The Patriots open their preseason schedule in Foxboro on Thursday night with a matchup against the Washington Redskins. Preseason games, especially the first and last, are not great indicators of what a team will look like in the regular season. Most starters will only play one or two series to simply bring themselves back up to game speed. The changes to roster limits in recent years allow teams to keep the full 90-man roster until after the final preseason game, which means teams have the ability to rest their key starters during these contests.
However, they are not useless, as they allow the depth chart to sort itself out properly, and give players on the roster bubble a chance to earn their way onto the team. Here are five things to be watching for in the Patriots first preseason game:
One of the biggest questions being asked throughout training camp is who Tom Brady will be throwing to in 2018. With Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola gone, and Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of the season, Brady will have a whole new crop of receivers at his disposal. This will be the first indication as to who will round out the bottom half of the receiver depth chart. This will be a chance for Phillip Dorsett to prove that he is capable of being an every-down player, instead of the occasional deep threat that he was used as last season. Cordarelle Patterson may also see significant reps at receiver as the Patriots evaluate whether he can be a legitimate option. Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios will also be an interesting pair to watch, as the two may be playing for one spot between them.
As a quick side note, many fans may be hyped up to see Eric Decker play. That excitement should be tempered, as Decker may not play at all as he still acclimates to the Patriots playbook.
2. Who is Playing Cornerback & Where
Like receivers, the cornerback position is one of the most unknown and interesting roster battles heading into 2018. While there are some roster locks, the only player with a set roster spot and position is Stephon Gilmore. Everyone else’s status is up in the air. Duke Dawson, the Patriots second-round pick, is a roster lock but he needs to show up in game situations to earn his spot as the team’s starting nickel corner. He has shown flashes in camp, but this is a whole different beast. Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty are solid veterans, but their spots are not necessarily guaranteed with hungry rookies behind them. Although Bill Belichick likes to say that he does not look to the past to determine a player’s value now, Rowe’s absolutely miserable performance in the Super Bowl should, in my opinion, put him on thin ice throughout this preseason. Most importantly, however, may be undrafted rookie JC Jackson who has made a name for himself between spring camp and now. He is an aggressive ball hawk whose feisty attitude is reminiscent of Malcolm Butler. These games are what may allow Jackson to earn a spot on the final roster.
3. Shifts Along the Defensive Line
The Patriots have some decent new additions along the defensive line with Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn. How these new additions rotate will be a key to watch for in this game. It is important to note that, especially for a defense, the “starters” are not always going to be the same because certain base and sub packages may be used against certain opponents based off of their offensive schemes. However, throughout camp, Shelton has been getting the starting nod over Malcolm Brown, and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues during the preseason games. Brown has not lived up to his potential thus far and is at risk of falling behind on the depth chart. Defensive end will also be a position of note, as Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise look to secure their spots and make the leap in their second years.
4. Offensive Line
The offensive line is another area for the Patriots that could see some movement. The left tackle spot does seem to be sewn up by Trent Brown, and the right tackle spot belongs to Marcus Cannon. However, Cannon’s injury will allow LaAdrian Waddle and others to get significant playing time. In addition, the Patriots interior line will be a fun battle to watch, as the team loaded up on offensive guards in the offseason. Joe Thuney’s spot may be in jeopardy if someone has an impressive performance. Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots first-round pick, will be an important player to watch. He has spent most of camp at left tackle but has also taken reps at left guard. It will be interesting to see which position New England uses him at against the Redskins, and how he performs in those roles.
5. QB Battle
That title is a little misleading. This isn’t a battle for the starting job. The GOAT has that locked up tight. However, Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling will be competing for the backup spot. The backup quarterback competition isn’t always the most thrilling to watch, but with Brady likely only taking one series, this will occupy fans for the rest of the game. The team will likely only keep one of the two quarterbacks, and these games will be crucial to Etling’s shot at beating out Hoyer for a spot on the 53-man roster.
The Patriots lost their top punt returner with Danny Amendola. Patrick Chung, Riley McCarron, Braxton Berrios, Rex Burkhead, Cordarelle Patterson, and Eric Decker have all taken reps returning punts throughout camp. It will be important to note both who the team sends back there in this game, and how well they perform.
Until next time – B$