3. Reactions to the Patriots draft class were lukewarm, what are your thoughts on the rookies through the first two preseason games?
Yeah, I wasn’t too fond of the Patriots draft class at first, with the Duron Harmon pick being a bad surprise at first. But now, my opinion on these guys has changed for the better. Jamie Collins is proving the Patriots scouts who didn’t want him wrong, and he’s been like a sponge trying to soak information from fellow linebackers like Jerod Mayo (definitely a great player and person to learn from). Pepper Johnson (linebackers coach) has taken a special liking for Collins, and Collins has been making play after play in practice and preseason games. He used to play safety, and that shows in his excellent coverage skills. That’s important, because 2/3 Patriots starting linebackers struggle in pass coverage (especially Brandon Spikes). Collins also has a knack for forcing fumbles.
Dobson looks promising and is the best bet to be the “X” receiver, but he has been outplayed by Kenbrell Thompkins and probably won’t start in two-wide sets. Logan Ryan has had his ups-and-downs (gave up a 42-yard pass to Tiquan Underwood against the Bucs but also had a pick-six), but he is improving and should end up getting some time as a rookie as the dime corner. Duron Harmon looks much better than I thought he would, and he could even be the Patriots third safety as a rookie if Steve Gregory ends up getting his walking papers. Harmon has looked excellent in deep coverage for a rookie, and he is already the Pats second-best safety in deep coverage (Devin McCourty is obviously the best). Josh Boyce also looks promising and is a smart receiver with the speed to stretch the field and ability to play in the slot and on the outside, but he hasn’t really gained Tom Brady’s trust yet.
Michael Buchanan has potential, but he hasn’t shown it yet despite a lot of preseason snaps and should hit the practice squad. Steve Beauharnais will make the roster as an LB who will mostly play on special teams, and his run defense really impressed a lot of people on Friday.
When you talk about the Patriots draft class, I think you also have to look at the undrafted guys too. Zach Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins are already roster locks, and there are a few other undrafted players worth mentioning. DTs Joe Vellano and Cory Grissom have shown up so well in the preseason that they both have legit chances of making the roster (Grissom was a fifth-round prospect for most draft analysts). Missouri Tigers duo T.J. Moe and Elvis Fisher are on the injured reserve, but they are on the radar as top UDFAs and should make an impact next year.
4. What is a hot Patriots position battle Lions fans should watch during Thursday night’s game?
Kenbrell Thompkins vs. Aaron Dobson for starting receiver duties in two-wide sets. I think the starters in three-wide sets will also be decided by how well Dobson plays, and that’s going to be Dobson at the “X”, Thompkins at the “Z”, and Amendola in the slot if Dobson earns it. If he struggles, then I could see it being Thompkins “X”, Julian Edelman “Z”, and Amendola in the slot. In two-wide sets, it looks like Thompkins is going to get “X” duties across from Amendola, because he has clearly outplayed Dobson through practices and preseason games. Dobson has more upside and is the better deep threat, but Thompkins looks better right now and is clearly the most well-rounded and polished of the rookie receivers (despite being undrafted, go figure).
5. Expectations are always high for the Patriots, any reason they shouldn’t be this season? How far can they go?
The Patriots can go all the way, but there are a few things that have to go right for them (not all of these things have to go right, but the majority of them do). Gronk needs to stay healthy, the rookie receivers need to be as good as advertised, Chandler Jones needs to break out as a pass rusher, the backup pass rushers need to take the next step in their developments, the corners need to stay healthy, Aqib Talib needs to finally put it together, and Adrian Wilson needs to partially turn back the clock to 2011. The sky is the limit for this team, and they should not lose the “Super Bowl” contender tag, just because they don’t have any big-name players. The Pats are deeper than most teams in this league, and it’s a shame where some people are ranking them in power rankings. I think this is the fourth or fifth best team in the league right now with the potential for more. I’ll call them at a 12-4 season.
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