The New England Patriots will play their first preseason game in nearly two years Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for in each Patriots position group in the team’s exhibition opener against the Washington Football Team:
How will the snaps be distributed between veteran incumbent Cam Newton and rookie challenger Mac Jones (and third-stringer Brian Hoyer)? Jones has seen a larger workload than Newton in several recent practices and has looked like the sharper passer at times. But Newton has taken first reps in nearly every drill since the start of spring practice, and head coach Bill Belichick has said he’s the starter for the time being, so he’ll likely be first in line again Thursday night. It’ll be interesting to see how much work Jones gets with New England’s top offense and against Washington’s starting defense.
Younger backs typically carry the load in the preseason, so expect to see a lot of Rhamondre Stevenson and J.J. Taylor against Washington. Given the Patriots’ tradition of redshirting rookie rushers, Stevenson’s only chance for extended playing time might come in these exhibition games. Taylor, a favorite of position coach Ivan Fears, has the type of versatility New England’s backfield is lacking with Rex Burkhead gone, but he’s worked mostly with the scout team this summer and will need to prove he deserves a roster spot.
2020 practice squadder Kristian Wilkerson is a preseason breakout candidate. He’s flashed in camp and has seen significant reps with the starting offense (while also working closely with Matthew Slater as a punt gunner). To stick on the roster, though, Wilkerson might need to beat out 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who’s enjoying his best NFL summer to date after an offseason trade request. They’ll both be players to watch. Also of note: Nelson Agholor has been absent or limited in each of the last three practices, so it’s unclear whether he’ll be active Thursday. Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne both have looked good in camp and should see plenty of early action against the WFT.
This will be our first glimpse of Jonnu Smith in a Patriots uniform. The $50 million newcomer has looked as advertised in camp, impressing both as a pass-catcher and in the run game. The Pats will need to wait a bit longer for his running mate’s debut, as Hunter Henry will miss at least part of the preseason with a shoulder injury. Hunter’s absence will free up additional snaps for Devin Asiasi and Matt LaCosse, assuming Asiasi is fit enough to play five days after being removed from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
The Patriots’ starting O-line has the potential to be one of the best in football. It’ll be tested right away against a formidable Washington front four led by reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young. Young primarily rushed from the defensive right side last season, so he’ll likely see more of Isaiah Wynn than Trent Brown. It remains to be seen whether the Patriots will have their full starting five for this one, as David Andrews has missed time first with a hand injury and then for the birth of his first child. If Andrews sits, expect Ted Karras to start at center, with James Ferentz and perhaps Marcus Martin seeing time there, as well. Ferentz, Martin, Korey Cunningham and Will Sherman are among the various O-linemen competing for what might be just one final roster spot.
The Patriots tore this group down and rebuilt it over the offseason, signing Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Montravius Adams in free agency and using a second-round draft pick on Christian Barmore. Godchaux and Barmore have been especially disruptive this summer, but the latter is dealing with a nagging foot injury and might not play Thursday. Keep an eye out for Carl Davis (No. 98), a quiet 2020 contributor who’s enjoyed a strong camp thus far.
Speaking of overhauled position groups, the Patriots suddenly are overflowing with versatile linebackers and potent pass rushers. We’re eager to see how Matt Judon — New England’s priciest free agent addition — fits in, how Dont’a Hightower looks as he returns from his 2020 opt-out and whether Josh Uche is as impressive in a game setting as he has been in spring practice and training camp. There’s a lot to like about this new-look unit.
The intrigue here is at outside corner, as Stephon Gilmore has yet to take the field this summer and none of his understudies (Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams and Michael Jackson) have truly impressed thus far. Expect Mills to start Thursday night opposite J.C. Jackson — who’s enjoyed a very strong camp — though ex-Philadelphia Eagle is best-suited for a role as a multipositional chess piece. Williams and Michael Jackson likely are fighting for one roster spot. The latter has made more plays in camp, though he’s also allowed his fair share of touchdowns, too.
Adrian Phillips has been the MVP of Patriots training camp thus far, applying lockdown coverage on Smith and Henry. And hopes are high for Kyle Dugger, who came on strong in the second half of his rookie season. Both are safety/linebacker hybrids who will play multiple roles in New England’s defense this season.
Undrafted rookie kicker Quinn Nordin was flawless during the Patriots’ two in-stadium walkthroughs, going a perfect 14-for-14 on field-goal attempts. Can the cannon-legged Michigan product replicate that success in a live game situation? Nordin has been New England’s only available kicker of late with Nick Folk sitting out the last five practices.