The New England Patriots are 12 practices deep into training camp, and the sessions are beginning to feel stale.
Fortunately, the Patriots’ preseason opener is Thursday against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium, and there are plenty of players who can set themselves apart in a game scenario where they couldn’t in practice.
Here are 10 Patriots players to watch closely in Thursday night’s game.
QB JIMMY GAROPPOLO
Garoppolo started the summer scorching hot but since has cooled off, completing just 55.8 percent of his passes with three interceptions in his last five practices. Garoppolo has proven to be a gamer in his first two NFL seasons and could put any concerns aside with a strong preseason opener against the Saints. He’ll get plenty of reps, since Tom Brady isn’t expected to play.
RB TYLER GAFFNEY
This is the farthest Gaffney has made it into an NFL season without being placed on injured reserve. He’s been receiving a ton of carries in training camp and figures to be the Patriots’ primary back in the second half against the Saints. It will be interesting to see what he can do with the ball in his hands against NFL defenders.
WR MALCOLM MITCHELL
Mitchell has had a propensity for impressive catches in training camp and should have success against the Saints’ reserve defensive backs. Mitchell could carve out a role this season with an impressive preseason.
TE A.J. DERBY
Derby was placed on injured reserve last summer early in training camp, so he, like Gaffney, hasn’t played in an NFL game yet. He’s a solid athlete with good playing strength.
G JOE THUNEY
Thuney likely will start at left guard for the Patriots and go up against the Saints’ starting defense. That will be a great test for the rookie, who is projected to protect Garoppolo and Brady as a starter this season.
DE TREY FLOWERS
Flowers stood out in three preseason games last season but only suited up for regular season action once before being placed on injured reserve with a bum shoulder. He now has a chance to carve out a role with Rob Ninkovich nursing a triceps injury. Flowers should receive pass rushing opportunities from the edge and the inside.
DE GENEO GRISSOM
Grissom, like Flowers, didn’t make much of an impact on defense as a rookie last season. It’s unclear what role he will play in the Patriots’ defense, whether that’s as an outside linebacker, edge defender or interior rusher.
DE/LB SHEA MCCLELLIN
McClellin projects as the top player to replace Ninkovich because he has a similar skill set as a linebacker/defensive end. He has to prove he regularly can produce pressure on the edge.
LB KAMU GRUGIER-HILL
Grugier-Hill is undersized for an NFL linebacker at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. He should be solid in coverage against running backs and tight ends.
CB CYRUS JONES
Jones should receive a ton of snaps both as a returner and cornerback against the Saints. He’ll likely match up against fellow second-round pick and Saints receiver Michael Thomas on defense. We’ll be watching to see how well he handles punts and kicks in the return game and whether he can make any explosive plays.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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