FOXBORO — Beyond Julian Edelman and James White, there are few known commodities in the Patriots passing game.
The trio of Josh Gordon, N’Keal Harry, and Demaryius Thomas possesses enormous potential, but each of the three receivers comes with his own question marks. Would anyone really be stunned if undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers out-produced at least two of Gordon, Harry, and Thomas? And no one knows what to expect from the tight ends.
There isn’t much mystery regarding the Patriots running game, though.
The preseason has made this much clear: The Pats are going to feed Sony Michel the ball early and often.
After missing almost the entire month of August during his rookie season, Michel has taken advantage of training camp in Year 2. He’s been healthy and noticeably more explosive than Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris.
Although Michel’s stat line (10 carries for 36 yards) from Thursday night’s 10-3 win against the Panthers looks rather ordinary, there was a lot to like from his performance.
Big-play ability: This was one area of improvement for Michel as he entered his second season. Of the 14 running backs who posted 200 or more carries a year ago, only Arizona’s David Johnson had fewer rushes of 20+ yards than Michel’s four.
Michel’s 30-yard dash on Thursday was negated by a Meyers holding penalty, but the moves he flashed at the second level were noteworthy. He bounced outside to escape a diving tackle attempt by Carolina safety Tre Boston. He then cut back and let linebacker Shaq Thompson run past him, weaving his way through the secondary before a group of defenders finally wrestled him to the ground.
After breaking the Boston tackle, Michel tacked on 18 extra yards.
While Harris and Burkhead might figure into the Patriots’ early-down plans at times, neither possesses game-breaking ability. Michel can bring that element to the New England offense.
Physical style: Michel ran through Panthers cornerback James Bradberry on his first carry of the game, lowering his shoulder and falling forward for a gain of 5 yards up the middle.
Hailed as an Alvin Kamara-type coming out of college, Michel surprised with his physical between-the-tackles style as a rookie. There’s no reason to think that will change in his second season.
Short yardage: No, Michel didn’t punch in the touchdown from the 1-yard line. Much to the chagrin of those playing daily fantasy in the preseason, James Develin finished the job.
Develin from the 1 is basically Steph Curry from the free throw line. Watch him score eight touchdowns this year.
Otherwise, Michel succeeded in his short-yardage opportunities. He converted a third-and-1 on the second drive. Later, he exhibited patience and instinct on a third-and-2, hesitating as he waited for Develin to deliver a block on Carolina linebacker Jermaine Carter. Once Develin made contact with Carter, Michel accelerated and found an opening for a gain of 4 yards.
“I think these games, especially a game like this, are huge — to get that full contact, to get that feeling going again,” Michel said.
Michel’s injury-shortened 2018 training camp put him in a difficult spot. Now, he’s in a groove and well-positioned for a huge season. He saw far more work than Harris in practice this summer. The Pats will likely sprinkle in Burkhead on early downs and use him in two-back sets alongside James White, but it’s hard to envision him in a featured role.
That job belongs to Michel as the Pats head into the regular season.
Some other thoughts and observations from the Patriots’ Thursday night victory:
**You’re likely reading a lot about the defense today. Yes, it’s damn good.
The Pats led the league in scoring defense in the 2016 season, surrendering just 15.6 points per game, and this group has the chance to be significantly better than that one.
How come? The sheer numbers.
Consider the first three series of Thursday’s matchup: Michael Bennett, Danny Shelton, Lawrence Guy, Byron Cowart, Adam Butler, and Deatrich Wise rotated along the defensive line; Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Chase Winovich, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Elandon Roberts, and John Simon all played at linebacker.
In that span, Hightower twice pressured Cam Newton, leading to a throwaway and a Butler sack. Van Noy blasted around the edge for an easy nine-yard sack of Newton (and if he hadn’t finished the play, Collins — coming off the opposite edge — was in position to drop Newton). On the second play of the game, Cowart discarded Carolina left tackle Daryl Williams to drop Christian McCaffrey for no gain.
This is a deep and versatile front seven. And the back end of the New England defense is even better. The second level of the Pats defense is more talented than the first, and the third level is among the best in the league. Not much to nitpick here.
**Another solid outing for Isaiah Wynn, who took all 28 snaps with the starting offensive line. Wynn lacks prototypical length for the position, but he plays with such a strong base. Panthers defensive end Mario Addison hardly moved past the line of scrimmage against Wynn on a few snaps, including Brady’s 18-yard strike to Ryan Izzo.
It wasn’t perfect, as Wynn allowed a pressure on Brady’s 19-yard completion to Phillip Dorsett. Overall, though, the Patriots should be encouraged by Wynn’s performances in the past week.
**We could see the Patriots carry nine rookies on their initial 53-man roster, as eight of their nine picks in the top five rounds project as good bets to make the squad (third-round pick Yodny Cajuste seems destined to begin the season on the PUP list). Meyers is the lone undrafted player likely to make it.
Last season, five rookies — Michel, Bentley, Izzo (for a day), Keion Crossen, J.C. Jackson — began the season on the 53-man roster.
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