We all know the preseason doesn’t matter (unless it involves catastrophic injury), so I’ll keep this brief. Here are some key takeaways through three weeks of Patriots preseason play.
1) Julian Edelman. I am typing this ahead of an official diagnosis, so hopefully things will turn out better than a season-ending ACL injury. Without Edelman, the Patriots offense suddenly looks more vulnerable than it did just days ago. It cannot be overstated how valuable Julian Edelman is to this team. Since Week 10 of the 2016 season, Edelman has led all wide receivers in receiving yards per game. That might be cherry-picking the stat lines a bit, but consider this: Edelman is beating out the likes of Julio Jones and Antonio Brown to average nearly 100 receiving yards per game. That’s incredible. While Gronkowski provides a loud and obvious choice for beat writers to declare as the most important cog in the Patriots offense, Julian Edelman is the lynchpin to this scheme. If Dwayne Allen dubbed Chris Hogan “Mr. Perfect” this offseason, Edelman has got to be “Mr. First-Down.” No other player consistently keeps drives alive with huge 3rd down conversions and frequent chain-moving receptions. It’s going to be a huge blow to the offense without Edelman in the lineup. I have concerns over the Brady–Cooks connection, given the two have just 15 combined yards in the preseason. With Edelman out, Amendola and Hogan will see an increased role in the passing game, but it’s Cooks that will ultimately have to fill the void in top-receiver talent. Here’s to hoping Gronk can go a full season now that Edelman has absorbed the injury bug.
2) The patriots would be crazy to cut Kony Ealy. Kony Ealy has been the most controversial player to wear a Patriots jersey since Chad Ochocinco. We barely got into training camp before reports were circulating that Bill Belichick had a problem with Ealy’s attitude or commitment to the game. Fast-forward three preseason games, and Ealy has only been able to record one tackle, despite seeing significant snaps with the first and second defense. However, the defensive end position is by far the most talent weak and thin position on the Patriots roster. Cutting Ealy, or even making a trade, only exacerbates the situation. In three preseason games the Patriots have managed 2 quarterback sacks. That is an abysmally low number, particularly when you consider teams are fielding third and fourth string offensive linemen to protect the quarterback. We all know that the Patriots employ a “bend but don’t break” style of defense that had them leading the league in fewest points allowed last season. But consider the difference in competition. Last year, the best quarterback the Pats faced in the regular season was Russell Wilson. This year they will be playing Philip Rivers, Derek Carr, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston and Ben Roethlisberger (presumably). More so than last year, the ability to get to the quarterback is going to be essential to the defense coming out on top. The Patriots can’t afford to lose any more depth at the pass-rushing position. In the case of Ealy, I see his trajectory with the Patriots as a failure of the coaching staff. While the media would paint a different picture, that Ealy is lazy and reluctant to conform to the ‘Patriot Way’, the reality is that player development is the responsibility of the coaching staff. The Patriots cannot afford to pull a Jamie Collins each season–jettisoning a talented, but troublesome player for next to nothing in draft value. They did it last year in the Collins trade with Cleveland and in the offseason by cutting 1st round pick Dominique Easley. While the media may be calling for Ealy’s release, I see a player with a lot of potential who simply needs better guidance. Coaching is as much mental preparation as it is using physical talents. Look no further than Cyrus Jones.
3) All aboard the Mike Gillislee hype train. I have been waiting all preseason to see Gillislee play, and tonight did not disappoint. For the past two seasons, Mike Gillislee has averaged a whopping 5.7 yards per carry–a number almost unheard of in the modern NFL. The Patriots still have more to do with the offensive line in the run game, mainly opening up lanes for the running backs. But overall, Gillislee had a fine outing for the Patriots, scoring a touchdown in his first carry with New England, and coming in on the next play to hammer home a 2-point conversion. Unlike LeGarrette Blount, who has a tendency to get repeatedly stopped up at the line of scrimmage before breaking out on a 30 yard run, Gillislee was attacking his gaps with speed and power, picking up his requisite 3-4 yard minimum, and breaking away with several longer yardage runs. I was impressed with his speed and ability to find an opening. Between James White, Lewis, Burkhead and Gillislee, the Patriots may field one of the most versatile, and dangerous, backfields in the entire league.
4) What’s the deal with Dwayne Allen? After three preseason games, Dwayne Allen has yet to catch a pass as a New England Patriot. I’m not even sure if he has been targeted in that time. The heir-apparent to Martellus Bennett is showing a lack of offensive capability that most Patriots fans are looking for in the event of an ( almost inevitable) Rob Gronkowski injury. Of all the position battles on the roster, it will be interesting how the Patriots handle the tight-end position. Gronk may be one of the most game-breaking players in league history, but he also has a penchant for not finishing seasons. With James O’Shaughnessy, Jacob Hollister and Matt Lengel fighting for a roster spot, it would not surprise me to see the Patriots keep three tight ends (especially now that Julian Edelman will likely have a vacated spot on the roster). Allen is on record stating that the Patriots offensive playbook is complex, but the coaching staff cannot be pleased with his lack of production. While I have cautioned previously that Allen is not a fair comparison to Martellus, fans seem to be forgetting that Bennett contributed 700 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Patriots need a solid second tight end with offensive capabilities. Dwayne Allen may not be the answer.
5) Harvey Langi has earned a roster spot. It’s hard to imagine an undrafted rookie free-agent earning a significant role on a Super Bowl-winning team, but that’s exactly what this BYU linebacker has done. Langi has looked like a rookie for the majority of the preseason, but performed like a player that deserves to make the 53-man cut. I have been overwhelmingly impressed with Langi’s ability at the defensive end position. While his pass-rushing ability lacks the refinement of a true defensive end, he has exhibited the power needed to bull rush offensive linemen and quickness to get to the quarterback, particularly in the outing against the Houston Texans, when he saw significant time at the EDGE position opposite of Kony Ealy. The current talk is that Dont’a Hightower will be moving to the defensive end position, while David Harris and Elandon Roberts take up his traditional position in the middle of the field. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Langi is taking the majority of the LB/DE hybrid snaps by midway through the season, freeing up Hightower to return to his natural position as middle linebacker.
How will Julian Edelman’s absence affect the Patriots season? It’s ridiculous for anyone to be talking about 19-0 at this point in the preseason, or even a repeat Super Bowl victory. There’s a reason no team has won the Super Bowl in back to back seasons in over a decade: the attrition of additional games played in a calendar year begins to add up. We saw it tonight with Edelman. I’m not going to say his injury was directly caused by having to play a game in early February while 30 other teams were resting at home, but it certainly didn’t help the situation. Like 2015, player health is going to be a far greater determination of the Patriots success than any output on the field. They have depth at the WR position, but until Cooks proves to have a strong connection with Brady, and either Amendola/Mitchell/Hogan can fill the slot role, the offense is going to have its struggles. I expect this team to get off to a slow start on offense without the consistency that Edelman brings, particularly on third down and moving the chains. Fans should prepare themselves for this team to pick up a few losses in the first half of the season, particularly against strong defensive units like Kansas City, Carolina and Denver. However, the 2014 Patriots started 2-2, the 2016 team 3-1, and both ended their season hoisting the Lombardi trophy. Adversity, particularly in the first half of the season, is much more welcome than experiencing the same next January. At the very least, it will be an intriguing season.
**Update: Reports are now confirming Edelman will miss the entire 2017 season with a complete ACL tear in the right knee.