FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — It took the New England Patriots just 10 days to lose three exhibition games. Now coach Bill Belichick is pondering who played well enough to make the team.
NFL teams must reduce their rosters to the regular-season limit of 53 by Friday at 4 p.m. EDT. That's less than 48 hours after the Patriots lost to the New York Giants, 6-3, on Wednesday while using very few of the first string.
Instead, Belichick took a long look at players trying to make the opening-day squad who can provide depth.
"We've played people so that we could try to evaluate the competition in different spots," he said Thursday, "not only between two players at the same position but between two players at different positions relative to their overall value to the team."
The condensed scheduled affected Belichick's decisions about playing time. He didn't, for instance, want to overwork a player by using him a lot in each game. But that kept him from seeing how a player handled three different opponents' schemes.
"We kind of played a split-squad thing the last three weeks," Belichick said. "Probably the amount of plays (a player took part in) is about the same or close to the same. But it was more segmented."
The Patriots beat New Orleans, 7-6, then lost to Philadelphia, 27-17, and Tampa Bay, 30-28.
"We played a group of people in the Philadelphia game and didn't play (other) people in that game," Belichick said. "We played another group of people in the Tampa game and those other guys got very few reps in that game. Some didn't play at all. (Wednesday) night, we had another group of guys that didn't play and then heavier reps to a similar group that played in the Philadelphia game. That's how we tried to manage it."
The Patriots scored just six touchdowns in the preseason, and quarterback Tom Brady was used sparingly. What's more, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and linebacker Jerod Mayo sat out two games.
Some, however, improved their chances of making the team, including linebacker/defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, linebacker Mike Rivera, cornerback Marquice Cole, defensive tackle Justin Francis, fullback Eric Kettani and running back Brandon Bolden.
Cunningham had been a disappointment in his two seasons since the Patriots drafted him in the second round out of Florida. But he had two sacks against the Giants to cap an impressive preseason.
"He came into camp in great condition," Belichick said. "He worked hard in the offseason. He got faster, stronger, more explosive, worked on his techniques. It wasn't just one thing. He has more position flexibility than he's had for us in the past. We've asked him to do more different things. He's shown that he can do them. He's had more production."
Rivera led the Patriots with 12 tackles against the Giants after spending the final two months of last season on the practice squad.
Cole provides depth in the secondary behind starters Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington. He also was impressive on special teams after signing as a free agent following three seasons with the Jets.
Francis and Bolden are rookies who played well enough to last, at the least, through the games. Trying to ignore the shadow of the roster cuts, Bolden started against the Giants, in fact, and gained 59 yards on 15 carries.
"Basically, I took that thought two weeks ago and just threw it away and tried not to think about it as much as possible," Bolden said. "That hinders your game if you let that float around in the back of your mind."
Belichick may have to choose between Bolden, who may land on the practice squad, and Kettani, a former Navy Midshipman and the only fullback on the roster. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are expected to get most of the carries.
"That whole position has turned over completely to a much younger group," Belichick said, "which has its advantages and drawbacks."
Either way, when the Patriots start the regular season at Tennessee Sept. 9, the players competing for roster spots are likely to spend most time on the bench. And in between then and now, the first stringers need some work.
"There are some things that we need to do that are Patriot things that don't relate to any specific opponent that we play," Belichick said, "just things that we need to work on that we haven't really been able to do so far in training camp."
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