Five sleeper players to watch in tonight's preseason opener
Gaffney figures to get plenty of carries tonight in his first career preseason game. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire
The second half of preseason games can get undeniably boring, as the level of play tends to slip once the proven players have been pulled in place of borderline players fighting just to earn a spot on the initial 53 man roster. However, every preseason sees certain players go from anonymity to known NFL contributors by proving their worth deep into preseason games. Patriots fans should need no reminder, as Malcolm Butler has gone from unknown undrafted rookie to preseason stud to unexpected Super Bowl hero to Pro Bowl worthy top cornerback. Jimmy Garoppolo will be the story of tonight's preseason opener, no matter how he plays, but the following intriguing players will give you reason to pay attention beyond the first quarter of the game.
Few NFL prospects can claim worse luck to start a career than Gaffney, who saw his first two seasons in the league cut short early in training camp with season-ending injuries. The mere fact that he remains on a roster is telling of what Bill Belichick, who has been complimentary of Gaffney several times to the press, thinks of his potential. For those unfamiliar with his backstory, Gaffney was considered an intriguing prospect despite his status as a sixth round pick due to his eye-popping production in his single year as a starter for Stanford (1,709 yards, 5.2 ypc, 21 touchdowns) along with some impressive athletic testing results during the pre-draft process. In fact, one major knock on Gaffney was his two-sport background, as he took a one year hiatus from football in 2012 to pursue a baseball career with the Padres class A affiliate. Gaffney was still drafted by the Panthers, but he tore his lateral meniscus early in his first training camp and was waived in an attempt to be placed on season ending injured reserve. The Patriots controversially spoiled the Panthers plans by claiming him on waivers, and eventually stashed him on the IR for the entire 2014 season. Gaffney was expected to compete for a role at this time last summer, but his season was once again cut short early in camp after he was placed on IR due to an undisclosed injury. After being cut and quickly re-signed this spring to make modifications to his contract, Gaffney has stayed healthy this summer and appears to trail only LeGarrette Blount on the "big back" depth chart for between-the-tackles running backs. With the established Blount unlikely to receive too much preseason work, Gaffney figures to get plenty of chances to impress, starting tonight. If he plays well enough this summer, he'll not only win a job but threaten the inconsistent Blount for early down work.
Will Derby's physical talent result in big plays on the field?
A sixth round pick from the last year's draft, Derby is essentially in his rookie year after getting stashed early in his first training camp on the IR with an undisclosed injury. Derby was considered a major project of a prospect coming out due to his lack of experience at his position, as he played tight end for just one year at Arkansas after converting from quarterback. However, he was also considered a high upside prospect due to the obvious athleticism and natural hands he flashed during that 2014 season for the Razorbacks. With a year of learning the Patriots offense behind the scenes under his belt, Derby has made enough plays in the passing game for both beat writers and his teammates to take notice. He's certainly in the midst to earn the third tight end job with his performance thus far in camp, and figures to get ample opportunities to emerge as a playmaker with most of the Patriots proven pass catchers unlikely to play. Building on some recent momentum with a strong performance against live competition would go a long way towards strengthening Derby's case for a depth role behind the duo of Gronk and Martellus Bennett.
At this time last summer, Roberts had impressed the coaching staff enough to earn the start in the preseason opener against Green Bay. However, a wrist injury midway through his rookie camp required season ending surgery, and the Patriots saw Justin Coleman emerge and drafted Cyrus Jones with a high pick during the time he was on the shelf. Now, last year's sixth round pick finds himself once again needing to earn a job in a crowded depth chart but talent certainly isn't the question with him. At 6' tall with long arms and fantastic reactive athleticism and recovery speed (Roberts posted the second most impressive athletic testing numbers of any corner in his draft), Roberts has pretty much every physical tool scouts desire from top man-to-man corners. He was, however, considered raw as a prospect coming out, which combined with the small school prospect stigma to contribute to his draft day slide late into Day 3. With a year to learn behind the scenes, Roberts figures to be improved, but still finds himself fighting with veteran EJ Biggers and undrafted rookies Jonathan Jones, V'Angelo Bentley and Cre'von LeBlanc for a depth job behind the aforementioned four roster locks. He presents the highest upside of any of those options and will get his first chance to prove so tonight in what figures to be extended action.
Flowers is looking to build on the flashes he displayed last preseason
Yet another talented player from last year's draft class who was essentially put on ice as a rookie, Flowers could earn some of the early season snaps vacated by the injury to Rob Ninkovich with a strong preseason. Last summer saw Flowers showed flashes of the ability that made him a fourth round pick considered by many to be a draft steal due to his dominant play against SEC competition. He saw early enough time in last year's preseason opener to face the Packers starters, and took advantage by thoroughly beating starting left tackle David Bakhtiari for an impressive sack of Aaron Rodgers. However, a lingering shoulder injury contributed to his being inactive in 11 of 12 regular season games before he landed on season-ending IR. He's healthy now and appears to be in competition with veterans Chris Long and Shea McClellin for snaps at defensive end opposite Jabaal Sheard. Like Long, Flowers offers the versatility to shift inside on passing downs if need be, as he has the length and power to excel on the edge and compete on the interior as a run defender. Flowers doesn't have eye-popping speed as an edge rusher, but he used his combination of length, hand-usage and motor well to generate pressure both in college and in limited opportunities with the Patriots. A strong preseason could vault him into a regular season role, even when Ninkovich presumably returns.
The man conveniently nicknamed "KG" has clearly gotten his coaches attention as a versatile hybrid player who brings tons of effort and playmaking athleticism to the field. Grugier-Hill projects as another weapon on special teams, and his selection with a sixth round pick reflects the amount the Patriots have prioritized improving their special teams recently after an uncharacteristic lull. His athleticism and aggressive playing style should make him a special teams natural, and "KG" joins returning captain Matt Slater, 2015 breakthrough player Brandon King, veteran Brandon Bolden and crossover Olympic star Nate Ebner as projected core coverage team players. It will likely take injuries for KG's 2016 impact to go beyond special teams, but he's shown potential defensively in camp as a hybrid safety/linebacker in the mold of the Cardinals Deonne Bucannon or the Rams Mark Barron. His combination of speed and aggression puts him around the ball often, and he's demonstrated a knack for creating turnovers so far in practice. If he shows well enough this summer, starting tonight, he could earn some passing down snaps as a dime linebacker.