ALLEN PARK, Mich — the Patriots and Lions went through a thrilling walkthrough on the final day of joint practices on Wednesday.
The practice was so demanding that quarterback Tom Brady decided to do some resistance band training on the side while the reserves ran through a “scrimmage” on the practice field.
On the attendance front, there were no surprise absences for the Patriots as wide receiver N’Keal Harry was in uniform after an injury scare to his right leg on Tuesday.
Harry appeared to have a hamstring issue after an awkward block on the perimeter on a running play. We’ll see if the rookie first-rounder is out there on Thursday night.
Rather than boring you with practice observations, here are ten takeaways from all three days of joint practices with the Lions:
1. We Need to See Game-day N’Keal Harry
Based on practice, we know two things about top pick N’Keal Harry: 1. He makes at least one highlight-reel catch a day and 2. His route running needs work. But what we don’t know about Harry yet, at least in the NFL, is what he’ll be able to add after the catch. Bill Belichick told me on Tuesday that one of the limitations with training camp is that there’s no finish to the play. Due to league rules, there are heavy restrictions on tackling and other physical elements of the sport. Therefore, we don’t see what’s going to happen when a defensive back tries to tackle an elusive 6-2, 228-pound receiver. Hopefully, Harry’s ability to create after the catch will carry over from his college tape to the pros adding another source of production.
2. Patriots Play Linebacker Roulette
The Patriots rotated their linebackers back in Foxboro as well, but we saw it in full force on the first two days of joint practice here in Detroit. It’s not only that they have depth at the position, but they also have flexibility with players like Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy capable of playing either on or off the line. Hightower put it best when he told us, “a lot of offenses try to game plan for guys being in certain spots in situations, and whenever we’re able to mix it up and line up different or be in a different front, or blitz, or cover, or drop or whatever, nobody really knows where we’re at.” The depth of the Pats linebacker corps gives them injury insurance, but it also makes them unpredictable and multiple.
3. Chase Winovich’s Strong Showing
Winovich had a huge contingent of supporters this week including both family and University of Michigan fans in the crowd, and he also had a great week of practice. On Monday, Winovich bull-rushed Lions left tackle Tyrell Crosby into quarterback Tom Savage knocking the QB to the ground. And on Tuesday, he beat starting left tackle Taylor Decker clean in one-on-ones and was disruptive again during team drills. Winovich lined up on the edge playing in either a two-point stance or with his hand in the ground. If he plays well on Thursday night, he should start to see some reps with the top unit, maybe in the third-down package to start.
4. Phillip Dorsett’s Arrow Pointing Upward
Out of all the Pats wideouts, Dorsett had the best week going up against Lions top cornerback Darius Slay. Dorsett beat Slay clean in one-on-ones and caught a 35-yard strike from Brady on Tuesday. As one of the more experienced receivers in the room, Dorsett said after practice on Wednesday that he feels that he’s fully in Tom Brady’s circle of trust at this point. Brady hinted at that when he missed a deep throw to Dorsett and then went back to him for the deep touchdown a few plays later. Dorsett continues to put himself in position to emerge as the number two receiver behind Julian Edelman. At worst, he’ll be the number three guy behind Edelman and Harry.
5. Patriots’ Plan For Michael Bennett In-Focus
The Patriots are taking things slow with veteran Michael Bennett, but he’s rotating in on the defensive line more and more. One thing that has stood out about Bennett’s usage so far is that he’s typically aligning inside either over the guard or center. Bennett can play all over the defensive front, and he probably will play on the outside at times, but the Pats seem to be preparing him to take over the Trey Flowers role in the defense. My guess is we’ll see a healthy amount of Bennett rushing over the center on passing downs.
6. Tight Ends Go Silent in Detroit
The Patriots tight ends struggling during team drills in Detroit. Ben Watson made a few underneath grabs in 11-on-11s, but we didn’t hear much of anything out of Matt LaCosse or Stephen Anderson. Plus, 2018 seventh-rounder Ryan Izzo and UDFA rookie Andrew Beck are roster longshots unless they can carve out roles on special teams. The Patriots should be in the market for an upgrade at tight end.
7. Jarrett Stidham a Major Preseason Storyline
August will be Jarrett Stidham’s time to shine. Stidham has impressed me so far with his downfield ball placement and ability to absorb information. He has a long way to go still, as does any rookie at this stage, but his accuracy from the pocket is much better than expected. Stidham still needs to work on his timing. He can get stuck holding onto the ball in the pocket for what feels like forever. But it’ll be interesting to see what he puts together in the preseason games. The early returns are positive.
8. Derek Rivers, Shilique Calhoun Making Cases
Both Rivers and Calhoun had impressive reps against the Lions offensive line this week. Rivers is miles ahead of where he was last August as a pass rusher winning one-on-ones daily with a few different moves (speed, punch/dip, long arm). Rivers barely won any one-on-ones in training camp last year. He continues to rotate in with the top third-down unit. As for Calhoun, he too has a nice pass-rushing skill set and presents a good deal of power for an undersized edge defender. He was in the backfield multiple times on Tuesday during 11-on-11s against the Lions starters and made a great play against the run early on in practice to split a double team and jump into the backfield. There might not be enough room on the roster for both players leaving the Pats coaching staff in a difficult spot to choose between them.
9. Duke Dawson on the Outside Looking In
The 2018 second-round pick is in rare territory fighting for a roster spot a year removed from going 56th overall in the draft. Dawson is on the second-team defense mostly working in the slot, but he’s failing to separate himself against backups. He looks stiff at times in coverage and unsure how to attack the ball in the air. He also tends to reach out with his right hand to defend throws even if it means coming across his body to do so, which makes it harder for him to deflect the pass or make the tackle if the throw is complete. The Patriots hardly ever give up on a second-round pick this quickly, but with their depth at corner, it’s hard to see Dawson making the roster right now.
10. Punter Battle 2019: Consistency (Allen) vs. the Big Leg (Bailey)
Earlier this week, I said that Bailey is my leader in punter battle 2019. However, after talking to some current and former special teamers, they swayed me towards Allen’s side. With Bailey, he has a booming leg that drives returners back and hangs in the air forever. But that isn’t always a good thing for the coverage unit as his boots can out-kick his coverage and be unpredictable. Some players said that they’d rather cover for a punter that consistently hits landmarks and boots the ball the same distance every time. Big-leg guys also either boom the kick or shank it because they’re often looking for optimal hang time and distance, which is what we’ve seen with Bailey. Bailey’s added value as a kickoff specialist is worth mentioning, but we’ll see what kind of punter Bill Belichick prefers.