Week 4 of the NFL preseason essentially is a slate of JV games, and Thursday’s New England Patriots-New York Giants clash should be no different.
Nearly every player whose 53-man roster spot is secure typically sits out his team’s final exhibition game, including all starters on both sides of the ball and most of the projected backups.
Of the 38 New England Patriots who saw the field in last year’s preseason finale, just six made the initial 53-man roster, and that’s including kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen and long snapper Joe Cardona. The others? Tight end Jacob Hollister, offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle and guard/tackle Cole Croston.
Which Patriots players will be worth watching Thursday night? Here are eight we’ll be keeping tabs on:
Jason McCourty, CB (No. 30)
It’s typically not a great sign for a veteran to be playing extensive snaps in the final preseason game, but that likely will be the case for McCourty, who was moved to free safety for the first time in his life midway through last week’s loss to the Carolina Panthers. The 31-year-old veteran is on the roster bubble after failing to beat out Eric Rowe for a starting cornerback spot. Don’t be surprised if he plays both corner and safety against the Giants as the Patriots get a final read on his level of versatility.
Cyrus Jones, CB (No. 41)
Jones played in his first game in nearly a year last Thursday and looked good as a return man. The 2016 second-round pick is a leading candidate to fill in as New England’s punt returner while Julian Edelman serves his four-game suspension — a position he can lock down with another positive showing against New York.
J.C. Jackson, CB (No. 34)
Jackson is coming off his best game of the preseason, and while his fate might be partially tied to those of McCourty and Jones, the undrafted rookie has made a strong case for a roster spot. It’s unlikely the Patriots would be able to slip him onto the practice squad, which increases his chances of sticking around.
Riley McCarron, WR (No. 17)
The Patriots basically have three options for how to construct their receiving corps: 1) Keep just Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson and special teamer Matthew Slater, plus the suspended Edelman, who won’t count against the 53-man roster until Week 5; 2) keep those players and sign or trade for another wideout; or 3) keep those players and McCarron, the only other currently rostered receiver who still has a realistic chance of cracking the 53. McCarron made a few nice plays against Carolina and saw snaps with Tom Brady and the first-team offense, but he also had a drop and wasn’t used in the return game.
Danny Etling, QB (No. 5)
We haven’t seen much this summer of Etling, who’s played just 19 snaps in the preseason and attempted a mere six passes. Third-string quarterbacks typically play the majority of offensive snaps of the fourth preseason game, but the Patriots could be trying to hide the seventh-round draft pick with the hopes of stashing him on the practice squad. Ditto for running back Ralph Webb, who’s played sparingly since his big game in Week 1 of the preseason.
Keionta Davis, DE (No. 58)
Davis started the last two preseason games, and his usage Thursday night will reveal a lot about his roster status. If he doesn’t play, he’s made the team. If he does, that means coaches likely need to see a bit more from him before handing him a roster spot.
Mike Gillislee, RB (No. 35)
It was interesting to see Gillislee and Jeremy Hill both getting carries late in the fourth quarter last week. Hill has been the better player this preseason, but the fact both played so deep into that third game suggests the Patriots still haven’t made their final choice between the two power backs.
Khalfani Muhammad, RB (No. 27)
At 5-foot-7, 174 pounds, Muhammad is one of the NFL’s smallest running backs. He’s also one of the fastest, having run a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at his Cal pro day last spring. Muhammad has almost no chance of making the team after just signing earlier this week, but he should at least be an entertaining player to watch Thursday night.
Thumbnail photo via Paul Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports Images