Patriots-Titans takeaways: Bubble players state cases for a roster spot originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The New England Patriots’ 2023 preseason is in the books.
They played their third and final exhibition Friday night against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. With quarterback Mac Jones and most other starters sitting, it was a perfect opportunity for players on the bubble to make a lasting impression before roster cuts.
It wasn’t a strong showing from the Patriots’ offense. Backup QB Bailey Zappe got the start and played into the middle of the second quarter before being replaced by Trace McSorley. He re-entered the game in the second half but never was able to get New England’s offense into a rhythm. He was sacked four times — three fumbles, one lost — and completed eight of his 15 passes for 57 yards.
Rookie quarterback/wide receiver Malik Cunningham didn’t get much time under center despite pleas from Pats fans. It was a quiet night for him as attempted only two passes (both incompletions) and had only one reception on four targets for negative yardage. If he needed a standout performance to crack the 53-man roster, he may find himself on the practice squad to start the season.
The Patriots’ lone touchdown came in the second quarter via second-year running back Kevin Harris.
Things didn’t go much smoother on the defensive side. Titans QB Malik Willis went 15-for-20 for 211 yards and two TDs, though the Patriots did pick him off twice (Calvin Munson, Joe Giles-Harris). The result was a 23-7 defeat that gives New England a 1-2 record for the 2023 preseason.
Here are three takeaways from the Patriots’ final exhibition of the summer.
1. More issues on the offensive line
The Patriots’ offensive line remains a major concern heading into the regular season. It’s likely why Mac Jones sat out the preseason finale, and that decision appears wise given the unit’s continued poor performance.
Left tackle Andrew Stueber, who allowed the strip sack of Jones last week in Green Bay, allowed another strip sack on the first play of the Patriots’ second offensive drive on Friday night.
He allowed another sack on Zappe on the following drive. The Patriots o-line allowed six sacks in total, but the unit’s performance wasn’t its biggest issue. The injury bug was.
Right guard Riley Reiff exited with an apparent right leg injury during the second quarter and did not return. That makes seven Pats offensive linemen who are currently hurt: Reiff, Mike Onwenu, Cole Strange, Calvin Anderson, Conor McDermott, Kody Russey, and Atonio Mafi.
Our Tom E. Curran stated before Friday’s game that due to the o-line uncertainties, he is “not at all” confident that the Patriots are ready for the regular season. After what transpired in the preseason finale, it’s even tougher to argue against his point.
2. Bubble players state their cases
Before Friday’s action, our Phil Perry named a few players on the bubble worth keeping tabs on in the preseason finale. Defensive end Sam Roberts was among them, and he made his case to crack the 53-man roster.
The 25-year-old has impressed throughout camp and he carried that momentum into Nashville. He ended up with seven tackles (two for a loss) and a sack. He notched three QB hits.
Perhaps the Patriots’ biggest star of the night was linebacker/special teamer Calvin Munson. The 28-year-old finds himself on the roster bubble in his third stint with the team, and he certainly gave Bill Belichick something to think about with his performance. He tallied 10 tackles (one for a loss), a pass breakup, and this impressive interception:
Phil Perry already had Munson making the team in his latest 53-man roster projection. Here’s what he had to say about the San Diego State product:
“He could very well get through to the practice squad. But he’s played all four core special teams units for the Patriots. He’s a veteran. He’s described as a pro’s pro. And for a team that still values special teamers highly — particularly after some high-profile struggles last season after injuries to key contributors — he’s the kind of core depth piece who could be a surprise 53-man player.“
Another linebacker looking to crack the 53-man is 2021 third-rounder Ronnie Perkins. He did his part, totaling nine tackles (one for loss) and a QB hit. His admirable effort was on display when he vomited just before a snap, then tackled the runner. Unfortunately, his night ended on a sour note as he exited early in the fourth quarter due to an apparent injury.
It’s worth noting we didn’t see rookie wide receiver Kayshon Boutte at all in this game. With the starters sitting, that could indicate the sixth-rounder has already done enough to earn a roster spot.
Belichick and Co. have some difficult decisions to make over the next few days. Teams must reduce rosters from 90 players to 53 prior to the 4 p.m. ET deadline on Tuesday.
3. Rough night for Jack Jones
Second-year cornerback Jack Jones played almost the entire first half despite most starters getting the night off. As our Phil Perry noted in the post below, his playing time could be due to a potential suspension for his off-the-field troubles.
It was a night to forget for the 2022 fourth-round pick. He had a blatant pass interference on third down, allowed a 30-yard catch by Titans rookie seventh-rounder Colton Dowell, and was stiff-armed by running back Tyjae Spears.
As of now, Jones is set to take the field for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. His court date is scheduled for Sept. 15.