The New England Patriots have been practicing for over three months, yet questions remain unresolved as their season is set to begin Thursday night against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Here’s what went unanswered through OTAs, minicamp, training camp and the preseason.
WHO’S THE “STARTING” RUNNING BACK?
Starting is in quotes, because we’re really talking about the early-down/short-yardage back, aka the one fantasy football owners care about.
Our best estimation is it will be Mike Gillislee, but we don’t know this for sure. It very well could be Rex Burkhead, and would it really shock anyone if Dion Lewis took early-down carries to start the season?
Gillislee likely will have the most carries and touchdowns by season’s end, but Burkhead did look mighty impressive in the Patriots’ second preseason game.
WHO TAKES JULIAN EDELMAN’S WIDE RECEIVER ROLE?
The easy answer is Brandin Cooks. Edelman was the Patriots’ No. 1 wideout last season, and Chris Hogan was No. 2. Cooks likely will be the Patriots No. 1 wideout this season with Hogan now remaining No. 2.
But the real question is who finishes third in wide receiver snaps by year’s end. It easily could be Danny Amendola taking a bigger role in the slot, Malcolm Mitchell pushing Cooks or Hogan into the slot or newcomer Phillip Dorsett.
We’ll guess Mitchell, but obviously only if he can stay healthy.
WHAT’S THE STARTING DEFENSE?
The Patriots likely will begin most games in their nickel defense and finish the season with that as their top personnel package.
The Patriots will likely run some form of a 3-3-5 this season with three down linemen, one or two edge linebackers, a middle linebacker and five defensive backs. The three starting defensive linemen almost certainly will be Trey Flowers, Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. The linebackers likely will be Dont’a Hightower, David Harris and Kyle Van Noy, and the defensive backs likely will be Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. Players like Deatrich Wise, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts and Eric Rowe could push for snaps, though.
WHAT’S DONT’A HIGHTOWER’S ROLE?
The tea leaves seem to say Hightower will be living on the edge this season. But what if David Harris and Elandon Harris falter at inside linebacker? Would Hightower then move back inside and allow Van Noy or McClellin to rush more?
Hightower seemingly will have a bigger opportunity to rush the passer this season.
WHO RUSHES THE PASSER ON THIRD DOWN?
Last season, the Patriots typically used three defensive ends and a linebacker to rush the passer on third down. The Patriots rotated Flowers, Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich in the “defensive end” role. Long, Sheard and Ninkovich now are gone.
We can assume Flowers will be on the field on third down. We also assume Hightower will be out there. It would make sense for Adam Butler to take on an interior rushing role, and then perhaps Wise and Cassius Marsh could rotate in the other spot. McClellin, Van Noy and Harvey Langi also could receive opportunities.
WHO’S THE THIRD CORNERBACK?
And how much does it matter?
Duron Harmon likely will be the Patriots’ primary nickel defensive back, pushing Chung toward the line of scrimmage. When the Patriots deploy three cornerbacks, however, it likely will be Eric Rowe. But depending on matchups, Jonathan Jones could receive some No. 3 cornerback snaps, as well.
Thumbnail photo via Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports Images