Five Takeaways from Patriots-Panthers: Clearer picture for receiving corps


CHARLOTTE -- How much will the starters play? Which receivers will step up? Will the Patriots continue to be aggressive in getting after the quarterback? We had plenty of questions headed into Friday's preseason game between the Patriots and Panthers, and now they're answered. Here are five quick-hitting takeaways . . . 


Rob Gronkowski played two series before exiting. The Patriots needed a little extra tight end depth with both Jacob Hollister and Ryan Izzo unavailable, and the All-Pro gave them some at least into the early part of the second quarter. Gronkowski saw one target and did not catch a pass. Julian Edelman also saw plenty of burn with Brady. He was targeted five times in the first half, including three on third down. He had two drops, an issue he's been dealing with for much of the summer as he gets his legs under him. For those who wondered if the Patriots may force Brady to go without Edelman early in the game since Brady won't have him for the first four weeks (hand raised), that wasn't the case. Brady played the full first half but was done at the break. 


As thin as the Patriots are at receiver, and as thin as they will be for the first month, they aren't forcing Eric Decker into situations with Brady. The two didn't play together at all. Decker didn't play in the first half, watching both Cordarrelle Patterson and Riley McCarron get work over him. Decker came on to start the third quarter . . . but with Brian Hoyer. Late in the first half, McCarron was on the field in four-receiver sets alongside Edelman, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett. McCarron also caught the first Carolina punt of the game. In this group, he may have the best shot at a roster spot after Hogan, Dorsett and Patterson for Week 1. McCarron did have a drop when he had an opportunity at a big gain late in the fourth quarter. It was his second drop of the drive. Dorsett had four catches on four targets for 36 yards in the first half. He made a difficult catch on a ball thrown a tick behind him over the middle on first down, he created a lot of room after the catch on a quick-hitter at the line of scrimmage, and Brady hit Dorsett on a fourth down conversion in the second quarter. For those hoping Brady would show some chemistry with someone not named Edelman, Hogan or Gronkowski . . . there was your evidence. 


Jason McCourty was deployed in a variety of ways against the Panthers. He was on the first-team kickoff unit, he played corner, and then he saw reps as a deep safety. Late in the first half and into the second, McCourty was aligned deep, as his twin brother has done so many times in the past. That's a new development for the veteran defensive back, but it may help him carve out a role on the team. If he can be a dependable jack-of-all-trades option for the Patriots, putting his experience and understanding of the defense to use, there's value there. He made a strong tackle down by the goal line for a loss of one on Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne early in the third quarter. 


One of the feel-good developments for the Patriots in this game came when Cyrus Jones got onto the field to return the opening kickoff of the second half. He showed good vision and change-of-direction ability in bringing the kick back 27 yards, but a penalty brought the ball back to the New England five-yard line. He also had returns of 18 and 20 yards in the third quarter. For a player still gaining confidence in his knee after tearing his ACL last summer, those were probably encouraging reps. With Duke Dawson still out injured, Jonathan Jones looks like the top "star" option in the slot. He saw third-down action on Carolina's first drive of the game. Keion Crossen saw some time late in the first half as an outside corner opposite Stephon Gilmore with Eric Rowe (the team's top two cover men) in the slot. Crossen made a pair of pass breakups in the fourth quarter. JC Jackson, Ryan Lewis and AJ Moore didn't see action defensively until the second half, though Jackson saw early special teams work for the third consecutive preseason game. Lewis was in coverage when the Panthers scored early in the fourth to go up 25-3. 


Matt Tobin looks like he has a chance to be the beneficiary of Isaiah Wynn's season-ending injury as he was the one to first replace Trent Brown at left tackle. If the Patriots want to carry legitimate depth at tackle once again this season -- they needed four starters at tackle last year -- then Tobin could be their fourth. Meanwhile, at running back, Jeremy Hill was the first "big back" on the field. He came off briefly in the first quarter after losing his shoe, but he was the selection over Gillislee early on. Hill has appeared to have the lead on Gillislee there the last few weeks. Gillislee was on the field late in the game. On the defensive side of things, there's an interesting mix brewing at defensive end. Second-year man Keionta Davis got the start and played a large portion of the first half. Seeing him in the game as early and as often as he was, ahead of Derek Rivers, was a bit of a surprise. The Patriots clearly like Davis, and his early work seemed to be a chance to get a look at him against some top-end competition. 


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