Meyers against Carolina is to see where on the field he's being used. At 6-foot-2, with good leaping ability and a knack for making contested catches, it's logical that he's seen a good deal of time on the outside. But he played the slot at NC State. Would the Patriots use him inside to help prevent Julian Edelman from taking all the punishment that comes from going over the middle? With Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas and N'Keal Harry potentially on the roster to start the year, Meyers might find himself as the fourth outside-the-numbers option. Not a ton of value there. Especially for a guy who looks like he won't play special teams. But if he can play the slot? That's one of the most valuable positions in the Patriots offense. I've had Braxton Berrios on the roster in my latest projections — over Dorsett and Harris — because of his ability to play inside and return punts. The Patriots wanted interior receiver help this offseason and couldn't land Adam Humphries or Cole Beasley. That seemed to make Braxton Berrios the front-runner for that slot-behind-Edelman role. But if Meyers can play inside, then perhaps that gives the Patriots their best and most efficient combination of wideouts: Edelman, Gordon, Harry, Thomas and Meyers as an inside-out threat. If Meyers excels inside against Carolina, that could make it tough to keep Berrios.
Time for someone to step up and claim a role in the Patriots tight end room. The good news for the team is that Matt LaCosse returned to practice after dealing with ankle injury suffered in Detroit. He appears to be their top choice at the position. But would they really just keep one? This is a team that has kept Rob Gronkowski, a blocking tight end and a receiving tight end on the roster pretty consistently in the past. Now they're going to go with one? They might if no one emerges. Kendricks looks like an interesting option to play that lighter tight end role. Not only does he have plenty of NFL experience in his ninth year as a pro, but he's caught the ball smoothly in camp and in Tennessee on Saturday he looked like a more-than-capable run blocker. He had a bad hold in the Patriots end zone that led to a safety. Ugly, no doubt. But when you take the full picture of that game, he still might've been their best player at that position. Can he earn a job with his play on Thursday? In a room desperate for help, there's an opportunity there.
Would I expect the Patriots to keep more than a couple tight ends from the current crop? Not necessarily. No one has put a chokehold on a single job to this point, never mind three. Hard to imagine the coaching staff handing out 53-man roster spots for guys who've mostly elicited shoulder shrugs through camp. But if Bill Belichick wants a true blocking tight end — someone to play the Dwayne Allen role — Izzo might be their best bet. They kept Izzo on the active roster to start last season before placing him on injured reserve, an indication they didn't want to lose him via the waiver process, and they may feel as though they want to keep working with him. He did have a nice catch down the seam from Jarrett Stidham against the Titans in preseason game No. 2, but if he wins a job it'll be because of his ability to move people in the run game. If he shows he can do that against the Panthers, then maybe he'll be able to stick with the team come September.
It's time for Dawson to string together a couple of plays that remind the world why the Patriots took him in the second round in 2018. Outside of what sounds like it was one good practice in Tennessee, there have been few moments that would suggest he's any better than the seventh corner on the depth chart. That, in theory, could put him on the bubble for a roster spot. He may get one regardless of what happens on Thursday simply because he's a second-round pick; the Patriots would probably like to give him a nice long opportunity to make an impact. But he's had his share of chances this summer and hasn't produced. In two preseason games, he's been targeted six times and allowed three catches for 74 yards. Can he provide a little more resistance against Carolina, and will he be given an opportunity to do so against high-end competition?
When the Patriots signed Mike Pennel, it looked like he'd be the perfect fit for what was shaping up to be a 3-4 scheme that relied on XL defensive linemen and versatile linebackers. He was one of the biggest men in the NFL, and he appeared to be the penciled-in starter at nose tackle after a strong year with the Jets. That's what's made tracking Pennel's usage this summer so fascinating. He's been playing behind Danny Shelton, back on a one-year deal after a slow-paced free agency period, and on the field with defensive reserves. Pennel still has a good shot at making the roster, in my view. If the Patriots are going with a 3-4, it would make sense to carry more than one nose tackle. We haven’t seen as much from him this summer as we expected, but maybe that’ll change Thursday. If it doesn’t, it’s worth wondering what his role will be to start the season.