After two weeks of watching from the sidelines, Tom Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots’ starters finally will see some game action Thursday night as they host the Carolina Panthers in Week 3 of the NFL preseason.
Here are five things we’ll be watching for in that matchup:
1. Which wide receivers will be active?
The Patriots’ receiving corps has been revitalized by the returns of Josh Gordon (from suspension), Julian Edelman (from the non-football injury list) and Demaryius Thomas (from the physically unable to perform list), but it remains to be seen what that group will look like Thursday night.
Gordon, who was placed on NFI upon his reinstatement, won’t play against Carolina, and it’s unclear whether Edelman or Thomas will after both made their practice debuts earlier this week. Ditto for N’Keal Harry, Maurice Harris and Phillip Dorsett, who are dealing with injuries that sidelined them for last Saturday’s matchup with the Tennessee Titans.
If none of those six can go, expect another steady dose of preseason standout Jakobi Meyers, who will be catching passes from Brady for the first time in a game setting. This also will be a highly important game for Braxton Berrios, who might be battling Dorsett and Harris for just one roster spot.
2. Who stands out at tight end?
We don’t expect to see Matt LaCosse or Stephen Anderson in this game, which will create additional opportunities for tight end hopefuls Ryan Izzo, Lance Kendricks and Eric Saubert. Izzo and Kendricks both have looked good as blockers this preseason, and each hauled in one long reception against the Titans (21 yards for Izzo; 28 for Kendricks). Saubert, who came over from the Atlanta Falcons in a trade last week, looks like the low man in that group at the moment.
Though veteran Ben Watson will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get the start Thursday night.
3. How does the starting defense look?
With impact players at all three levels, the Patriots’ defense has the makings of a top-tier unit this season. This game should give us our first glimpse of how the entire starting 11 jells together, though starting strong safety Patrick Chung (who’s been wearing a red non-contact jersey in practice) might sit out as he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery.
Based on training camp personnel packages, we expect to see Michael Bennett, Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton as the starting down linemen in base defense, with Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins looking like the top four options at linebacker. Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty have monopolized first-team reps at cornerback, and Jonathan Jones has clearly established himself as the top slot option. Devin McCourty will start at one safety spot, with either Terrence Brooks or Duron Harmon likely sliding into the other if Chung can’t go.
With quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey both expected to play for Carolina, defending this Panthers offense will be a good first test for the Patriots’ D.
4. How much Chase Winovich will we see?
Our prediction: a whole lot. Winovich has been phenomenal through two preseason games, and with fellow edge rushers Shilique Calhoun, Derek Rivers and Trent Harris all dealing with injuries, the third-round rookie should see plenty of playing time against Carolina.
Calhoun and Rivers both have worked extensively with the first-team defense in practice, so Winovich, who’s been a second-/third-teamer since the start of training camp, likely will get at least few opportunities to test his mettle against the Panthers’ starters.
5. How will running back reps be divided?
The Patriots went with Brandon Bolden and Nick Brossette in Week 1 of the preseason and Bolden, Brossette and Damien Harris last week, so expect to see a fair amount of Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead as that top trio gears up for the regular season. The gap between Harris and Burkhead will be interesting to monitor moving forward, though. Harris played well against Tennessee in his NFL debut (103 yards from scrimmage) and could steal some touches away from the oft-injured Burkhead this season.