For the ninth straight year the Patriots close out exhibition play by hosting a familiar foe, the New York Giants. The preseason finale will be a chance for both teams to get an extended look at the back end of their rosters. Don’t expect to see many snaps for the starters of either team with Week 1 right around the corner. A handful of starters may get a drive or two, but traditionally Week 4 of the preseason is an opportunity for fringe players to earn a job with a week of solid game tape. Considering this, here’s a look at some Patriots players and position groups to keep an eye on as they fight to earn a spot onto the final 53-man roster.
From an offensive standpoint, the depth chart is primarily set. There are a few positions however where some question marks still lie. At quarterback, Tim Tebow will get his chance against the Giants to prove he belongs. It’s hard to imagine New England brought Tebow in for just a four-week tryout and not more as a long term project. If the Patriots view him as a project he should make the final roster, but it’s just as likely the Patriots view his roster spot as simply too valuable for a player with little to no chance of making an impact in 2013.
Tebow’s spot could instead be used on a fifth running back like Brandon Bolden or Leon Washington. Bolden has clearly lost his spot to LaGarrette Blount as Stevan Ridley’s primary backup. Shane Vereen is locked in as the Patriots “receiving” back, which makes Washington and Bolden fourth and fifth on the depth chart. Both players are solid special teams contributors, but that’s pretty much all Leon Washington brings to the mix. Bolden has proven to be a capable runner for the Patriots, so it should be interesting to see if Washington’s lone ability to return kicks is enough to keep him on the final roster over the more versatile Bolden.
On the defensive side of the ball, the most notable group to watch in the finale is the secondary. This unit has some cause for concern with the recent pushing back of Alfonzo Dennard’s court hearing to September 6th, just two days before the regular season opener in Buffalo. There’s a real chance Dennard may not be available for New England for a part or even a majority of the season. Add in the recent release of third-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling and the pressure is on for the New England secondary.
By releasing Dowling, the team has shown confidence in rookie corner Logan Ryan. Ryan should get extended playing time against the Giants with a chance to play the nickel and dime as well. The rookie out of Rutgers has looked solid in play up to this point and should be tested by the Giants along with Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole.
The other secondary spot to keep an eye on is the strong safety position. Adrian Wilson played deep into the Week 3 matchup with Detroit, which likely isn’t good for his chances of making the team. Wilson has a chance against New York to prove he deserves to stick around, but New England may believe he’s simply lost too much. His situation appears to be playing out similar to when John Lynch came to Camp with the Patriots in 2008. Lynch was still known as a big hitter, but had become a liability in pass coverage. Wilson needs to be more than just a linebacker for New England, so he needs to prove he can hang in coverage against the Giants.
Another glaring issue for the New England defense is depth at defensive tackle. The Patriots know what they have with Vince Wilfork and thus far Tommy Kelly appears to be rejuvenated playing next to Wilfork. If Kelly can play the way he did with the Raiders, he and Wilfork have a chance to one of the more dominating tackle duos in football.
The question is what do the Patriots have after Wilfork and Kelly? Marcus Forston and Joe Vellano are in the mix for a backup role at tackle. Both have shown flashes of strength playing in the interior of the defense. New England has also rolled out smaller quicker options giving Justin Francis and Marcus Bernard a shot at lining up on the inside. Francis is a lock to make the team after his 2012 campaign, so that leaves Forston, Vellano, and Bernard needing to prove their worth against the Giants. Vellano filled in nicely for Wilfork against Detroit, and may have a leg up on Forston and Bernard. Another likely scenario is New England adding a player cut by another team as the league draws closer to the final 53-man roster cuts.