The New England Patriots’ injury situation has improved slightly over the past week.
In the Patriots’ preseason opener, 23 players didn’t suit up, and another six failed to enter the game.
Only 17 players missed Patriots practice Thursday, according to reporters on hand, which means we could see preseason debuts from linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo; quarterback Ryan Lindley; running backs LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis and Brandon Bolden; offensive linemen Marcus Cannon, Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder; tight end Rob Gronkowski; and defensive linemen Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch.
Wide receivers Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell and Brian Tyms; cornerback Darryl Roberts; fullback Eric Kettani; running back Travaris Cadet; linebacker Dane Fletcher; defensive linemen Eric Martin, Rufus Johnson, Joe Vellano, Trey Flowers and Chris Jones; offensive linemen Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork and Caylin Hauptmann; and tight ends Jake Bequette and Scott Chandler aren’t expected to play.
There are plenty of reasons to watch Saturday night’s preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, however. Here are 10 players to keep an eye on:
Dion Lewis (Running Back, No. 33)
The small, shifty running back missed New England’s first preseason game, but a return to practice this week could signal his debut in a Patriots uniform.
Lewis is competing for a role on the back end of the Patriots’ roster after missing the 2013 and 2014 seasons with injuries. Despite his recent lack of playing time, he has upside as a third-down back.
Brandon Bolden (Running Back, No. 38)
Bolden also missed last Thursday’s preseason opener, and he too is competing for third-down reps. Bolden knows the Patriots’ system, and he has the advantage of being a “core-four” special-teamer with the size to shoulder early-down handoffs on offense.
Bolden and James White are the favorites for the third-down role. White played well last week, and now it could be Bolden’s chance to respond.
Chris Harper (Wide Receiver, No. 14)
Harper had a solid camp for the Patriots, but he opened some eyes last Thursday by catching seven passes on seven targets for 48 yards from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
With injuries to Brian Tyms, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Aaron Dobson, Harper should see plenty of reps against the Saints.
Jimmay Mundine (Tight End, No. 81)
Mundine only was targeted once against the Green Bay Packers, and we’re still waiting to see what he can do after the catch. Mundine flashed special athleticism at Kansas and in his pro day.
Shaq Mason (Guard, No. 69)
Mason, as expected, had some issues in pass protection against the Packers. He comes from a run-heavy offense at Georgia Tech, so pass blocking still is new for the rookie. He’ll have to improve to compete for a starting role this season, however.
Geneo Grissom (Defensive Lineman, No. 48)
Grissom had a strong preseason debut for the Patriots, recording one QB hit and three hurries while playing defensive end and defensive tackle. Rookie Trey Flowers and first-year pro Rufus Johnson also stood out against the Packers, but injuries have kept them out of practice. Grissom has a chance to get a leg up on his competition with another solid preseason game.
Dominique Easley (Defensive Lineman, No. 99)
The 2014 first-round pick only flashed intermittently in the first preseason game, and he ran hot and cold during training camp. He needs to start having standout performances to gain consistent playing time in 2015.
James Morris (Linebacker, No. 49)
Morris has a chance to earn the top backup linebacker spot if he continues to outplay Jonathan Freeny, as he did last Thursday against the Packers. The Patriots had high hopes for Morris last summer before a torn ACL ended his hopes of making the 53-man roster. Now he has a second opportunity to play a big role for the Patriots.
Tarell Brown (Cornerback, No. 31)
Brown suddenly looks like a favorite to start in the Patriots’ nickel defense. If he plays with the No. 1 defense Saturday night, he could have the challenge of lining up across from Saints slot receiver Brandin Cooks. Brown didn’t play last Thursday, so this is his first chance to show off in a preseason game.
Devin McCourty (Defensive Back, No. 32)
McCourty is a free safety, listed as a defensive back who has been playing a different position in training camp recently. We’ll see if he stays there on Saturday night, at which point we’ll be able to talk about it, since it’s no longer just practice.
Thumbnail photo via Twitter/SteveB7SFG