With Mac Jones and many other Patriots starters reportedly sitting out, Thursday night’s preseason opener against the New York Giants will be a prime opportunity for New England’s young players and roster hopefuls to impress evaluators.
Here are six such players we’ll be watching as the Patriots kick off their exhibition slate at Gillette Stadium:
CB Marcus Jones
When the Patriots split their roster for last Friday’s game simulation, just two rookies were on the starters team: first-rounder Cole Strange, who’s been locked into the starting left guard spot since the spring, and Jones, who’s beginning to emerge as one of New England’s top options in the slot. The diminutive defensive back has shown his athleticism and stickiness in coverage in practice, playing bigger than his 5-foot-8, 175-pound frame. He could face a good test against fellow rookie Wan’Dale Robinson, a wide receiver who reportedly is impressing in Giants camp. Jones also is a leading candidate to return punts this season after tying an NCAA record with nine return touchdowns in college.
WR Tyquan Thornton
Another 2022 draftee, Thornton has split his time between the first- and second-team offense this summer, seeing substantial reps with Mac Jones and impressing teammates with his underrated quickness. The slender speedster hasn’t been able to consistently separate in full-team drills, but his success beating press coverage in 1-on-1s has been encouraging. We’ll be looking to see if Thornton can make plays in run-after-catch situations Thursday night, as this will be his first time facing fully live tackling at the NFL level.
RB Pierre Strong
An undisclosed injury kept Strong out of competitive drills for the first week of camp, but he’s back to full-go and may already have surpassed J.J. Taylor on the depth chart. Though he’s unusually slim for a running back, the fourth-round rookie boasts excellent speed and should have the passing-game skills to contribute in a third-down role. That spot currently is a question mark for New England with James White still on the physically unable to perform list. The last time Strong appeared in a game — the pre-draft East-West Shrine Bowl — he took a screen pass 65 yards for a touchdown.
OT Yodny Cajuste
All offseason, Justin Herron has been viewed as the Patriots’ clear No. 3 tackle behind starters Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn. That may no longer be the case. Herron struggled mightily Monday in relief of an injured Wynn at right tackle, prompting the Patriots to bump him back down to the second team for Tuesday’s practice and insert Cajuste. Cajuste has played offensive snaps in just three regular-season games since being drafted in the third round in 2019, but he fared much better than Herron in that spot, portending a potential shakeup of New England’s O-line depth chart. We’ll see how the West Virginia product handles himself against a Giants front that features fifth overall draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux.
LB Anfernee Jennings
Few Patriots players have improved their roster standing more this summer than Jennings has. A relative afterthought after a mediocre rookie season and a 2021 campaign lost to injury, the 2020 third-rounder has logged prominent reps on defense and special teams in camp, subbing in on the first-team defense during Pro Bowl edge rusher Matthew Judon’s two-day absence from practice. With Judon unlikely to play Thursday night, expect a large workload for Jennings, who’s made a strong case for a roster spot thus far.
CB Malcolm Butler
This will be Butler’s first game back in a Patriots uniform since that infamous night in Minneapolis, which is reason enough to watch him. The 32-year-old also is fighting for a roster spot in New England’s wide-open cornerback competition, as fellow veterans Jalen Mills and Terrance Mitchell have outperformed him in camp and Jack Jones offers upside as a fourth-round rookie. The Patriots also have begun deploying longtime slot corner Jonathan Jones outside, which could further threaten Butler’s standing. He needs a strong preseason to solidify his spot.
Others to watch: DL LaBryan Ray, QB Bailey Zappe, WR Tre Nixon, S Joshuah Bledsoe, ST Brenden Schooler
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