Patriots’ Third-Down Pass Rusher Role Still Uncertain Heading Into Bills Game and Other NFL Thoughts

Matt Barkley, Jake BequetteFOXBORO, Mass. — As the Patriots are ready to open the season against the Buffalo Bills, the amount of rookies and second-year players on the team’s 53-man roster is staggering — there are 21 total.

Many of those young players, including some that have just been signed in the last week, could play a big role on Sunday as the Patriots travel to Orchard Park, N.Y. The media has only been able to watch the first 20 minutes of practice since training camp ended, so the starters at some positions will be a mystery to all until after kickoff.

It’s fitting that youth will be dominating the first installment of my No-Huddle Offense segment, where I’ll be shooting off 11 random thoughts about the Patriots and the NFL. Check out my leftover notes from the week below.

1. There’s no telling who will be playing the third-down defensive tackle role in the Patriots’ defense in Week 1, and we likely won’t know until three plays into Buffalo’s first drive. The logical choice would be Tommy Kelly, but he’s been the starter in the base defense all summer. The team could elect to start another player in the base defense and have Kelly’s snaps come in nickel and dime, but that doesn’t seem to be the Patriots’ plan of attack.

2. The sub-package pass rushing role will likely come down to Joe Vellano, A.J. Francis, Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan. Vellano is the only player we’ve seen this summer playing at the three-technique defensive tackle spot, but for the past two years Bill Belichick has used a defensive end. Jermaine Cunningham, Marcus Benard and Justin Francis all played the position this summer. All three guys are gone.

3. The player who fits the position best is Chandler Jones, but the team would have to know he’ll be as effective rushing inside as he is outside. If, by some off chance, Jones does get used in the role, Bequette or Buchanan would then come off the bench as the second edge defender.

4. Kelly alone should boost the Patriots’ pass rushing this season. We saw more out of him in the preseason alone at penetrating the offensive line as we did all of last season out of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick.

5. One of the players who could fill the role, Francis, is a big wrestling fan. He said on Monday he was looking forward to going to Survivor Series at TD Garden on Nov. 24 until he was reminded he has a game to play that night against the Broncos. Don’t tweet him any spoilers.

6. Kenbrell Thompkins is expected to be the starting “X” receiver on Sunday. Without Stephon Gilmore or Jairus Byrd in Buffalo’s secondary, his matchup got a lot easier. He wasn’t sweating anyway. He said that if he’s prepared, there’s no reason to stress.

7. It wouldn’t be surprising to see either Josh Boyce or Aaron Dobson inactive against the Bills. Will Svitek will likely be one of the inactives, either Braxston Cave or Chris Barker will be another, Rob Gronkowski will probably be the third, one or two linebackers could be inactive and a safety and running back may stay home. That would leave one or two spots open for a wide receiver. Julian Edelman will probably be the first third receiver on the field, but Boyce and/or Dobson, whoever is active, will get chances, as well.

8. The Patriots have added five new players to their 53-man roster since the last preseason game. The practices leading up to the game, and some of their in-game action, could decide their fate moving forward. One player, linebacker Chris White, may have been brought in strictly to give the Patriots’ insight into Buffalo’s offensive and defensive strategy. He has been with the Bills until Aug. 25, when he was traded to the Lions.

9. Stevie Johnson says he doesn’t think anyone on the Patriots can cover him, but he also thinks Patrick Chung is still on the team. Maybe that also means he doesn’t know Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, plus the move from cornerback to safety for Devin McCourty solidified the secondary last season. As long as Johnson is lined up across from Talib, the No. 1 wideout could have a tough time getting open.

10. In general, the Bills’ strengths match up with the Patriots’ strengths, as they have for years now, which is why Buffalo has such a tough time against New England. Their run game and defensive line are stout, but they can’t dominate the Patriots’ run defense and offensive line.

11. On Sunday, we’ll likely see a rookie or second-year player starting at wide receiver, tight end, defensive end, linebacker and safety. A rookie or second-year player will also be the first wide receiver, defensive tackle, defensive end and safety off the bench.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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