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View from Above: Underdogs help the Patriots stay great

If there has been one thread of commonality running through the New England Patriots of the 21st century, it might be that at some point every season - Underdog manages to make an appearance.

Not the lovable, hound-dog cartoon character of the 1960's, but the theme/attitude/character trait of endearment that always supplies plenty of fuel for season-long competitive fires.  Fans love to play the underdog card, whenever and wherever they can.  So do the coaches and players in New England, even though the results of the last 16 years or so might say otherwise.

Being an underdog doesn't necessarily equate to weakness or inferiority, but rather it reflects a willingness to work hard toward improving individual skills and abilities, with the hope that in turn, those improved talents will help the team win.  

There isn't a coach - professional or amateur, that doesn't hope his players "outwork" others in an effort to win on game day.

One thing the Patriots have been fortunate to have had plenty of through the years, are these types of players.  Whether drafted, traded for or signed as a free agent, the work ethic has been such that perhaps not surprisingly, even undrafted free agents manage to create a real presence on the roster.  

You have to go back before Bill Belichick arrived as head coach - even before Pete Carroll and Bill Parcells' tenures, too - to find a year where at least one undrafted free agent didn't appear on New England's roster.  

While that speaks to the overall Underdog identity the Patriots love to portray, UDFA rookies, in particular, always seem to find a way to sneak onto the roster and make an impact.

2016 is no exception.  And through the OTA's, mini-camps and through training camp thus far, at least two players stand out as potential successors to the two-decade-long run of free agent success stories.  

"It's going good," UDFA rookie Jonathan Jones out of Auburn said as training camp officially wrapped up public practices last week.  "We know we're going to have to come out here and grind it out.  I'm just learning from the older guys, learn from the coaches, just every day getting better.  

"The object for me," Jones added, "is to not make the same mistake twice."

Jones and fellow rookie UDFA defensive back Cre'von LeBlanc (from Florida Atlantic) have had their moments this summer, to the point where Jones' consistency is notable, and LeBlanc's playmaking (he had a one-handed interception against New Orleans) is noticeable.  Clearly, consistency is the key for any under-the-radar, potential underdog to make the final 53-man squad.  Versatility is also a requirement.  In fact, it's a must.

"I'll play this, play that.  My job is to be available and to do what they (the coaches) ask me to do," Jones said.  "If you make a mistake in one area, you try to correct it and get better at any position.  Especially DB."

Jones has great speed as an ex-track athlete (timed at 4.32 in the 40), but is considered smallish (5-9, 185 pounds) even for a DB.  Still, he's not that much smaller than top draft pick Cyrus Jones (from Alabama), and his ability is comparable, yet Auburn's Jones went undrafted.  

Could there be another reason why the Patriots made him a priority when it came to signing free agents? Athleticism, work ethic, experience against top-flight competition (in the SEC) are all a part of it, no doubt.  But this Jones also has an attitude based in reality. 

"It's just a different level (out on the NFL field)," Jonathan Jones said.  "There's great guys here in the NFL, every week you're getting out against the best of the best.  Every day you have to have the skills and be on-point.  I'm just trying to get better, you can always work to get better."

Under-the-radar guys have been New England's specialty for years, as underdogs are a big part of what these Patriots have built for themselves.  It's entirely possible they could find a few more on their hands this year, too.

Team photographer, David Silverman, offers his best photos from the Patriots preseason game against the Chicago Bears at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, August 18, 2016. Silverman's best is presented by CarMax.

Way-too-early nitpicks?

After the opening preseason win over New Orleans, we managed to find a few things to nitpick about - even though this is exhibition football, and not exactly at its finest.  

Let's face it.  It's not intended to be the best product it can be on the field, at least not yet.  There's too much "practice" going on out on the field, too much experimentation, too many mistakes from players who are trying to perfect and improve upon their skills.  So a little reality is in order.

But so is a little scrutiny, if your goal is to reach the Super Bowl.  

A couple of things stand out from the 23-22 win over the Chicago Bears, one of which was the improved emphasis on the running game.  As we've suggested previously, the running backs stand to take  a lot of pressure away from Jimmy Garoppolo during September if they can perform to capabilities.  Individually, LeGarrette Blount, Tyler Gaffney and Brandon Bolden (minus the fumble) created opportunities on their own, but the offensive line lacked "push" in a few places.  There were short yardage situations at the goal line that failed, miserably.  

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But Garoppolo was protected better than he was against New Orleans, so there is that.

Perhaps a continued consistency - in personnel and performance - is all that's required here in order for this offensive line to make a real difference in the Patriots' offensive results.

On the other side of the ball, a frustrating bugaboo reappeared early and often - defensive holding.  Perhaps some of that was due to a few of the regulars (Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich) missing up front.  But there was very little pressure, or containment, against Jay Cutler's unit.  Nasty defensive holding calls kept early Bears' drives alive, and those can be game-killers when the real games get started.

And this is the ultimate nitpick, but Justin Coleman has been picked on early in two straight games, and has given up big yardage in both cases.  When or where do you draw the line on giving credit to the QB's for great throws (as they both were), as opposed to making a change because you're getting beat?  No one has ever said being an NFL corner was easy, but at some point, you've got to make a play.

Cam Newton's first target this week will be interesting to watch.

Don't call the Red Cross just yet

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So, if all of the injury gloom-and-doom is accurate, the Patriots concerted effort to build additional depth this season could be crumbling like a summer sandcastle on the beach.  From Tom Brady's apparent pregame mishap last week, to reports of Dion Lewis requiring additional surgery leave more than just a few players frustrated, for sure.

Sebastian Vollmer, Tre Jackson and Danny Amendola are also dealing with recuperative issues as they remain on the PUP list, and this week bears watching to see if anyone gets closer to an actual return to the playing field.  Even if they don't, it doesn't necessarily mean the sky is falling.  But the storm clouds are gathering.

With the way the roster-health stumbled to the finish line a year ago, arguably a strong factor in falling short of the Super Bowl, it is a little frustrating to think injuries could be creating problems again for this roster.  This is where the off-season emphasis comes into play, and where the players signed and brought in to address the depth issue need to produce.  

The plus side to it all - is that at least there's time to get several players back in relative good health before too much of the season passes us by.  This week against Carolina will be as close to a regular season test as we'll see for a few more weeks.  

Let's see if the guys who are available can step into the breach, creating more opportunity for themselves - and creating more worry for someone else.

*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and is beginning his 24th season as the Patriots' stadium voice.  Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 28 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *

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