FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. OL concerns: The Patriots’ preseason is over -- it’s full steam ahead on the regular-season opener Sept. 10 against the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles -- and there’s one question that stands above the rest: Is the offensive line going to hold the team back?
Friday’s 23-7 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the preseason finale further highlighted what has been a top storyline of training camp -- managing instability and injuries on the line, which can paralyze the offense.
Former Patriots offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer, who is part of the team’s German-based broadcasting team, acknowledges the struggles he’s seen but also preaches patience.
“I’m not super concerned -- yet,” he said. “We haven’t really seen starters together. I feel like we had a similar conversation last year, when I think the media viewpoint was that they couldn’t block anybody, especially in the run game. I think those worries went away once the regular season started. They have to hope that’s the case now.”
Friday’s loss to the Titans continued a summer-long theme of the Patriots, who rested most of their healthy starters, being overmatched on the line. The offense ran 42 plays and gained a total of 79 yards.
Furthermore, veteran Riley Reiff, who was positioning himself as a likely top-five contributor, left the game in the second quarter with a right leg/knee injury that could potentially linger into the regular season.
It was the latest in a string of injuries that has affected the line, including:
Starting left guard Cole Strange hurting his left leg/knee in the initial full-pads practice of training camp and not practicing since. His return is believed to be projected close to the start of the season.
Starting right guard Mike Onwenu undergoing offseason ankle surgery and not being activated from the physically unable to perform list until Aug. 23. That is an indication the team believes he could be ready to contribute within the first four games of the regular season.
Potential swing tackle Calvin Anderson returning for training camp and being placed on the non-football illness list. He’s believed to be close to returning to the active roster.
Meanwhile, others fighting for roster spots as top backups, including second-year center/guard Kody Russey (leg), have also missed weeks of practice.
“We haven’t had the time to really have any continuity,” first-year offensive line coach Adrian Klemm noted. “There have been a lot of moving pieces. Hopefully it will settle down in the coming weeks and we’ll get a better feel for it. So that’s a work in progress.”
Starting right guard Mike Onwenu (71) is here at full-pads practice, indicating that the team is activating him from the physically unable to perform list.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 23, 2023
As one would expect, Onwenu was eased into the mix with lighter/limited work. pic.twitter.com/dSrtfbL62V
Not a comforting thought for the Patriots as they begin shifting their focus to the opener and how the pieces fit together.
“We’ll see how it goes with the offensive line; it would be nice to have all the players available, but that hasn’t been the case,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ll see how that pans out here over the next few days and coming weeks. We have some versatility and guys that have played different positions.”
To Vollmer, it’s essentially a race against time.
“I personally went through this quite a bit in my career,” he said of missing time in training camp due to injury. “It takes you probably 3-4 weeks to really get in the groove of things, especially if you haven’t had a training camp."
The best-case scenario for the Patriots is that the run of injuries which has thrust rookie guard Atonio Mafi (fifth round, UCLA) and rookie tackle Sidy Sow (fourth round, Eastern Michigan) into the spotlight ultimately pays off with improved depth.
Until it sorts itself out, the Patriots’ revamped offense under coordinator Bill O’Brien could take some lumps.
“The starters might not all be there Week 1, but at some point during the season the offensive line needs to find itself,” Vollmer said. “Are they going to be the most dominant offensive line in football? Probably not. But I think they’ll be just fine. I think they’re all tough.”
2. BB change: In each of the prior two preseasons, Belichick had played the majority of his starters in the third and final game. But not this year. Combined with canceling last week’s joint practices with the Titans, it seems reflective of him protecting a banged-up roster. In retrospect, planning an 11-day trip with joint practices and games in Green Bay and Tennessee turned out to be too aggressive.
3. Eagles scouting: Eagles coach Nick Sirianni sat the majority of their starters throughout the preseason. So zero preseason snaps on film for Belichick and his staff to dissect of quarterback Jalen Hurts & Co. ahead of the opener, which Belichick took in stride.
“That’s what most teams do,” he said. “We have plenty to work with on Philadelphia. I’m sure they’re working on things they haven’t shown; that’s always part of opening day. We’ll do what we can to be ready to go.”
4. Boutte’s charge: Rookie receiver Kayshon Boutte (sixth round, LSU) acknowledged he got off to a slow start in training camp while adjusting to new surroundings, but he’s strung together a few consistent weeks that seem to have secured him a roster spot -- highlighted by a 42-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the second preseason game.
“As camp went on, he seemed to get stronger and more productive both in practice and games; that was very encouraging,” Belichick said. “He showed an explosive ability on the field.”
5. Thornton’s status: Boutte’s rise has coincided with second-year receiver Tyquan Thornton’s continued injury struggles. Thornton landed hard on his shoulder during a practice with the Packers in Green Bay Aug. 17. He is now a candidate to initially be placed on the 53-man roster before being moved to injured reserve as part of the process so he could return and play this season.
Thornton missed the first four games of his rookie season (collarbone), was sidelined for part of this spring (soft-tissue injury), and now this. “The best ability is availability” is a popular saying around the Patriots, which hasn’t been the case consistently enough for the wiry 2022 second-round pick.
6. Folk story: The status of veteran kicker Nick Folk is among the more compelling storylines ahead of the the initial 53-man roster deadline, Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. The Patriots will obviously have a spot for rookie Chad Ryland after trading up for him in the fourth round, but Folk has seemingly done nothing to lose his job; he’s as steady as ever. Would a kicker-needy team consider trading a late-round pick for him, or would Belichick even consider keeping two kickers to ease Ryland into the mix? “Very competitive,” Belichick said of the Folk vs. Ryland dynamic.
7. Malik mystery: Undrafted free agent quarterback Malik Cunningham dazzled in the fourth quarter of the preseason opener but was quieter over the final two games, which sparks a question of whether he’s done enough to earn a roster spot. I had him on my final projection, with the feeling that he’s a dynamic talent and the risk of him being claimed on waivers by another team is too great.
8. International effort: After broadcasting Friday’s game, the German-born Vollmer was scheduled to be on an early-morning flight as part of the promotion for the Patriots’ game against the Colts on Nov. 12 in Frankfurt, Germany. “Mr. Kraft told me when I first got to the team in ’09 that ‘we’re going to be playing in Germany one day.’ It’s all part of the vision of becoming a truly global brand,” he said. “They have their first full-time employee working in Germany, which shows how they are all-in.”
9. Premier event: The Patriots Premier, the annual event which benefits the Patriots Charitable Foundation, is scheduled for Tuesday night and highlighted by rookie skits and the presentation of the prestigious Ron Burton Community Service Award. No shortage of prime candidates for the honor, with eight-year veteran Jonathan Jones one strong possibility on my radar.
10. Did you know? The last time the Patriots played the Eagles in the regular season was Nov. 17, 2019 -- a 17-10 win, with Julian Edelman’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett a signature play. The Eagles’ last regular-season visit to Foxboro was Dec. 6, 2015, when they posted a 35-28 win over the Patriots after scoring on a blocked punt, interception return and punt return.