It's important to never get too carried away after the first NFL preseason game, but there's no denying Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots continue to replenish their cupboard with solid rookies who can immediately play. In fact, quite a few of them were on display Thursday night against the Packers.
With near-complete turnover at cornerback and running back, along with retirement and injuries at guard, the Pats have quite a few significant roles up for grabs. Here are five young players who will be names to remember come September.
1. Rookie Guards Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason
Jackson and Mason played almost all of the first preseason game, just as they've seen the majority of the snaps in training camp. Despite no experienced veterans around them, they showed well against Green Bay. Mason looked especially comfortable in a pulling role where he helped spring Jonas Gray's 55-yard touchdown run. Jackson was solid as well, in the workman-like right guard role. Veteran Ryan Wendell remains sidelined on the PUP list, but could be inserted for Mason once he returns. Regardless, the Patriots look like they have two keepers at a position that needed an upgrade this offseason.
2. Second-year Running Back James White
White is a lead candidate to replace Shane Vereen in the receiving back role and showed some flashes against the Packers, grabbing four catches for 53 yards, while showing the ability to make defenders miss in space. White will still likely split time early in the season with Travaris Cadet and Brandon Bolden, but showed he can contribute with a different dimension. His willingness in pass protection was apparent, even if he did whiff a couple times.
3. Rookie Defensive End Trey Flowers
Suddenly defensive end is a position of solid depth for the Patriots, with the rookie Flowers being the cherry on top after free agent Jabaal Sheard had a great showing himself. Flowers' best highlight was his sack of Aaron Rodgers, but left the game after appearing to take a knee to the stomach. In a league where you can never have too many edge defenders/pass rushers, Flowers looks like the most promising rookie at the position since Chandler Jones. He might be buried a bit on the depth chart, but should get some chances in spot duty.
4. Rookie Safety Jordan Richards
The second-round pick out of Stanford looked like he belonged against the Packers, finishing second on the team with six tackles, playing 45 of 88 snaps. Richards played a strong safety role that had him both in the box and dropping into coverage. Richards' emergence will put Tavon Wilson right on the roster bubble and if the amount of playing time is any indication, Wilson is currently looking up at Richards on the depth chart. Richards has the smarts to find himself on the field both on special teams and in three-safety packages this season.
5. Running Back Jonas Gray
Technically this is Gray's fourth year in the NFL, but he should be a significant part of the Patriots’ ground attack. LeGarrette Blount is the team's best early-down back, but Gray should see significant carries, and, at the very least, be the primary back for the season opener while Blount is suspended. Gray showed impressive burst on his 55-yard touchdown run against the Packers. Explosive plays and hard running like that are just what the Patriots need.
(Jonas Gray photo by Keith Nordstrom, courtesy of www.patriots.com)