August already, and you’re wondering why to spend a beautiful summer evening inside watching Patriots preseason football. After all, you could be at a BBQ, an outdoor concert, or maybe getting a cool treat at your favorite ice cream place.
Oh wait, this year you don’t need an excuse to watch the preseason! Tom Brady, in case you hadn’t heard, will sit out the first four regular-season games. So Patriots fans everywhere have all the motivation they need to crank up the A/C and watch all four preseason games.
But just in case watching Jimmy Garappolo tune up for the real games isn’t enough, here are four things to watch in the four preseason games.
1. The Most Important Position in Team Sports
Naturally fans are curious how third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will perform in the regular season. And dissecting his every preseason snap is the closest they’ll get to figuring out whether to bet the over or under on Pats season victories.
But I’ll actually be watching the rookie, Jacoby Brissett more than Garoppolo. I know about what to expect from Jimmy G. He breaks the pocket a bit too quickly, and he will have a tougher time with complex defenses than Brady. That’s to be expected.
However, if Garoppolo struggles in the regular season, I’ll want to know if Brissett is ready to step in. And he should see plenty of action in the preseason. After all, if Garoppolo is expected to start opening day, the Pats will limit his exposure to injury in the preseason.
2. Two Tight End Offense, Round III
This is literally the third season in a row the Patriots spent significant energy trying to find a second tight end to pair with superstar Rob Gronkowski. And after some mediocre production from Tim Wright and last year’s disappointment, Scott Chandler, they might have gotten it right with former Chicago Bears TE Martellus Bennett.
All reports out of camp say he has developed a good chemistry with both Garoppolo and Brady. And Bennett's 6’ 6” frame will give the Pats another great weapon in the red zone -- if he works out.
I’ll be watching to see if the QBs throw to Bennett on time and in rhythm, which would show he’s earned their trust. Other things to watch are whether they target Bennett in the end zone, and if the two tight-end formations bring smaller defensive lineups (for coverage) or heavier lineups (to stop the run).
3. Reshuffled Lines
The Pats traded Chandler Jones, their top sack-man from last year, to the Arizona Cardinals. His departure seemed inevitable, both because of some off-field issues and because his longer, leaner frame just didn’t seem suited to play outside on the Patriots line.
Newcomers Terrance Knighton (6’ 3”, 355 pounds) and Chris Long (6’ 3”, 270 pounds) are more like traditional Patriots linemen -- shorter but stouter against the run. Jones will likely thrive in Arizona (bet the over on number of sacks he has this season), but Knighton or Long will likely be the most important off-season defensive pick-ups for the Patriots.
The offensive line added perhaps its most important piece: 68 year-old O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia. When Scar left, the line quickly went from a strength to a weakness. And departed coach Dave DeGuglielmo couldn’t patch things together -- even when the team spent higher draft picks on linemen.
It will help if tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer can stay healthy. But if Scarnecchia can work his magic, he could be this year’s Wade Phillips -- the most important non-player signing in the league. And that worked out well for Phillips; he oversaw a Denver defense that led them to a championship.
4. The New and The Returning
The two most important players returning from injury are wideout Julian Edelman and running back Dion Lewis. And you can’t overstate the importance of either. There is no replacement for Edelman on the roster, and there is no one behind Lewis who comes close to his burst or ability in the open field.
If Lewis hadn’t been injured at mid-year last season, the Patriots likely would have gone to the Super Bowl. And if the Pats plan to tread water during Brady’s absence, they’ll need Edelman and Lewis healthy enough to make the offense click with Garoppolo.
Guard Jonathan Cooper came via the Jones trade, and he’s already first on the depth chart at right guard. If he comes close to reaching the potential that convinced Arizona to draft him seventh overall, that trade would be a blowout win for the Patriots. If he can just provide stability and stay healthy, it will go a long way toward reestablishing the O-line as a strength on the team.
The Pats also have six backup linebackers on the roster, all trying to unseat journeyman Jonathan Freeny. Freeny is okay, but it’ll be a welcome development if they can build depth behind rising stars Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, because the talent drop-off is significant after those two. It would also give them the flexibility to switch between 3-4 and 4-3 defense situationally, something head coach Bill Belichick always strives for.
And there you have it; four reasons to watch the four preseason games, only one of which was the obvious choice.
Enjoy the games!