New England Patriots continue roster building in preseason

By The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 20, 2017 at 7:08 PM
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With summertime 19-0 talk still bubbling throughout fans and media alike, the New England Patriots have opened preseason action with consecutive losses following Saturday night's 27-23 defeat at the hands of the Texans in Houston.

Now, no one will pretend that preseason action is an indicator of regular-season potential. New England sat out 40 top players in the preseason opening loss to the Jaguars in Foxborough. Quarterback Tom Brady played a couple series this week, while tight end Rob Gronkowski saw his first preseason action since 2012.

But, in reality, the work done on the field - and the work that takes place earlier in the week in the join practices the team has held with the Jaguars and Texans - is what matters most, not any specific play, result or statistic. After the loss, head coach Bill Belichick said everyone on his team is making progress before adding his summertime motto that everyone has a long way to go.

While fans focus on Brady, Gronkowski and the core of stars that will be the backbone of the Patriots' 2017 success, Belichick is also piecing together all the complementary pieces that will fill out this fall's squad for the defending Super Bowl champions.

That includes guys like running back addition Rex Burkhead. The former Bengals backup had seven rushes for 20 yards and three catches for 50 yards in his debut in a Patriots uniform, including a pretty 22-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Brady.

Burkhead is the latest addition to the Patriots' annual committee backfield and his new coach likes what the versatile back brings to the job.

"Rex has missed very little time. He's basically been out there every day and we've worked with him in all areas of the game that we think he can contribute in, which is all three downs offensively and the four phases of special teams that he's been involved with, from Day 1," Belichick said of the veteran, who will battle for playing time with fellow newcomer Mike Gillislee and returnees James White and Dion Lewis as the Patriots look to replace LeGarrette Blount's 1,000-plus yards and NFL-best 18 touchdowns.

Another player whose role could be more notable than his name is trade addition James O'Shaughnessy. The third-year tight end was acquired on draft weekend from Kansas City. He also made his debut in Houston, notching a game-high five catches for 41 yards while playing throughout in the kicking game. O'Shaughnessy is vying for his own versatile role behind Gronkowksi.

"He kind of got back into action this week in the kicking game and offensively," Belichick said of the young tight end who missed the preseason opener to an unknown injury. "So, again, there were some good things and there were some things that he'll need a little more work on and were a little rusty. But, again, I thought overall, I thought he competed well and gave a good account of himself last night."

While he'll never admit it, and emphasizes every summer that every player and coach needs to re-establish his role within the team, Belichick knows what he has with many of his top stars like Brady and Gronkowski. It's the rest of what he often refers to as the roster "mosaic" that Belichick is working on right now heading toward the regular-season opener against the Chiefs on Sept. 7 at Gillette Stadium.

Brady, Gronkowksi, cornerback Malcolm Butler and linebacker Dont'a Hightower will be the returning core. Top newcomers like wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore inject new playmaking blood. But Belichick knows that the bottom couple dozen guys on the roster can play just as big a role in the long march to a Super Bowl as the stars.

Those are the guys earning their bones in the preseason.

"That's what training camp and preseason games are for," Belichick emphasized after breaking down the tape from his team's second preseason contest against Houston, half the August schedule now in the books. "You give the players an opportunity to compete and they earn what they get. They earn the right to play more based on their performance. If a player goes out there and establishes a performance through his production, both in practice and in preseason games, then he earns more playing time. Anybody can do that. If they don't and other players do, then the other players will receive those opportunities ahead of the ones that didn't produce as well or show quite as much. But, yeah, that opportunity is there for everybody. That's what training camp and preseason is for is to give everybody an opportunity to do that. The players decide that. I don't decide it. They decide it based on what product they put out there."

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