Last week, the New England Patriots got the preseason started on a rough note, losing 23-6 to the Washington Redskins. Tom Brady and most of the regulars did not play in the loss, but the focus was on the disappointing performance of backup quarterback Ryan Mallett (5-12, 55 yards). Of course, rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo played the second half of the game and threw the Patriots’ only touchdown. The pass rush only had one sack in the game, which came from Michael Buchanan. Now, New England gets set for their first home preseason game against another NFC East opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles (Tonight, 7:30 PM ET, NFLN)
Last season was a success for the Philadelphia Eagles. In Chip Kelly’s first year as head coach, the team won the NFC East with a record of 10-6. LeSean McCoy still remains one of the best running backs in the game. However, don’t sleep on Nick Foles at quarterback. Even though Foles had two interceptions in his first preseason game, he is coming off a great 2013 campaign where he had 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions! Despite getting rid of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the Eagles get Jeremy Maclin back from an ACL injury and added some more speed in the backfield with the signing of Darren Sproles.
On defense, the Eagles are looking to improve their pass rush after they were 20th in the NFL in sacks last season. They started on that progression by signing Connor Barwin in free agency and drafting Marcus Smith out of Louisville in the first round. Throw in the signing of free agent cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and you have yourself a Eagles’ team that could be the favorite to repeat in the division.
Before the Patriots’ preseason home opener tonight, here are four storylines that I will have my eye on during this game:
- Clogging Up The Middle: One of the more notable players who has missed practice this week has been linebacker Jerod Mayo. Mayo has missed the last three days, but it is unknown why. Keep in mind that the seven-year veteran only played in six games last year due to an injury to his pectoral muscle. If Mayo can’t play Friday, the focus will shift to Don’t’a Hightower. Hightower had a strong ending to his 2013 season, including an interception in the AFC Divisional Playoff Win against the Indianapolis Colts. He was the team’s leader in tackles a season ago with 97. It will be interesting to see, if Mayo is healthy this season, what role Hightower has in this improved defense. In his third year in the NFL, Hightower will continue to look to improve his stats from year-to-year.
- Garoppolo Gets More Playing Time?: With Tom Brady likely to play tonight against the Eagles, the focus will shift to who gets more playing time after Brady leaves the game. For me, the Patriots should look at giving Garoppolo a look with the second-team at least. The second round pick out of Eastern Illinois shone bright in his NFL debut, completing 9 of 13 passes for 157 yards and a 26-yard touchdown to Brian Tyms. Garoppolo continues to improve with each passing practice and the team had to have been disappointed with Ryan Mallett’s performance last week. With Mallett in the final year of his deal, it’s time for the Patriots to give more of a look to the rookie against tougher competition and see what he can do.
- The Butler Did It: One of the Patriots who made an impression on defense last week was rookie defensive back Malcolm Butler. Butler had seven tackles in the loss to the Redskins and was given the start by Bill Belichick. The 24-year-old from West Alabama has a great opportunity to make the team considering that Brandon Browner will miss the first four games of the season due to suspension. One of the aspects of his game to keep an eye on is his pass deflection, a stat in which he led West Alabama in a season ago.
- Time For Thompkins? The Patriots got some good news this week when Aaron Dobson returned to the practice field off of offseason foot surgery. With the top four receivers likely set, a lot of pressure is on second year wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. Thompkins missed part of last season with hip surgery and seemed to struggle out of the gate in terms of catching passes from Brady. He has excelled in training camp so far and with Dobson likely needing more time to rehab, Thompkins gets another chance to make a good first impression.