FOXBOROUGH – It’s not too often that key veteran players make their preseason debut in the August finale, but that was exactly what happen for the Patriots offense on the opening series Thursday night at Gillette Stadium with wide receivers Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas suiting up against the Giants.
Working with rookie quarterback Jarrett Stidham, all three veterans who’d been on either PUP or NFI not long ago, were productive on New England’s opening drive to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
Edelman remained on the sideline after the opening series, while Thomas and Gordon continued to play into the second quarter and kept making plays. That included a 35-yard touchdown from Stidham to Thomas.
Sure much of the production came against second- and third-string players from New York, but it was simply a good sign to see the core of the Patriots receiving corps in uniform and getting the job done.
Bill Belichick’s squad kept the preseason momentum rolling right up to the final gun – his defense added a pair of first-half interceptions – but New England (3-1) lost to the undefeated Giants 31-29 on a touchdown pass from Kyle Lauletta to Alonzo Russell as time expired.
As Belichick and his front office work toward cutting down to the 53-man roster limit by Saturday at 4 p.m. here are some of the personnel highs and lows from the fourth and final preseason game of the summer.
Wide receiver – Veteran receivers Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas all got on the field for their preseason debuts in the finale. All three had production on the opening drive with Jarrett Stidham. Gordon had a nice catch on the sideline and broken tackle for 19 yards. Edelman got wide open crossing the field for 20 yards. And Thomas shook coverage on a crossing route underneath for 7 yards. Though Edelman left the field with a left hand issue following his reception, it was good to see what could be the bulk of the wide receiver depth chart on the field making plays for the first time this summer. Thomas finished with seven catches on eight targets for 87 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Gordon had two catches on six targets – with an ugly drop on a slant – for 30 yards. Details aside, it’s now a little bit easier to envision the veteran receivers doing the job in the opening night matchup with the Steelers starting defense.
Stephen Gostkowski – After missing a single kick in each of the first three preseason games, Gostkowski (by extension rookie holder Jake Bailey) was perfect on three field goal attempts and a pair of extra points. Gostkowski hit from 31, 50 and then 51 yards out, the latter in the final seconds of the first half. The veteran kicker also showed his strong summer leg on kickoffs, putting all seven first-half kickoffs into the end zone or touchbacks.
Joejuan Williams – The rookie second-round cornerback started and played most of the final preseason game at safety. The 6-3, 212-pounder was solid in his action at safety, including nice big hit in the second quarter on a short pass. He appeared fluid in coverage, although he did drop a late would-be interception. As the final cuts come down in the back end of the defense, Williams showing versatility in his game can only solidify his role. (To be fair, Duke Dawson also saw action at safety in the finale.) As a second-round rookie Williams was never going to get cut, but his size and potential versatility are another tool for Belichick and company to potentially put to use this fall.
Jarrett Stidham – Much like most of his summer, the rookie’s play wasn’t perfect but as a whole it was pretty damn impressive. He tucked the ball and ran a little too much early, finishing with seven carries for 50 yards. He also made some pretty nice throws, including the 35-yard touchdown to Thomas. While Stidham’s roster spot was never in question, he may just have wrapped up the backup job with 18 completions on 28 attempts for 225 yards with two touchdowns. He did throw his first interception of the preseason, a ball that floated when he was hit as he released. Overall, though, the fourth-round rookie rounded out a pretty impressive summer in pretty impressive fashion.
Gunner Olszewski – It’s fitting that one of the stories of the summer in Patriots camp finished the preseason out by making plays in all three phases of the game against the Giants. His best shot at a roster spot is as a return man. Against New York he had a 25.7-yard average on three kickoff returns with a long of 35 and had 7 yards on his only punt return on the night. The guy who’s earning first-name-only recognition then had a pair of catches on a two-minute drive to close out the first half, including a 29-yarder than jumpstarted the scoring march. Late in the game, the Div. II defensive back returned to his roots with action at cornerback, finishing with one tackle. Gunner may or may not make the roster, but he gave it all he had in an effort to win a job. At worst he has to be a legit candidate for the practice squad and will forever be one of those fun stories of preseason action.
Deatrich Wise Jr. – The third-year veteran has been a reliable defender for the Patriots over his first two seasons, starting eight of the 32 games he played in while totaling 9.5 sacks. Rumblings of Wise being on the roster bubble this summer continued on Thursday night when the veteran found himself playing in sub packages against the Giants in the fourth preseason game while most guys of his experience/stature were watching from the sidelines.
Keion Crossen – The second-year cornerback started and struggled early against the Giants. He gave up a 23-yard gain from Daniel Jones down the left sideline to Golden Tate on New York’s opening drive. Later in the first quarter Crossen was beaten on a pretty Alex Tanney throw down the left sideline to Alonzo Russell for a 35-yard touchdown. On the very next series, on challenge by the Giants and replay review, Crossen also seemed quite fortunate to get away with pass interference or holding at the goal line in coverage of Russell. Crossen has been primarily a special teamer to date in his NFL career, and could be on the roster bubble. Though he did have a decent pass defense and then a sideline interception on an ugly Tanney throw in the second quarter – he also dropped an easy deflected interception in the end zone in the third quarter -- Crossen did little early on to show high-end defensive potential or strengthen his claim to the 53-man roster against the Giants.
Brian Hoyer – Maybe it’s a good sign that the veteran backup didn’t take a single snap over the final two weeks of preseason action. After all, as Belichick put it, the journeyman backup has played a lot of football in the NFL and is what he is at this point. Or, maybe all the extra reps that went to Stidham were to prove that the rookie is ready for the No. 2 job. Either way, it can’t feel good to have to sit back and watch a pair of games over the final couple weeks of August. Think about it, the preseason is the only time when Hoyer really gets to play in New England. That was taken away from him the last couple weeks, and could also be a sign that his time in Foxborough is limited.