Forethoughts On Four Games: First Quarter 2013

After a preseason that featured a contrast between early positive signs and a harrowing experience in Detroit (maybe not the first time that phrase has surfaced), New England starts the 2013 season with an intriguing mix of concern and potential.

No matter what happens this year, we don’t expect boredom.

The Patriots travel to Buffalo to take on the Jeff Tuell- and/or E. J. Manuel-led Bills on September 8 and host AFC East foes the Jets on Sunday, September 12. (We can talk about the useless, kill-the-golden-egg-laying-goose aspect of Thursday night games in some future column.)

Tampa Bay returns to Foxboro Sunday, September 22, followed by a trip to Hotlanta to take on the Falcons for the evening of September 29.

One loss during this stretch seems understandable. A special teams slip-up against an energized Bills squad; defensive backfield issues under the dome at the Falcons. Still, anything less than 3-1 looks like a disappointment.

Some notes from the preseason to keep in mind for the first quarter of 2013:

Catch As Catch Ken: In our Patriots mock draft this spring, we expected the team to forego picking receivers until the seventh round (we predicted Mark Harrison, who wound up with the team as an udrafted rookie). While their selections of Aaron Dobson (second round) and Josh Boyce (fourth) proved us wrong, the early success of undrafted rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins gives a little credence to our thinking.

Thompkins has impressive moves to get himself free off the line, solid hands, and enough speed to stretch the field. Most importantly? He knows where he’s supposed to be, and he can get there. Looking forward to seeing what he can do when the stats count, especially against teams who will try to bring the heat against Tom Brady.

Taking A Mulligan: (Come on. I had to.) With gargantuan tight end Jake Ballard getting released and Rob Gronkowski going through more operations than Cavity Sam, the Pats are opening the season with Maine product Matthew Mulligan as their in-line end. Check out how New England utilizes the running game in these first few contests and how well Mulligan (6-5, 265) acquits himself in the trenches.

Aaron’s Catching Passes? Dobson, Not The Other Guy: Dobson played most of the fourth preseason game and came out looking more like the undrafted receiver than Thompkins. The latter and Boyce delivered with consistency, while Dobson seemed to have trouble getting off the line and fighting for the football. Will Dobson provide an end to New England’s years-long quest of stretching the field? Will he perform well enough to get defenses thinking?

On the topic of defenses thinking…

“D” Is Not For Depth: First defense? Go get some water and orange wedges or whatever you guys do. We’d like a chat with the backups.

Hey, guys. Listen: in the past, the Patriots won championships as a full team effort. Sure, they had Brady, but they also had stout, dependable defenses and – and this is important – great depth. Those 2003 and 2004 teams had a record number of games missed by starters, but the subs came in and did the job.

No offense (literally, we hope), but we’re not sure we’re seeing the same kind of consistency out of you. I’m not saying the dropoff from starter to sub is precipitous, but in case of injury Coach Bill Belichick has a direct line to a sherpa.

So, backups, get it together. The team depends on it.

I Rasn’t Kidding, Ras-I? Talent and size apparently not enough to help the case of cornerback/training room mascot Ras-I Dowling (the “I,” it turns out, is for “injured”). That, along with Alfonzo “DUI” Dennard’s tricky tenure, make this an interesting game for New England’s defensive backfield, aka Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, and some other guys who may or may not gain coaches’ trust over the course of the season.

Kelly Gets Pro-Vince-ial: Looks like old horses Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly will hold down the defensive front. Sounds great – Kelly’s presence will help Wilfork and vice versa – but even more reason to have decent backups to throw in there for a spell. How will their old bodies hold up (remember, in the NFL, 30 is the new 70)?

Safety In Numbers: Really? Five? The only things that should come in fives are basketball players, early Beatles, and probably something else I can’t think of right now. (Sorry: went for the ol’ Rule of Three there and fell short.)

Not sure if more equals better, but the Pats seem to think so. Going to interest us to see who gets paired up with McCourty and whether or not the 2013 secondary sharpens up its stats from last year.

Dane To Be Different: After missing out on his services for all of 2012, it appears that Dane Fletcher has returned in full health to the linebacking corps. One of the better combos of speed and strength in that group, Fletcher will get lots of time in sub packages. We’ll be looking for how he reacts to regular playing time after a year of rehab, if he’s an upgrade over, say, Brandon Spikes in passing situations, and how much seventh-round pick Steve Beauharnais and waiver-wire pickup Chris White (6-3, 240) figure into the mix.

Bend ’Em Like Bequette: Kinda figured picking Jake Bequette as a third-rounder seemed skewed, but thought that the productive SEC defensive end would find a way to contribute at the NFL level. Seems that Bequette will have a chance to live up to his potential, which should provide some interesting looks in September.

It Ain’t Been Easy; It’s Benard: Defensive lineman Marcus Benard has had a tough road. The undrafted Jackson State product was signed by the Browns in 2009 and missed significant time due to injuries. Saturday the 6-2, 256-pound defender got cut by New England after what seemed like a productive preseason, probably in lieu of Bequette.

Will Bequette help the Patriots pass rush improve? Will rookie seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan use his octopus arms to reach his way up the depth chart? Worth looking out for, especially if Benard has success somewhere else.

Tebow’s A-waitin’ For Another Go, Oh Tebow:  Whoa, oh, oh, oh. Surprised Tim Tebow got cut, though not dissatisfied with the decision. In the end, Coach Bill Belichick has to look at what combination of 53 players makes the team strongest. Despite Tebow’s CV and popularity, a third-string QB with accuracy issues may not fill the desired role.

Here’s what we hope for Tebow: that he plays professionally somewhere that can use his strengths (CFL, AFL, FL, wherever), and, in several years, finds a solid, small college football program where character matters. Coaches there until retirement.

I mean, that’s a pretty good life right there, right? Doesn’t that sound pretty good?

Centers Of Attention: New England bolstered their interior line with help from the waiver wire, taking former Browns undrafted rookie Braxston Cave (C, Notre Dame) and Miami releasee Chris Barker (G, Nevada). Cave has decent size at 6-3, 303, and bench pressed 225 pounds 32 times at his pro day. Barker (6-3, 305) had 29 lifts.

Vellano, Oh, Oh. Cantare, Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh: Time to sing the praises of Joe Vellano, yet another undrafted rookie free agent who made the initial cut. Sometimes it seems like New England should just draft first- and seventh-rounders and trade all their picks in-between, because the talent they find after draft day tends to fill the roles that their middle-round picks don’t. (For a review of the undrafted rookies the Pats picked up in April, including Vellano, Sudfeld, Thompkins and punter Ray Allen, see this column.)

Vellano, a second-generation All-American at Maryland, has shown quickness and strength, and – unlike undrafted counterpart Cory “Pork Chop” Grissom – a tendency to stay healthy. Undersized at 6-1, 306 pounds, we’ll check how much the defense falters with Vellano up front or if roster pickup A. J. Francis (6-5, 309) gets any reps.

On the aforementioned rookie punter…

Allen Wrenches Job Away From Vet: Ah, Zoltan Mesko, we shall miss your well-placed punts inside the 20. Definitely a special teams position we’ll keep an eye on this month.

Stay Calm And Keep A Cool Edelman: Four-phase plan for Julian Edelman goes as follows: First, catch passes. Second, return punts. Third, stay healthy. Fourth, repeat Steps one through three.

My God, it really is a simple game.

If Edelman can do any combination of those things with consistency, he should have a strong year. Keep an eye on how he and Danny Amendola coexist on the field.

Washington Slipped Here: Sorry to see veteran running back Leon Washington get let go. Now Shane Vereen has no prototypical third-down back behind him, but we’ve heard good things about Brandon Bolden’s ability catching passes. Bolden got the full backing of the coaching staff after what looked like (but maybe wasn’t) a preseason battle between him and LeGarrette Blount. Last season, Bolden had his career high rushing against the Bills (137 yards) and should get some carries in Game One.

With Stevan Ridley the starter and Vereen the change-of-pace guy, how do the coaches divvy up reps between Bolden and Blount? Also, will the Pats’ return game remain mediocre, or will Boyce or (ahem) Blount answer that call?

Just thought of Blount returning a kick 100 yards. Fans would have time to go to the fridge and come back to the couch before he finished.

QB = Quandary, Buffalo? Oh, sweet friends, grab your QB Tom Brady and hold on tight. First-week opponent Buffalo has gone through some serious turmoil at the quarterback position (and it’s not looking so hot for the Jets, either). Considering the unknowns, these contests should provide fans with some entertaining football.

Will Manuel play? If not, will Tuell have success following a conservative? In Game Two, will Geno Smith start showing his true potential (or will Mark Sanchez show his same ol’ self)? Will the Pats’ defense show up ready to play after planning for a rookie?

We’re looking forward to these.

Winning Isn’t Everything, But It’s Most Of The Thing: Brady has been in the league since 2000. He didn’t play his rookie year and missed 2008 due to injury. Want a juicy little stat for the season? In the 11 seasons with Brady as a starter, New England has reached the AFC Championship seven times.

Think about that. Seven out of 11. As the old man would say, not too shabby.

Just remember that when they’re losing to the Bills in the first half.

Predictions for the season? Let us know in the comments section below.

Email Chris Warner (or don’t; whatever) at [email protected]