On Friday night, the New England Patriots visited the Music City to take on the Tennessee Titans in their final 2023 preseason game. While the Patriots’ meager 57 team passing yards and 55 team rushing yards drove the way for a less-than-satisfying offensive performance, they still had some standout stars in the 23-7 defeat.
But what Friday’s game did best was give those players on the fringe of making New England’s final 53-man roster one last shot to prove themselves and give the team a reason to keep them around for at least the start of the season.
Here are some winners and losers from the game.
Winner: Roster Bubble Linebackers
Anfernee Jennings, Ronnie Perkins, Calvin Munson.
All three players were fighting for spots on New England’s 53-man roster coming into the competition, and all three stood out as potentially very good depth pieces for the team.
Jennings only recorded two official tackles in the contest, but he ran wild with defensive line disruption. On Tennessee’s second series of the game, he stuffed the running back behind the line for a loss. Then, a few plays later, he bulldozed through the Titans’ offensive line to make way for cornerback Jack Jones to do the same. A 2020 third-round pick, Jennings has had trouble consistently staying on the field but has always shone brightly when he’s able to.
Ronnie Perkins has a similar story. A 2021 third-round pick, Perkins has yet to be active for a regular-season professional game. But Friday night, he also made his presence felt, notching nine total tackles and one for loss. Even some stomach disruption couldn’t interrupt his performance.
And Patriots beat writers had some fun with the situation.
But the bubble linebacker who may have won the most on Friday night was Calvin Munson. The veteran journeyman player on his third stint with the Patriots took full advantage of his opportunity to play in the final preseason game. Munson led the entire defense with 10 total tackles (including six solo) and even recorded a tip-drill interception after Titans quarterback Malik Willis threw the ball a bit behind his intended receiver.
Munson likely isn’t in contention to be a starting linebacker, but his performance on Friday night showed that, at the very least, he may deserve a depth role on New England’s defense.
What may have confused Patriots fans the most on Friday night was just how much quarterback Bailey Zappe played.
While the final preseason game is typically reserved for players vying for one of the final open spots on the 53-man roster, Zappe, the backup quarterback a season ago, received far more playing time than quarterbacks Trace McSorley and Malik Cunningham.
And it wasn’t like Zappe was lighting up the field, either. The second-year quarterback, who many thought would replace Mac Jones at starting quarterback less than a season ago, went 8-of-15 for 57 passing yards while also taking four sacks and fumbling the ball three total times (two of which the Patriots recovered).
McSorley went 0-for-1 passing, with his only series coming near the end of the first half. Cunningham began the second half alternating reps with Zappe but then didn’t line up at quarterback again until late in the fourth quarter. He finished 0-for-2 passing but had five rushing yards and minus-1 receiving yard.
In a game where so many fans were excited to see the electric Cunningham get substantial reps, the undrafted rookie mostly lined up at wide receiver and barely saw any balls come his way. With the game being the last of the preseason, it was disappointing that an exciting player on the roster bubble was given such few opportunities to vie for a place on the team.
But in fact, Zappe’s substantial playing time may have said more about him than any of the other quarterbacks on the roster. Similar to how the Patriots gave rookie wide receiver Demario Douglas just two plays all preseason, they may have been withholding Cunningham from quarterback reps to preserve his health and energy for more in the coming season. Zappe, meanwhile, may have been playing his way off the roster.
Even non-NFL Boston sports fans noticed how interesting Zappe’s usage was.
We will know for sure on Tuesday when the Patriots have to cut their roster down to the final 53 players, but Cunningham has played well enough this preseason to deserve a spot on the team. While he has been given limited reps at quarterback, his passing has been fairly accurate and his dynamic athleticism brings far more to the table than Zappe’s.
Moreover, the latter quarterback’s play in Friday’s game may have potentially cemented his own release.
New England’s offensive line play last season was subpar in comparison to years past. The unit allowed more sacks than over half the teams in the NFL, and the developing, downfield offensive play calls of stand-in offensive coordinator Matt Patricia did not help either.
But what hurt the line the most was quality depth. Behind their starters, the Patriots just couldn’t find good consistent play from their reserve linemen. This was most evident at tackle, where Yodny Cajuste, Conor McDermott, Isaiah Wynn, and Marcus Cannon all got significant reps at right tackle opposite Trent Brown.
But in the 2022 NFL draft, the team drafted two linemen, Chasen Hines and Andrew Stuber, in the later rounds. While late-round fliers aren’t expected to contribute heavily to a roster, Hines, in particular, has played well enough to potentially earn himself a depth role.
In Friday’s game, that play shone brightly amidst an otherwise dismal Patriots offensive line, and caught the eye of ESPN’s Mike Reiss.
After last season, New England can use all the offensive line depth they can get.
Loser: Special teams newcomers
The Patriots made history in the 2023 NFL draft by becoming the first team to draft a kicker and punter in the same class since the 2000 Oakland Raiders. But neither player has truly stood out this season from their in-team counterpart.
Fourth-round kicker Chad Ryland has been in fierce competition with veteran incumbent Nick Folk for all of camp, and he only got one kicking opportunity (an extra point) in Friday’s game.
While Folk is indeed more expensive than Ryland ($2.785 million against the salary cap as opposed to $946k), he has remained a model of consistency throughout preseason practices. Ryland does have a bigger leg, but he has also looked inaccurate at times. Folk, on the other hand, has remained as accurate as ever, but can only hit from a maximum of around 50 yards.
But the more intense competition seems to be coming at punter. Sixth-round selection Bryce Baringer has impressed all preseason with booming punts, sometimes as far as 65 yards. But free agent signee Corliss Waitman has been just as strong. With notably fewer in-game opportunities, Waitman has, at times, kept pace with Baringer in distance, hitting punts as far as 55 yards while also demonstrating good accuracy.
Ultimately, it is more likely that the team will choose the cheaper, younger draft picks in the event of a true tie between players. But Bill Belichick always seems to make a surprise cut on roster cutdown day, so maybe it’s better to expect the otherwise unexpected.