That was one of the bigger takeaways from the team’s 26-17 victory over the Washington Redskins at Gillette Stadium, a game in which the Patriots’ top units (minus Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty and a few others) showed they have a long way to go before the Sept. 9 season opener.
Hill, who signed a modest one-year free-agent contract in the offseason after spending the first four years of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, was one of the best players on the field and clearly helped himself in the competition with Mike Gillislee to become the team’s power option.
The power rusher competition is one of the more notable roster-related questions on offense, because Rex Burkhead, James White and first-round pick Sony Michel are locks at the position, which leaves Hill (6-1, 226), Gillislee (5-11, 210), Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) and undrafted Ralph Webb (5-10, 200) fighting for one or two spots.
Head coach Bill Belichick noted the Patriots’ “good depth and competition” at the position after Thursday’s game, and it wasn’t just Hill’s work as a rusher (11 carries, 51 yards, TD) that helped his cause. He was solid in blitz pickup – a must in the Patriots’ system – and also played eight special-teams snaps. The best way to find a niche on the Patriots' roster is often through special teams, and Hill is breaking through in that area as well.
Hill said he played at 236 pounds last year in Cincinnati but trimmed down to 226 this year, as he hopes to re-energize his career after entering the NFL as a second-round pick in 2014.
He’s off to a good start.
With Hill as the springboard, here are five more thoughts and observations from the preseason opener and what they might mean going forward:
Edelman’s return. Receiver Julian Edelman played 16 offensive snaps (no receptions) in his first game action since tearing his ACL on Aug. 25, and his passion and emotion were on full display in leading the team out of the tunnel and doing a full sprint from one end zone to the other before leaping and spinning into the air. Everything checked out well after the game. “It was just fun, the nerves were juiced, and I was just excited to get out there and get to play football,” he said.
There he is!! pic.twitter.com/c6L3b8ZqpT— Mike Bracco (@bracco) August 9, 2018
Possible concern -- speed at linebacker. The Patriots’ speed at linebacker, which was exploited at times in the Super Bowl against the Eagles, bears watching. While there is always a danger of reading too much into a preseason opener, the Redskins had similar success against a New England defense that looked slow at times. The Patriots opened with the linebacker trio of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts.
Brady worked out before the game. Quarterback Tom Brady is dealing with a sore back, per The Boston Globe, which might explain his reduced workload in practices in recent days. But based on the way things unfolded Thursday night, with tight end Rob Gronkowski and safety Devin McCourty held out of action, there was a good chance Brady wasn’t going to play anyway. Brady also worked out on the practice field before the game.
Bubble watch -- Jason McCourty. The Patriots had a dozen players who didn’t play because of injuries/rehabilitation, but veteran cornerback Jason McCourty – who didn’t play – falls into a different category. Perhaps the Patriots wanted to get a deeper evaluation on younger corners J.C. Jackson, Ryan Lewis and Keion Crossen, but McCourty’s lack of action highlights, to me, how his spot on the team is not secure as a backup corner. The Patriots had their top corners, Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, play 14 snaps apiece.
Allen rising up to the challenge. A punter competition between incumbent Ryan Allen and Corey Bojorquez has added a not-often-seen layer to training camp, and Allen had a good night in his battle to keep his job (six punts, 50.7 average, 39.7 net). Bojorquez, an undrafted free agent from New Mexico, didn’t play.