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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Michael Braithwaite

Winners and Losers in Patriots’ preseason win against Panthers

Following a week filled with drama in the form of practice brawls and team transactions, the New England Patriots faced off against the Carolina Panthers for the second preseason matchup of the NFL season on a clear and cool Friday night in Foxborough, winning the game 20-10.

New England ran their first-team offensive and defensive personnel for about the entirety of the first quarter of the game, a stark contrast to their first preseason game vs the New York Giants the week before. Carolina, on the other hand, only used their second and third-team units for the game.

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Here are some winners and losers from Friday night’s matchup.

Winner: Raekwon McMillan

McMillan got a fair share of game time, playing both with the first-team defense alongside fellow linebacker Ja’Whaun Bently and the second-team defense alongside newcomer Mack Wilson. While this could have been an indicator that the Patriots prefer him to star in that role over Wilson, it was more likely to see how well he paired with both linebackers.

Bently, while still quick and athletic, is much larger than Wilson and a little less agile. Wilson, on the other hand, could line up at strong safety and fit right in alongside the other safeties on the team

McMillan played well with both units, though it may be more likely he pairs with Bently on early downs, where Bently can rush the passer drop back into coverage. On later downs when the opposing team has more yardage to pick up for a first down, New England could go for a more athletic linebacking unit with McMillan and Wilson that would play better in coverage.

Regardless of whether the Patriots use either linebacking tandem much in the regular season, McMillan showcased his coverage ability throughout the contest. This ability came out on a play in the first half when Carolina’s running back ran a wheel route close to the right sideline. McMillan saw where the ball was going and tackled the back just as the ball got to him, showing off his blazing speed in the process.

While he didn’t stop the pass from being caught, McMillan executed a defensive play that many of the larger, slower Patriots linebackers in the past would likely not have been able to.

Winner: Ty Montgomery

Coming into this preseason, Montgomery wasn’t seen by many to be a focal point of New England’s offense this season. However, his performance in Friday’s game showed that he very well could be the Patriots’ main passing back come September.

After New England’s first two offensive drives stalled almost immediately (more on that later), Montgomery came in as the team’s primary running back for the third series. Not only did he carry the ball well, but he was also used by quarterback Mac Jones as a valuable safety outlet when he didn’t like the reads downfield.

Montgomery also scored the Patriots’ only touchdown of the contest, coming on a running play from Carolina’s 2-yard line.

Although running back Rhamondre Stevenson seemed poised to take over James White’s passing back position coming into the season, Montgomery’s previous experience as a wide receiver may give him the edge in his ability to read coverages and make himself open and available for Jones in the passing game.

Winner: Brenden Schooler

Schooler signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent this offseason. While he mainly played safety in college, New England has been largely using him on their special teams units in training camp, and in Friday’s game, he showed that he could play very well for them in that role during the regular season.

The rookie made a great shoestring tackle on a Carolina kick return early in the game, showcasing his ability to get downfield quickly in the process. Early in the second half, he just barely missed a chance to down a punt close to the Panthers’ goal line. He even recorded an interception late in the game in his traditional safety spot, indicating that he could also play that position if desperately needed.

With a great combination of speed and physicality, Schooler seems like a player who would fit right in on New England’s special teams unit, and his play in Friday’s game only further cemented that idea.

Winner: Lil'Jordan Humphrey

Humphrey made the second half of the game his own, logging five receptions for 71 yards throughout the duration of the contest. Moreover, the three-year veteran absolutely laid out to help down a punt late in the fourth quarter, pinning the Panthers back at their own 2-yard line.

While the receiver is behind a bunch of other players on the positional depth chart, his chemistry with rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe and his obvious hustle give him an intriguing case to make New England’s 53-man roster as a depth piece, especially given his meager $965,000 salary.

Loser: the first-team offense

The first-team offense has been the subject of news the entire offseason for their less-than-ideal play during training camp. The beginning of Friday’s game could have been a way for them to get some much-needed game reps and get back into their groove.

While their third and final series of the night did include a great throw and catch from Jones to wide receiver Nelson Agholor and the rushing touchdown from Montgomery, it was really the only good thing that unit did during their playing time against Carolina’s second-team defense.

Hopefully, the final drive was more indicative of the first-team unit than the first two were, but it is too early to say for certain.

It is important to note that this is a preseason game where the starters are likely not going to be playing at 100% ability. However, reports have indicated that New England’s offense has been flat for most of training camp thus far, and so it would have inspired more confidence to see them play with a little more confidence than their approach on the field suggested.

Loser: Jabrill Peppers

The veteran safety signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Patriots in the offseason, and seemed to fit the hybrid safety/linebacker role that the team seems to like in their secondary (Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, etc.). However, even with many of the offensive and defensive starters playing for at least the first quarter in Friday night’s game, Peppers never saw the field.

Some of this may have to do with the fact that he came off the Physically Unable to Perform list earlier in training camp and could still be dealing with nagging injury issues. In his place, New England seemed to be using Joshuah Bledsoe in that hybrid/safety position, and the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Bledsoe seemed to fit the role well.

New England is on the hook for $1.35 million in dead salary cap space if they release Peppers. So it seems unlikely that he will be a victim of roster cuts. However, unless he can prove to the coaching staff that he should have a role on this team, he could be sent away in favor of the younger and cheaper option in Bledsoe.

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