FOXBOROUGH – While it’s always nice to come out of a competition on the winning side, the scoreboard is probably the least important aspect of preseason games. A player’s performance – individually and in tandem with teammates on the field – is what counts most.
With just four of these opportunities to impress their coaches, players must maximize their on-field reps this the time of year if they want to be among the men still playing next month when the games start to count in the standings.
Here is how some of the more intriguing Patriots position battles unfolded Thursday night against Washington.
While Rex Burkhead may have been the most impressive back in the first two weeks of camp, he was held out of preseason action Thursday night. It appeared Burkhead sustained some sort of medical problem a day or two earlier at practice.
In his stead, Mike Gillislee got the start in the backfield, but it was newcomer Jeremy Hill who had more of an impact on the game’s outcome. Hill carried 11 times for 51 yards, including a 1-yard plunge over the goal line for a score in the third quarter, which helped spark New England’s come-from-behind victory. He added a pair of receptions for 14 yards.
“Just doing my job, going out there and competing. That’s all I’m doing,” Hill told reporters later, adding that it felt good to score in his first game at Gillette Stadium as a Patriot. “It was a little shaky at first, but I’m glad we kept fighting. It paid off in the second half.”
Hill, who signed as a veteran free agent this past offseason, also worked on the kickoff return team and appears to be battling with Gillislee for a spot in the Patriots running back stable.
“For sure. For me, I have to do everything I can on special teams and on offense to help this team win games,” Hill said afterward. “Whatever the coaches ask me to do, I’m going to try to execute at a high level and have fun. Hopefully, that’ll put me in the position I need to be when the regular season comes.”
When he arrived in Foxborough this spring, Hill (6-1, 230) was determined to shed some pounds in an effort to improve his mobility on the field. The work he put in with strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera seemed to pay off on this night.
“I feel lighter on my feet,” observed Hill, “I can get in and out of cuts, can make people miss a little better now.”
Meanwhile, Gillislee tallied 43 yards on 14 carries, but he and Hill were both outshined by undrafted rookie Ralph Webb. In the latter stages of the second half, Webb rushed for a pair of touchdowns and converted both of the ensuing 2-point conversions (one receiving, one rushing).
“It’s a dream-come-true, you know,” Webb acknowledged in the post-game locker room. “I’ve been dreaming of playing in the NFL since I was a little kid. I’m just really happy, really blessed. I’m happy to be here. This is the best place for me to be. I have a great opportunity to come compete with some guys and learn from a great group of backs.”
Webb remains a long shot to make the final roster, but if he continues to carry the ball the way he did against Washington and in limited chances throughout camp, he just might find himself on New England’s practice squad come next month.
With Julian Edelman still working his way back from a right knee injury and facing a four-game suspension to start the regular season, head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided to give him considerable work on offense in the first half.
However, Edelman wasn’t targeted once by backup QB Brian Hoyer, who started in place of Tom Brady. So, it seemed more like a conditioning exercise for Edelman. He has said on more than one occasion this summer that he still feels like he needs to get in “football shape” after sitting out all of last season.
“It was fun,” the 32-year-old said of his first game action since last August. “The nerves were juiced and I was just excited to get out there and play football.”
While Chris Hogan, who also lined up with Edelman during the first half, caught neither of the two throws to him, veteran free agent Cordarrelle Patterson did. Patterson has been making impressive catches in camp practices and did so again with both of his grabs against Washington.
At practice, Patterson doubles as a kickoff returner, but was not asked to perform that function Thursday. Those duties fell to first-year man Riley McCarron and rookie Braxton Berrios. McCarron seemed to have a slight edge in that regard, but did nothing of note as a receiver.
In addition, both McCarron and Berrios did little with their punt return opportunities, although Berrios had the best one of the night, a 13-yard gain. Someone will need to emerge in September to fill in for Edelman, one of the team’s primary punt returners, while he serves a four-game NFL suspension.
Starters Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, who’ve gotten most of the first-team reps at cornerback throughout camp, played a couple of series at the outset before yielding to rookie J.C. Jackson and first-year player Ryan Lewis. No one in the secondary covered himself in glory, however, as the 1st quarter featured lots of miscommunication, missed tackles, and 112 passing yards surrendered to Redskins backup QB Colt McCoy.
The group of five that has gotten most of the front-line work this summer saw action throughout the first half: Trent Brown (LT), Joe Thuney (LG), David Andrews (C), Shaq Mason (RG), and LaAdrian Waddle (RT) in place of injured Marcus Cannon.
An entirely new group entered the game in the third quarter: (l-r) Matt Tobin, Luke Bowanko, Ted Karras, Cole Croston, and Ulrick John. Notably, first-round draft choice Isaiah Wynn, who gets a fair amount of reps with the second group at practice, dressed for the game but was never asked to play.
Incumbent Ryan Allen has been trying to stave off a challenge from rookie Corey Bojorquez since the spring. After 11 camp practices, the veteran seems to have a left leg up on his challenger. Against Washington, Ryan punted very well, booming kicks of 57 yards (from out of his own end zone), 49, 55, 45, 51
Allen also held for all of Stephen Gostkowski’s placekicks, including a successful 52-yard field goal. Bojorquez appears to be a clear second place at this point and has much work to do to overtake Allen.