The New England Patriots have prepared all week for the Carolina Panthers like Friday night’s preseason game actually means something.
The Patriots have game planned in preparation for the Panthers, even using reserve wide receivers to imitate Carolina wideouts Kelvin Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery in practice. Because the Patriots are treating their third preseason game like it’s a regular-season game, starting quarterback Tom Brady should see plenty of action at Gillette Stadium with the starting offense.
Brady will take the field, but many important players will be held out against the Panthers as they recover from injuries. Offensive tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Chris Martin, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones, linebacker Cameron Gordon and running back Tyler Gaffney are unlikely to play after missing practice this week. Wide receiver Aaron Dobson also will be held out at least one more week, as he hasn’t advanced to contact drills.
Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, linebackers Ja’Gared Davis and James Anderson, tight end Rob Gronkowski, safeties Tavon Wilson and Kanorris Davis, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, center Bryan Stork and defensive tackles Dominique Easley, Jerel Worthy and Ben Bass missed last Friday night’s game, which leaves their status up in the air against the Panthers. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is expected to play despite missing last week’s preseason game.
With the starters expected to play two quarters Friday night, check out what to watch for as the Patriots take on the Panthers.
Tom Brady’s chemistry with Brandon LaFell
Brady hasn’t seen the game field for long enough to determine how his in-game chemistry is developing with new addition Brandon LaFell. LaFell has had some impressive moments, including last week’s touchdown reception from rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but how he plays with Brady ultimately is what’s really important.
Patriots’ starting offensive line
The Patriots have shown many variations of what could be a starting offensive line this summer, but after starting Jordan Devey at guard for two consecutive games, head coach Bill Belichick has left us with more questions than answers. Nate Solder, Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly are expected to start, and Marcus Cannon likely will play right tackle in Vollmer’s absence, but that leaves one spot open in the all-important third preseason game. It would be logical to see either Ryan Wendell or Josh Kline fill that gap, though Devey has been The Guy so far.
Construction of front seven
Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins started at linebacker last week for the Patriots with Vince Wilfork, Joe Vellano and Tommy Kelly making up the front three. Mayo is expected back this week, which could bump Jones back down to defensive end in the “regular” 3-4 defense that the Patriots have trotted out this summer. Mayo’s return also could shift the Patriots back into a 4-3.
The Patriots likely won’t have Chris Jones or Siliga back against the Panthers, so we’ll still be left with an incomplete picture of the Patriots’ front seven, but finding where Chandler Jones aligns will give some hints to the Patriots’ regular-season plans.
Starter at No. 2 cornerback
Brandon Browner is expected to start across the field from Darrelle Revis, but since the former Seahawk is starting the season with a four-game suspension, the Patriots could continue to mix up that spot. Malcolm Butler has been starting at cornerback, but with Dennard potentially back this game, the rookie could get pushed down the (nonexistant, according to Belichick) preseason depth chart.
Second-year pro Logan Ryan also could see time at cornerback — if he’s not lining up at safety, which brings us to our next point of emphasis…
Starting strong safety
Devin McCourty will be aligned back deep at free safety, but it’s anyone’s guess who will line up next to him. Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Kyle Arrington or Ryan could get starting snaps at strong safety. Since the Panthers have a tendency to run the football more than they pass, we could see more of a “pure” safety like Harmon or Chung playing near the line of scrimmage, rather than a converted cornerback like Arrington or Ryan.
We’ll likely see many variations in the secondary, since the Patriots have a wealth of depth at the positional group.