In what has traditionally been called a dress rehearsal for the regular season, the New England Patriots will square off against the Carolina Panthers.
Tonight, the New England Patriots take the field at Gillette Stadium for their first competitive game against another team this season. Even if it’s still just the preseason and “the games don’t count,” there is still much to be decided between now and September 8 for the defending world champions.
The third week of the preseason is oftentimes the week given the most weight and importance by coaches around the NFL. While the first two weeks are more about evaluating depth options and practice squad candidates, and the fourth week is essentially the last-chance opportunity for those same players to impress their coaches, the third week is usually when the presumptive starters get a bit of work in before September rolls around.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady reportedly wants to be out on the field taking part in that action with his teammates, per NBC Sports’ Nick Goss.
“I hope so,” Brady said in a radio appearance on WEEI’s “The Greg Hill Show” Tuesday morning. “I hope so. Again, we had practice yesterday and we have practice today, and then we will see what coach decides. I hope to be out there. We’ll see what happens.”
Goss also reports that at least two major players for the Carolina Panthers, starting quarterback Cam Newton and multi-purpose running back Christian McCaffrey, are expected to see some snaps as well. It’s unknown just how many other stars on the Panthers roster will play this evening, or how many series Carolina head coach Ron Rivera will allot to each of them.
For the Patriots, most of the roster seems to have settled in nicely over the past week in particular. Josh Gordon was reinstated by the league, though the talented wide receiver remains on the NFI list. Demaryius Thomas is also taking part in practices and drills with what looks like pretty full participation from what reporters have been able to glimpse; an encouraging sign considering Thomas went down with an Achilles tear just eight months ago.
Elsewhere around the suddenly jam-packed receivers room, New England has seen the healthy return of N’Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett, and Maurice Harris, all of whom previously missed practice time and the second preseason game against the Titans due to injuries. While Harry’s spot on the roster is ironclad thanks to being drafted in the first round last March, Harris and Dorsett both could use big games against the Panthers to prove just why they belong on the Pats’ final 53-man roster… especially now that Julian Edelman is back and healthy, too.
Of course, no preseason Patriots piece is complete without a mention of summer’s hottest sensation: undrafted wideout Jakobi Meyers. Meyers has done more than enough throughout training camp and in the Patriots’ first two victories over the Lions and Titans to earn himself a roster spot – he was the team’s leading receiver in both of those games, and has illustrated remarkable chemistry with all three of New England’s quarterbacks.
The connection Meyers shares with Brady, in particular, stands to be the most significant for the future. Still, it’s impressive that the former NC State athlete hasn’t missed a beat while catching passes from the Pats’ lesser two quarterbacks either. A third straight week of highlight catches and sticky hands should lock up Meyers’ spot for good come September.
Assuming he’s healthy enough to do so, it might make sense to give Thomas an extended opportunity to shake off some of the rust. His pedigree and years of experience should give him the inside track over other competitors at receiver to make the final roster, but nothing is guaranteed (especially not when it comes to Achilles injuries).
Speaking of injuries and recovery, if tight end Matt LaCosse is good to go tonight, he should also get as many snaps as New England head coach Bill Belichick is willing to risk. LaCosse, like Harry, exited the Patriots’ game against the Lions early; both players are expected to step in and make major contributions as first-year players in New England’s system.
It would obviously help Bostonians sleep a little easier at night if they knew what they had at tight end come the regular season… especially since old friend Benjamin Watson will open the year suspended for four games. If only there was some other tight end out there still in football shape who knew the playbook inside-and-out, and who still maintained a strong relationship with Brady…
Along the offensive line, Isaiah Wynn’s continued reintegration at left tackle bears close monitoring. Wynn held up well in extended series against the Titans last Saturday; if he builds on that performance tonight, the job of protecting Brady’s blindside probably officially becomes his (if it isn’t his already).
There isn’t much to figure out for the Patriots on special teams. The team parted ways with longtime punter Ryan Allen in favor of rookie Jake Bailey. Stephen Gostkowski isn’t going anywhere anytime soon… although it’d be nice for him to start making some of these field goal attempts, even if it’s only the preseason. The most interesting aspect on special teams that remains unclear is who will be fielding punts and kickoffs, but it’s not exactly a cause for concern, as the Patriots have multiple players who can do either and do them well.
Finally there’s the defense. Of all three phases of the game, here is where Belichick should play his first-string players the least amount of time. New England’s defensive starters are essentially locked in from front to back, with the secondary and linebacker positions looking especially ferocious, both on paper and on the field throughout camp.
The tough decisions defensively all come down to depth players fighting to remain on the game-day roster, albeit as second or third-string options. Duke Dawson and Derek Rivers (if he plays) are both names to keep an eye on, as both have had up-and-down careers (and camps), and yet both are relatively high recent draft picks for Belichick.
If you have to choose positions to pay extra special attention to tonight, we’d suggest tight end, receiver, cornerback, and defensive end. That’s where most of the intrigue remains when it comes to this 2019 Patriots roster.