Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Bill Belichick said Thursday that he has about 80 percent of the Patriots’ final 53-man roster solidified, and it seems fair to say that quarterback Tim Tebow is part of the uncertain remaining 20 percent. Assuming Tebow makes it through Tuesday’s cut-down to 75 players (I think he will) he will be playing for a job on Thursday night against the Giants. The fourth preseason game is usually a dud, but given the lightning rod that is Tebow, that storyline would add an element of intrigue unmatched in past preseason finales.
2. For the second week in a row this preseason, the Patriots won the opening toss and elected to receive to begin the game. This is a change from what we traditionally see, as the Patriots have almost always deferred when winning the toss, meaning they would get the ball to open the second half. One of the reasons deferring has been preferred is the chance to set up a “double score” opportunity at the end of the first half and then the beginning of the second half. This could just be a preseason type of thing (the idea of getting the offense some early work), or perhaps it represents the initial signs of a shift in approach.
3. Along these lines, our good friends at ESPN Stats & Information passed along the following nugget: Teams that won the opening toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff last season were 57-57, while teams that won the opening toss and chose to receive the second-half kickoff were 73-68. Not a big difference. If anything, the most notable part of the stat is how more teams chose to defer (141) than in the previous season (107) and also two seasons ago (77). Just thinking out loud, but wouldn’t this be quite Belichickian -- as everyone starts to zig, he decides to zag?
4. Here’s something to consider when it comes to the Patriots’ final 53-man roster: One of their injured players could initially make the team, then be placed on the NFL’s short-term injured reserve list the next day to open a spot for another player. Last year, the Patriots used the designation on tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, which didn’t pan out. A top candidate this year figures to be defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. He doesn’t appear close to a return at this time, so the Patriots look primed to have either second-year man Justin Francis or five-year veteran Marcus Benard fill his role as a third-down interior sub rusher.
5. When the Patriots had a brief injury scare with Tom Brady at practice on Aug. 14, we did a check of NFL rosters in terms of where they stand with quarterback insurance. As we learned, the Patriots were in the minority in carrying just three signal-callers (one of nine teams), as the majority of clubs went with four. This topic is being revisited because the Bills were in the same category as the Patriots, and now they’re down to their No. 3 option after rookie EJ Manuel has been sidelined following knee surgery and veteran Kevin Kolb left Saturday’s game with concussion-like symptoms. They’ll start working receiver Brad Smith at quarterback a bit, but the plan is to bring in another quarterback. Rookie Jeff Tuel of Washington State is the No. 3 option and the Patriots worked him out before the draft. Of course, this news is passed along because the Patriots open the season on the road against the Bills. It also reminds us of something Belichick once said: If you don’t have a quarterback to run the offense, it can put an entire team at risk.
6. This is the way a preseason is supposed to go. Unlike last year, when the Patriots had their final three preseason games in a span of 10 days, everything was spaced out nicely for the team this year (final three games in a span of 14 days). From Belichick’s perspective, that has naturally made managing the health of players and the overall roster a lot easier. This will be a busy week for the Patriots as they balance roster cuts (Aug. 27 to 75 and Aug. 31 to 53), a preseason game (Aug. 29 against the Giants) and continue to work toward the regular-season opener against the Bills (preparations are well under way). Add in cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s court date on Aug. 27, which is the same day of the team’s annual kickoff dinner, and this is the definition of having a lot of footballs in the air.
7. Lions coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew have helped rebuild a Lions team that had no wins the year before they arrived in 2009, and things had been heading in a positive direction before a four-win season last year, which was an unexpected step back. Because of that, some have included Schwartz in the group of coaches on the proverbial “hot seat” this season. I think the Lions would be making a mistake to move away from Schwartz. At the same time, Schwartz has to figure out a way to get his message across when it comes to his players’ actions on the field because on Thursday against the Patriots, Nick Fairley (unsportsmanlike conduct), C.J. Mosley (personal foul) and Willie Young (taunting) had three of the dumbest penalties you’ll see in a football game. That ties to the impression I had of the Lions entering the week -- a talented football team that is a little loose on the discipline, which in turn is a reflection of the coach.
8. Steelers rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, who projected to a leading role, will miss six to eight weeks with a midfoot sprain, according to ESPN. When he does return, the expectation is that the Steelers would ease him into the mix, and the timing means he might not be full-go when the Steelers visit the Patriots on Nov. 3 (Week 9). While things could always change, it looks like that means more Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer -- two solid backs, but neither have the same upside as Bell.
9. With the Bills releasing veteran kicker Rian Lindell last week, it meant that the path has been cleared for rookie Dustin Hopkins of Florida State to take the job. That came a week after the Dolphins released veteran Dan Carpenter, making rookie Caleb Sturgis of Florida their top option. Two kickers from Florida schools playing in the AFC East; it will be interesting to see how they handle the always-challenging weather conditions as we get to the second half of the season, when the elements can sometimes become a factor.
10. They are both expected to be ready for their teams for the first week of the regular season, but it was hard to miss the link between Broncos receiver Wes Welker being held out over the last week with an ankle sprain and the player signed to replace him in New England, Danny Amendola, being in a similar situation last week. Concern among some Patriots followers is understandable when considering that the biggest knock on Amendola is staying healthy, but this doesn’t appear to be anything more than a health management issue. It reminds me of Randy Moss tweaking a hamstring in 2007 and then being held out the remainder of training camp. There was concern then, too. Then on opening day, he was splitting a triple team on a long touchdown catch against the Jets. Amendola will be there Sept. 8 against the Bills. And based on what we’ve already seen so far of his rapport with Tom Brady, he’ll have a big impact.