Patriots Notes: Tough Decisions Loom At Running Back For New England

Plus: Chase Winovich bounces back in his preseason debut

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Some assorted notes and nuggets from the New England Patriots 35-0 preseason beatdown of the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field:

— We’ll start with an important caveat: Many of Philadelphia’s defensive starters, including stud D-linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham and cornerback Darius Slay, did not play in this game.

Offensively, second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, whom New England struggled to contain in joint practices this week, was a late scratch after coming down with an illness, thrusting 36-year-old Joe Flacco into starting duty.

So, the Patriots were not facing a full-strength Eagles team. Keep that in mind when evaluating their many impressive performances Thursday night.

— This was a great night to be a Patriots running back, underscoring just how deep the Patriots are at the position.

Fourth-round rookie Rhamondre Stevenson rushed for two touchdowns for the second consecutive game, using both quickness and power to elude Eagles defenders.

Second-year pro J.J. Taylor averaged 7.8 yards per carry (93 on 12 attempts) and put Eagles cornerback Michael Jacquet in a blender:

Sony Michel ran well and impressed in the passing game (four targets, four catches, 37 yards) — an intriguing development for the typically one-dimensional veteran.

Lead back Damien Harris looked the part in his handful of reps, punching in an early score.

Altogether, the Patriots rushed for 207 yards at a 4.7 yards-per-carry clip.

“It’s a good group,” head coach Bill Belichick told reporters in his postgame news conference. “Those guys work hard. They’ve all gotten opportunities and showed positively in their opportunities. I think competition brings out the best in all of us. I think those guys are competing well, and they’re all contributing. It’s a great situation.”

A great situation that will require some difficult decisions in the coming weeks. The Patriots have six running backs deserving of roster spots — the aforementioned four, plus pass-catching staple James White and versatile special teamer Brandon Bolden — and typically carry no more than five.

So, who gets the boot?

Do they cut Taylor — whom position coach Ivan Fears compared to Dion Lewis and Darren Sproles last year — and risk losing him on waivers? Do they wave goodbye to Bolden, whom Belichick and the locker room adore (but who has yet to play in the preseason)? Do they trade Michel to a team with suspect running back depth, hoping to recoup a mid-round draft pick in return? Do they pull a total shocker and trade White, the longtime co-captain and Super Bowl hero?

Regardless of how they proceed, the Patriots are set up to field a formidable rushing attack this season.

— One mark in the negative column for Stevenson: He lost a fumble, allowing the ball to be punched out during a fourth-quarter carry. You can bet that will be one of the first clips Belichick shows in the team’s next film session.

— Chase Winovich saw extensive action in his preseason debut, playing deep into the second half four days after being removed from the physically unable to perform list.

Winovich, who missed the team’s first 12 training camp practices, said it felt “great” to be back in the mix.

“It was a lot of fun being out there with my teammates, and just the opportunity to be able to compete at the pinnacle of anything is truly a blessing,” the third-year outside linebacker said. “To come out and have a great victory, and for so many people to do such an awesome job, it was a lot of fun. I missed it.”

The evening started poorly for Winovich, who was flagged for roughing the passer on one of his first defensive snaps, but eventually improved. He recorded sacks against Flacco and Nick Mullens — forcing a fumble on the latter — and later tallied a QB hit.

Winovich was a third-round draft pick just two years ago, and he led all Patriots defenders in sacks and pressures last season, so his spot on the roster likely is safe. It’s not guaranteed, though, after the Patriots added Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy in free agency and drafted Ronnie Perkins in the third round. Winovich almost certainly won’t be cut, but that depth above him could make him a preseason trade candidate.

The 26-year-old was asked whether he feels like he’s competing for a job.

“I don’t really feel it’s a competition,” Winovich replied, “because to me — and I said this earlier; this is how I look at it — everything is about you versus you. That is, like, a fundamental, I believe that in my heart of hearts. Everything is about you versus you, and all I can do is be the best version of Chase possible. And if I keep improving — and there’s so many areas of my life that, before I became a Patriot, I never even considered I could grow in. Things that matter.

“So to be a Patriot — I always say that one of two things is possible: Either Coach Belichick is one of the greatest coaches of all time by accident, or there’s a reason and a method behind everything we do. I have bought in, and I’m committed to whatever they asked me to do. Just being that piece as part of the team.”

— With Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Matt LaCosse all sidelined with injuries, Devin Asiasi was the Patriots’ only available tight end Thursday night.

Belichick estimated the second-year pro played roughly 40 snaps in the game. To spell him, the Patriots also used offensive tackle Justin Herron as a jumbo tight end in single-tight end sets. The Patriots also employed more 10 personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers) than usual.

“That’s real football,” Belichick said. “Things happen and you have to make adjustments. Guys have to maybe do something that is a little bit different than what they have been doing. We cross-train guys to do more than one thing. … (I) thought the players handled it pretty well and adapted to it.”

It remains to be seen when Henry (shoulder) and Smith (ankle) — two of New England’s marquee free agent additions — will be healthy enough to return. Both attended joint practices in Philadelphia this week, though neither participated.

— The Patriots must cut their roster to 80 players by 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday. On Wednesday, they’ll hold their first of two joint practices with the New York Giants outside Gillette Stadium. Their preseason finale against the Giants is set for next Sunday at MetLife Field, followed by the deadline to finalize their initial 53-man roster on Tuesday, Aug. 31.

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