The New England Patriots’ preseason opener was a disjointed mess of a football game.
That’s what happens, of course, when a team elects to rest its starters and go to battle with players who have just two weeks of training camp experience. There’s nothing wrong with a messy preseason game, and if anything, it should give head coach Bill Belichick plenty of teaching points before the team’s next preseason matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Thursday night’s game against the Washington Redskins didn’t provide a great glimpse of what’s to come during the 2014 season, however. Without quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Darrelle Revis — arguably the Patriots’ best three players — the Patriots had trouble playing with any consistency against the Redskins.
We were able to get a look at some of New England’s key reserves, so check out NESN.com’s five takeaways from the Patriots-Redskins preseason matchup, with a focus on depth.
1. Patriots must add depth at tight end
Justin Jones and Asa Watson still could have a future in the NFL, but the rookie tight ends didn’t provide many positive moments against the Redskins, and the Patriots’ best course of action would be to store both players on the practice squad for the 2014 season. Jones was targeted once and dropped a Jimmy Garoppolo pass, and Watson was not targeted.
Jones and Watson held up in run blocking, but it wasn’t always pretty, which is to be expected out of two raw, undrafted rookie tight ends.
The Patriots should address the position by signing a player before Friday night’s game against the Eagles. They have the most complete tight end in the NFL — in Gronkowski — and little depth behind him. Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams are injured, and James Develin is a fullback who can occasionally line up at tight end. The Patriots should know what they have in Jones and Watson, keep them around to store for a year, and see what else is out there.
2. Malcolm Butler shines in coverage
Butler was targeted seven times by Redskins quarterbacks and allowed two receptions for 24 yards with two pass breakups. That’s an impressive showing for an undrafted rookie cornerback out of tiny West Alabama. Butler drew the start over fellow inexperienced cornerbacks Daxton Swanson, Justin Green and Travis Hawkins.
3. Darius Fleming shows impressive versatility
The Patriots might have found a keeper in linebacker Darius Fleming, who made a number of solid plays at 3-4 outside linebacker. Fleming also saw time at inside linebacker.
Fleming is a former San Francisco 49ers fifth-round pick whose career was derailed after multiple torn ACLs. If he can stay healthy, he could provide valuable depth behind starters Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich and Jamie Collins, and key reserve James Anderson, who also played well.
4. Patriots’ second-year defenders show promise
The Patriots gave linebackers Steve Beauharnais and Michael Buchanan plenty of opportunities, and while they showed moments of promise, it also was obvious that both players need to continue evolving as training camp continues.
Buchanan and Beauharnais had issues in pass coverage, and Buchanan was getting overpowered while trying to set the edge against the run. Buchanan had the Patriots’ lone sack, and he also recorded a pressure and quarterback hit.
The Patriots lack depth at pass rusher, and they might need to rely on Collins and Hightower if Buchanan can’t prove he deserves a key role this season.
5. Young offensive linemen struggle
The Patriots went into Thursday night’s game with second-year pros Josh Kline and Jordan Devey starting at right guard and left guard, respectively. Dan Connolly, the team’s starting right guard last season, started at center. Ryan Wendell, the team’s starting center in 2013, played in the second half exclusively.
Kline and Devey could improve as the summer wears on, but both players had issues run and pass blocking. Kline allowed a pressure and quarterback hit, while Devey allowed a sack and a pressure.