FOXBOROUGH -- We're halfway home. Two meaningless games gone. Two meaningless games to go.
There's a lot to talk about. Some of it good (James White). Some of it not so good (injuries).
Here are five thoughts as we head into the back stretch of the summer:
1. Expanding the ‘Circle of Trust’
Tom Brady has always played favorites. Dating back to his earliest days with Troy Brown and Deion Branch, there have always been a handful of players Brady has counted on as his go-to guys when the chips are down.
In recent years, Brady’s ‘Circle of Trust’ has gotten fairly expansive. Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and even Malcolm Mitchell developed a rapport with the future Hall of Famer. But when the season begins, only Gronkowski and Hogan will be suiting up, with Amendola and Mitchell gone and Edelman out for the first four games due to suspension. Gronkowski and Hogan are good, but they’re not enough, so out of the Patriots’ remaining skill position players, who else could we see Brady look to as his next go-to guy?
Starting with the receivers, the options aren’t all that appealing. Cordarrelle Patterson has loads of potential, but he doesn’t have the route running ability that Brady normally counts on in his receivers. Phillip Dorsett hasn’t shown he can be consistent, Kenny Britt has hardly seen the field and Brady didn’t look Eric Decker’s way when the two shared the field last Thursday.
Luckily, Brady has other options elsewhere, starting with running back James White. Brady completed six passes to White during the first half on Thursday and has always spoken highly of White’s abilities as a player and teammate. Now, White could be leaned on as one of the most important offensive players on the team, as could fellow running back Rex Burkhead, who has also been noted for his pass catching ability when healthy.
But there is another option too, one who could emerge as a breakout player given the right circumstances, and that is tight end Jacob Hollister. The second-year player was impressive in limited action as a rookie and had a brilliant training camp, spending a number of side sessions working one on one with Brady. He won’t usurp Gronkowski’s job as starter, but expect to see Hollister more involved as the No. 2 tight end.
2. Injuries change picture at tackle
At this time last week, the Patriots had an envious situation at offensive tackle. Trent Brown appears to have locked down Nate Solder’s old job at left tackle, Marcus Cannon is a Pro Bowl caliber at right tackle when healthy, and until he gets back, the team also had LaAdrian Waddle and Isaiah Wynn in competition to fill his place.
Then Wynn was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles, and Cannon has now missed 10 straight practices due to an unspecified injury. If the season were to begin today, Brown and Waddle would start at tackle, but who exactly is left to step in if either of them were to also get hurt?
Belichick addressed the issue of depth during his remarks on Monday, comparing it to an insurance policy where you don’t think about it if you don’t need it, but when you need it you’re happy you have it. He added that you can’t have depth at every position, but in bringing in veterans like Matt Tobin and Ulrick John, the Patriots have had a deep and competitive field at tackle throughout the preseason. Tobin and John were long shots before, but now one of them will likely figure into the team’s plans, for better or worse.
3. Helmet confusion
As expected, the NFL’s new helmet rule has become a source of contention within league locker rooms, and especially among defensive players who now don’t know what constitutes a clean tackle. The rule — which specifically forbids players from lowering their helmet to initiate contact with an opposing player — was called four times in New England’s last preseason game against Philadelphia, including once on the Patriots after Jordan Richards led with his head on a third quarter tackle of Eagles receiver Dallas Goedert.
Several players on the Patriots and Eagles have weighed on in the rule since the game, with Devin McCourty and Richards each saying essentially that they disagree with some of the calls but will have to learn to play within the rules. However, elsewhere in the league, the takes haven’t been as measured, and San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman came out especially hard against the rule in a series of Tweets on Sunday.
“There is no ‘make adjustment’ to the way you tackle. Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head,” Sherman wrote on Twitter. “The rule is idiotic and should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still [leading] by their head. Will be flag football soon.”
4. Burkhead returns
Some good news on the injury front this weekend, running back Rex Burkhead returned to the field on Sunday. The running back had missed the previous four practices with what is reportedly a minor knee injury and did not play in the team’s second preseason game against the Eagles. He is expected to play a major role in the offense this fall, so the team has been understandably cautious in easing him back in, especially with rookie Sony Michel also still nursing his own knee injury.
5. Quotable Bill
Bill Belichick can defeat gameplans prepared by some of the brightest football minds in the world, but he is apparently no match for popular technology. Belichick has repeatedly expressed his inability to comprehend apps like Snapchat, and while speaking to WEEI’s “Ordway, Merloni and Fauria” afternoon program on Monday, he said doesn’t even have his own Netflix account because he couldn’t figure out how to get it to work.
“Linda does,” he said of his girlfriend Linda Holliday. “I don’t have one. I’m not very tech savvy. Getting it on the screen would be very challenging for me. You’ve got to go to a certain thing, have a pass code. It’s not like you can just flip from Ch. 53 to Ch. 108. I can handle that. But yeah, we have it.”
He then added: “If I didn’t have some help, I don’t think I’d be able to get Netflix, Snapface, and Pandarama, or whatever it is.”
Mac Cerullo covers the Patriots for the Daily News and CNHI Sports Boston. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.