Friday, August 11, 2006

Patriots 2006 Pre-season Preview (8/11/2006)

The Pats begin their quest for another championship in just a few hours... with an unimportant game in Atlanta against the Falcons tonight at 8:00. Sure, Super Bowl XLI seems like it's a half-year away (which it is), Deion Branch is holding out and half the squad sits on the sidelines at practice. But in August, these games are all we have to look forward to. So without further adieu, here are five things I'll be watching in the pre-season.

1. A shank or a clank, and you'll walk the plank (arrrr... matey).

Adam Vinatieri's only visit to Foxboro this regular season will be when the Colts come to town in November. Who replaces him is one of the most intriguing questions in the entire NFL. Veteran Martin Gramatica was out of football last year, but won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers a few years back. He knows NFL pressure but has never replaced an icon.

He'll compete with rookie Stephen Gostkowski (what is it with kickers and the long, tough-to-spell names), who reportedly has a booming leg and has acquitted himself well in practice. On the plus side, he has *no* idea the pressure he's under. Might work in his favor.

Performance in pre-season games will determine who kicks for the Pats this year. So watch closely who boots the ball further on kick-offs and who hits more field goals and you'll have the inside track on who you'll see in the regular season.

(Note: in an associated issue, I'll be watching the long snappers closely. Lonnie Paxton [#66] is the veteran who snapped for all of Adam Vinatieri's important kicks, but when I visited camp, rookie Jon Condo [#46] snapped just as cleanly and quickly as Paxton. If he can do that during a game, he's probably a lot less expensive, and Paxton is 28 years old and useful *only* in long snapping situations.)

2. Receiving corps branches out.

With Branch holding out, it looks like Rache Caldwell (#87) and Troy Brown will start at wide receiver tonight. After that, it's anyone's guess who will catch the ball. The team has 12 wide receivers on the roster; nine of them have been in the NFL two years or less (four are rookies).

Until Branch returns (and he will, folks, trust me), I'd guess that Ben Watson and perhaps some of the running backs will get time at wideout. And should the holdout continue, look for tight ends Watson and Daniel Graham to carry more of the receiving load than in past years.

The Pats don't like giving in to player demands; but with the lack of talent at wide receiver, they might have to make an exception this year.

3. Three-linebacker Monty.

You've probably heard that Tedy Bruschi will not play this pre-season. He had wrist surgery and will be out at least until the opening game of the regular season. With Willie McGinest gone, this could make a position of strength awfully thin. Mike Vrabel can move back inside, and Rosevelt Colvin will do fine outside. The question might be whether or not Monty Beisel (#52) can handle the inside without Bruschi there to help.

Based on last year, when he got better as the year progressed, I would say yes. But he never played well without Bruschi; so this pre-season might tell us if he can handle it on his own. The best indicator is how far from the line of scrimmage he makes tackles. Three-yards-or-fewer is good, five-yards-or-more is bad. Not much margin for error; so keep an eye out to see if it's "second-and-seven" or "second-and-four" after Beisel makes a tackle.

4. Four legs are better than two.

Corey Dillon was injured most of last year and the other running backs suffered for it. Patrick Pass played more and got injured, Kevin Faulk played more and fumbled a lot, and the team had to play castoffs and tight ends behind Brady. So the plan is to have a healthy Dillon split time with rookie Laurence Maroney (#39), thus keeping both fresher and less likely to get hurt.

The surest way for you to know if that plan will work is to watch Maroney when he's on the field. If he misses blocks, drops passes ("not bloody likely," says my friend Allan, who raves about his hands), or dances around instead of running, the season will be a heavy dose of Corey Dillon and keep your fingers crossed. But if he picks up blitzers, hits the hole, and catches the ball, you will see better play from that position this year.

Note: the best way to judge this might be to see how much playing time he gets with the starters in the third pre-season game. By then, the coaches will know how much they can play him in the regular season, and if he's in with the second-stringers, it could be a long year for the rookie and a longer one for Dillon.

5. Defensive back shuffle.

Questions, questions, questions:
a. Will Ellis Hobbs continue to improve?
b. Will Eric Warfield acclimate to the defense better than Chad Scott or poor Duane Starks last year?
c. Will Randall Gay play better now that his injuries are healed?
d. Can Eugene Wilson transition from safety to cornerback (his college position)?
e. Will Tebucky Jones revive his career under the system that made him a trade-able commodity?
f. Will Rodney Harrison return to his All-pro form?

Here are my guesses to all those questions:
a. Yes, he is a gamer who loves to get up in the grill and push receivers around b. Yes, but he won't be the star he was in Kansas City c. Yes, but only marginally. We may have seen the best of him in his rookie season d. Maybe, but by mid-season he'll be back at safety e. Most definitely yes f. No, but he'll be one of the best backup safeties in the NFL.

Of course, there are many other questions. But these are the five I'll be focusing on from game to game. Hope this email helps you enjoy the pre-season a little bit -- because the games themselves are so boring.

Take care and enjoy the rest of your summer. Look for my bigger-than-ever blockbuster Season Preview email the week before opening day (which is 9/10).

Keep the faith,

- Scott

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