Training camp reps are important. But NFL roster spots often are won and lost in the preseason.
For the New England Patriots, that begins Thursday night when they welcome the Washington Football Team to Gillette Stadium.
As the Patriots open their three-game exhibition slate — down from the traditional four as the league introduces a 17-game regular season — we spotlighted eight players with the most to prove this preseason.
This list includes the team’s two starting quarterback hopefuls, naturally, but also a number of recent Patriots draft picks, some of whom could find themselves on the wrong side of the cutline if they fail to impress in the coming weeks.
QBs Cam Newton and Mac Jones
The Cam vs. Mac competition has dominated headlines since training camp began — and will continue to do so until Bill Belichick officially names his Week 1 starter. Can Newton hold off the first-round rookie challenger? Is Jones ready for QB1 status? In our view, Newton remains the favorite in this intensely scrutinized roster battle. But Jones has outperformed him as a passer at times and could unseat the former NFL MVP with a strong showing this preseason. It will be very interesting to see how the Patriots divvy up playing time between Newton, Jones and veteran third-stringer Brian Hoyer in these tuneup games.
WR N’Keal Harry
Beyond the intrigue at QB, Harry’s situation has been the most fascinating storyline of this Patriots summer. Overall, this has been a strong camp for the 2019 first-round pick, who struggled during his first two seasons and then raised eyebrows with a public offseason trade request. Has he increased his odds of sticking on the roster? Or simply boosted his trade value? The spotlight will be on No. 15 straight through to cutdown day.
TE Devin Asiasi
The Patriots’ decision to spend big on Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry this offseason was a clear indictment on Asiasi and Dalton Keene, last year’s third-round draft picks. But with Henry set to miss at least part of the preseason with a shoulder injury, Asiasi has a golden opportunity to prove he still can contribute in this new-look Patriots offense. It’s been tough sledding so far for the UCLA product, who caught just two passes as a rookie and missed the first nine days of training camp following a positive COVID-19 test.
RB J.J. Taylor
Taylor garnered praise from both Belichick and running backs coach Ivan Fears during his promising rookie season and has been viewed as a potential 2021 breakout candidate. It’s been a rather nondescript summer, though, for Taylor, who’s hauled in a couple of eye-catching deep passes but mostly has worked with the scout team. He’ll likely play a ton of snaps during the preseason. Can he perform well enough to lock down a roster spot for Year 2?
OLB Chase Winovich
The first question is when we’ll see Winovich back on the field. He’s spent all of training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list with an undisclosed injury and been limited to rehab and conditioning work. Winovich led all Patriots defenders in sacks and pressures a year ago, but he’s missing out on valuable practice reps and could have a hard time cracking the team’s suddenly crowded edge rusher rotation once he returns.
CB Joejuan Williams
Eight cornerbacks were selected in the first two rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft. Since then, six have played more than 1,000 defensive snaps. Another has played 680. Williams? Just 251 over two seasons. Ideally, Williams would be the natural next man up opposite J.C. Jackson until Stephon Gilmore returns, but that hasn’t been the case this summer. He’s behind Jalen Mills in the outside corner pecking order and will need to hold off a charge from Michael Jackson to keep his spot on the roster.
K Quinn Nordin
With an injury sidelining incumbent Nick Folk, Nordin has inserted himself into the roster conversation by going a perfect 14-for-14 on field-goal attempts across two in-stadium practices. All of those kicks were uncontested, though. Can Nordin, who was searching for jobs on LinkedIn when the Patriots signed him as an undrafted free agent, replicate that success against a live rush? He’ll have plenty of opportunities until Folk can get back on the field.