FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It lasted far too long. In excess of three-and-a-half hours, in fact. So, here's the fourth preseason game in a nutshell: a third-quarter play that should have been both an easy touchdown for the Giants and an easy interception for the Patriots – on the same play, mind you – wound up in an incompletion. That's what you often get when players whose NFL shelf life is about to expire are seeing significant minutes in the preseason finale.
If you're an established player in the National Football League, the fourth and final preseason game is one in which you want no part. The only players who want – or just plain need – to suit up and play are those who are still fighting to prove that they belong on an NFL roster.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Last August, for instance, cornerback Jason McCourty saw extensive playing time – at safety, no less! – and as a result, it appeared his days with New England were numbered. That turned out not to be the case, as McCourty not only made the 53-man roster, but also became an integral part of the 2018 Patriots defense and eventual Super Bowl title.
Cases like McCourty's are rare, however. By and large, regular starters are rested and those who actually see action in this end-of-summer exhibition (aside from positions like kicker, punter, and long snapper, where the depth chart is only one deep) are reserve players and those on the so-called "bubble."
So, who might've helped or hurt their chances of staying with the Patriots beyond Saturday's roster cut-down, based on tonight's performances against the New York Giants? Let's examine each of the three phases of the game separately.
The Patriots made another exception to the regular starter rule by allowing WRs Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon to see action on the game's opening drive. Newcomer Demaryius Thomas, a seasoned vet in his first year with New England, also took part on that series, but all three were involved because they've been out either with injuries or, in Gordon's case, an NFL suspension. The team apparently felt they needed some game reps prior to the regular season.
Edelman contributed a 20-yard reception toward the end of that first possession, after which his night was over by coaches' decision.
Thomas, meantime, looked very much like someone who hadn't played football since last year when he bumbled an exchange on an end-around attempt, resulting in a turnover to the Giants deep in Patriots territory. Yet, in his first game appearance as a Patriot, Thomas (coming off an Achilles injury) redeemed himself with two touchdown catches from rookie starting QB Jarrett Stidham.
"I was excited about that… it's been a long time since I've been in the end zone," Thomas admitted later.
Thomas may have been going against lesser defensive competition, but he still appeared to have a grasp of his role in the offense and was sure-handed when targeted. He also said he felt he needed the work before the regular season kicks off.
"Yes, sir. To get the game pace, to get the calls, line up, see different coverages. It's a great start for me. I feel better now than before the injury," added Thomas. "I was a little smaller, but now I'm heavier, I feel stronger. The [rehab] program we've been doing here has helped out a lot, so, I feel great."
Gordon had a bit of a rocky 2019 debut, hauling in just two of the six balls sent to him during first-half activity, but those miscues weren't entirely his fault and tonight was more about game conditioning than statistics for him.
Stidham, meanwhile, went wire-to-wire under center, leaving incumbent backup passer Brian Hoyer on the bench all night. The 2019 draft pick wasn't perfect, but appeared fairly comfortable once again in command of the offense, making some great throws and picking his spots to tuck the ball and run with it. New England isn't shy about keeping just two QBs on its roster, so, it's possible Stidham has surpassed the veteran Hoyer on the depth chart.
On the offensive line, rookie draft choice Hjalte Froholdt had to leave the game late in the first quarter after appearing to suffer an arm injury of some kind. He was taken to the team's pop-up medical tent behind the bench for further evaluation and never returned to the game field. Froholdt has had his share of struggles this preseason, and with New England having just swung a trade Wednesday for a veteran interior o-lineman, he could be in jeopardy of being placed on injured reserve.
Linebacker is one of New England's deepest positions this season, so, it might be hard for a bottom-of-the-roster player to crack the lineup. However, Calvin Munson, a 2018 practice squad holdover, and newcomer Scooby Wright made their case throughout the contest. Both men were active chasing down Giants players in the backfield and against the run game.
While Wright only recently signed, Munson has had a solid training camp and just might have done enough to warrant placement on the 53-man roster.
In the defensive backfield, second-year cornerback Keion Crossen gave up a 35-yard touchdown reception late in the first quarter, but also made some nice tackles and pass breakups throughout the night, which fired up his teammates on the field and the sideline.
"The vets just told me to keep my head up," Crossen revealed about how he was able to bounce back from his early mistake. "It's the nature of our position to keep battling, keep fighting. My teammates did a great job encouraging me. I kept fighting and things ended up turning for me."
Fellow second-year player Duke Dawson incurred an illegal contact foul, followed immediately by a right-place-right-time INT, but he's had a relatively quiet summer. There aren't many jobs available at cornerback, and there might not be enough room for both of them this season, like there was last year.
"I'm just trying to learn my position every day, get better every day," Crossen continued. "Trying to make the best of my opportunity. Hard work beats anything, I feel. What you put in is what you get out."
Another interesting development saw rookie CB Joejuan Williams playing safety throughout the night. As a second-round pick this year, he's obviously a lock to make the squad. Perhaps the coaches wanted to give him a chance to show some position versatility at safety, where he hadn't played since high school.
"You're like one of the quarterbacks of the defense," Williams said of playing safety. "You've got to see the whole field more… you learn as the game goes. That's what I felt like I did [tonight]."
Rookie Gunner Olszewski looks like he's played his way into a practice squad job, at the very least. The cornerback-turned-wide receiver/return specialist didn't have many chances to return punts or kickoffs (he either fair-caught them or they sailed for touchbacks). Yet, he managed a nice 35-yard KOR in the third quarter, and
Olszewski also saw reps on offense, catching both first-half passes thrown to him by Stidham.
"Felt good. I told Jarrett I'm glad he finally threw me the ball," the rookie joked with reporters afterward.
Olszewski even got some second-half time at his erstwhile cornerback spot. He told reporters that he got the word earlier in the week that he'd be involved in all three aspects of the game.
"It was fun. It's like when you're growing up playing football, you never come off the field. Yeah, it felt good being out there on defense. I was excited. I did a bunch of defensive meetings [during the week]. The offensive playbook's still a little foreign to me," he acknowledged, "but I'm getting the hang of it… those positions go hand-in-hand, receiver and corner."
The fact that Olszewski saw so much action in favor of second-year man Braxton Berrios throughout the game might be an indication that he's made a positive impression on the coaching staff.
"Best time of my life," Olszewski declared about his time thus far with the Patriots. "I'm glad I got to be a part of it for four weeks."
He demurred when asked if his time in Foxborough could last longer than that.
"We'll see," he grinned. "That's not up to me. Obviously, we'll play the waiting game now."
Elsewhere, while there's no competition for long snapper, punter, or placekicker, it was encouraging to see the snap-hold-placekick operation work well during the first half. Stephen Gostkowski nailed field goals of 31, 40, and 51 yards, after missing a three-pointer in each of the first three preseason games. The new triumvirate, which now includes rookie punter Jake Bailey as Gostkowski's holder, might be getting into a rhythm at just the right time.
The New England Patriots take on the New York Giants in a preseason game at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, August 29, 2019.