1 – The relative value of running backs was a big talking point this offseason across the NFL. Supposed franchise running backs Saquon Barkley in New York and Josh Jacobs in Las Vegas failed to secure long-term contracts despite serving as the centerpiece of their respective offenses.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks, defensive linemen, wide receivers and cornerbacks are printing money for themselves.
Entering his third NFL season there is no doubt how much value, production and expectation former fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson brings to the Patriots’ offense.
Stevenson had a breakout sophomore season a year ago in which he led New England in both rushing yards (1,040) and receptions (69). He was pretty much the only player on the team that saw improvement under the dysfunctional, experimental leadership of playcaller Matt Patricia.
Now, with former leading receiver Jakobi Meyers gone to the Raiders, Stevenson remains as the expected focal point of Bill O’Brien’s reconfigured scheme. And those high expectations don’t just come from fans and media members.
This week, heading into Sunday’s season opener at Gillette Stadium, Stevenson posted a series of training camp photos on his Instagram account with the prayer hands emoji along with “AGTG,” an acronym commonly expressing “All Glory To God.”
Most notable was the shared comment response to the post from current and former teammates: Franchise. James White, Dont'a Hightower, Hunter Henry and Malik Cunningham all had the same response that was liked by Stevenson.
Unlike the CBA-negotiated franchise tag that was used by the Giants and Raiders to keep their star backs from departing via free agency, this “Franchise” tag from teammates is a very accurate assessment of Stevenson’s value in New England these days. Just two years into his career he’s entrenched himself as arguably the most talented player on the offensive roster. He’s almost inarguably the most important non-quarterback on the offensive depth chart. (Which is why it was concerning for Stevenson to miss Friday’s practice prior to the opener to an illness, leaving him listed as questionable for the matchup with Philly.)
While Stevenson won’t find out for a couple more years whether he’s a franchise running back in the eyes of the Patriots in terms of financials, that’s the value he brings to the team on the field at this point in his career. And everyone, including his teammates, seems to know it.
Stevenson is indeed a “Franchise” running back in New England and with continued growth might just find himself among the top running backs in the NFL this season.
2 – While Stevenson is the biggest star the Patriots’ offense has to offer, there is no question that the men who allow him to do his job are the most massive question facing New England as the new season kicks off. The offensive line has been a mess this summer, and that’s probably being kind. Injuries and ineptitude have been the story since training camp opened in late July. Calvin Anderson, a projected option at right tackle as a free agent signing from the Broncos, spent the entire summer on NFI with a serious illness. Cole Strange missed most of the summer with a knee injury and is listed as questionable for the opener. Mike Onwenu missed most of the summer on PUP (ankle) and is questionable as well. Trent Brown has been his usual frustrating, inconsistent self. That’s left captain David Andrews in the middle of it all trying to hold down the fort. The first question the Patriots will face on Sunday in position coach Adrian Klemm’s debut is which five guys will be on the field and in which spots? Onwenu has shown the ability to play right tackle but is preferred as a right guard by Bill Belichick and Co. His health and slot will decide who fifth starter is. If Onwenu sticks at guard, Anderson may get the first shot at tackle. If Onwenu is at tackle, one of the rookies in Atonio Mafi or Sidy Sow might get the guard call. There is also a very good chance, actually a very good likelihood, that New England will use rotational lineups on the line in the opener. After the way everything has gone on the line this summer it’s almost impossible to envision the same five guys lining up at the same five spots for 60 minutes of regular season football action, especially with many of the guys having questionable health status and conditioning levels at this point.
3 – Even once the lineup and/or rotation question is answered along the Patriots offensive line the unit remains dubious in its ability to actually get its job done against an Eagles team that fields arguably the best defensive front in football. The NFC champion Philly defense led the NFL with 70 sacks last fall, 15 more than the next most in the league. The unit is big, athletic, versatile and deep. From veterans like Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Hasson Reddick to youngsters like Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis, the group is a massive challenge for even the best of NFL offensive lines. Nothing like trial by fire and hitting the ground running for the Patriots’ makeshift line right out of the gates.
4 – Talk about trial by fire, New England first-round cornerback Christian Gonzalez will obviously make his NFL debut against the Eagles and all the challenges that Philly represents. The No. 17 overall pick will be the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback on opening day, a role magnified even more when the team placed second-year corner Jack Jones (hamstring) on IR this week. Gonzalez had his expected ups and downs throughout training camp and the preseason. He may just be the most important player on the Foxborough field in the opener not named Mac Jones. Gonzalez will key the coverage against the Eagles duo of A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith who, ho-hum, combined for 183 receptions for 2,692 yards and 18 touchdowns a year ago. Gonzalez will spearhead what must be a group effort to slow the Jalen Hurts-led passing attack. Welcome to the NFL, rook.
5 – The cornerback depth in New England was questionable even with Jack Jones healthy and in the mix. It became clear this summer that Jones and Gonzalez would be projected to start on the outside, bringing a combined 2 games of NFL starting experience to the equation. Clearly, Jonathan Jones is the most proven, experienced cornerback in the mix, having played at a high level for a long time in the slot while adding outside flexibility to his resume last season. Myles Bryant has played a lot of snaps in the back end in recent years, both at safety and corner, with very mixed results. Marcus Jones, long-developing Shaun Wade and “developmental” rookie Ameer Speed round out the depth chart that is already down one top, key cog. We’ve referred to the cornerback spot as a house of cards this offseason and the house and the structure is already being tested in a big way. Just because there are names on a depth chart, doesn’t mean a team has depth at a position.
6 – Nothing could rain on Tom Brady’s parade, or return to Gillette Stadium, right? Well, with the GOAT set to take part pregame and halftime festivities in his honor to welcome him back to Patriot Nation, the weather for Sunday evening in Foxborough is rather ominous. There is rain in the forecast as well as the chance for thunderstorms. But it’s hard to imagine the literal dampness will damper the excitement of fans in attendance to see TB12 back in town.
7 – Prediction Time!: Finally football is back! The offseason is over. And all the hope of the new season is about to be challenged across the NFL and certainly in New England. Philadelphia is arguably the most talented roster in the league, looking to get back to the Super Bowl. The Patriots roster is questionable at best, the team looking simply to get back to respectable, playoff-worthy status. The reality is that this is a tough matchup for Belichick’s squad almost across the board. Sure some wonder if the lack of preseason playing time for the Eagles’ starters will hinder them early. Maybe. Others think that Nick Sirianni losing both his coordinators to head coaching jobs this offseason could lead to a step back on both sides of the ball. Maybe. But the Patriots face as many or, realistically, more questions as the Eagles. Can the Patriots offensive line be competitive enough against the Philly pass rush? Bill O’Brien may just need to scheme around that deficit with the running game and quick, precision passing. Can the Patriots pass defense – a very good rush and a very suspect coverage unit – deal with Hurts and his many weapons? Will all of New England – on and off the field – get a boost from Brady being in the building? It’s opening day, a day when there are inherently more questions than answers for all teams. But in such situations it certainly seems advantageous to be the more talented team. That’s Hurts and the Eagles. Mac Jones faces a tough first test in his third season as he tries to get his career back on track. Even just hanging close with the Eagles would probably be worthy of a Moral Victory Monday in Patriot Nation. The projection here is a 28-13 win for the Eagles, a team that some think could have a chance to go undefeated this season. Either way, the season is underway!
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