For the New England Patriots, another preseason finale means another meeting with the New York Giants.
The Thursday night exhibition at Gillette Stadium will mark the 13th consecutive year New England and New York close out the summer against one another. But with no 75-man roster deadline arriving beforehand, this kickoff will be a little different than the last.
Just take a look at those who started that Sept. 1, 2016 encounter for the Patriots. Tom Brady, who wouldn’t be suiting up again for over a month, was one of them. And the rest of the offense and defense resembled something close to what the quarterback would see upon his return.
STARTERS IN 2016 PRESEASON FINALE
Quarterback: Tom Brady
Running back: James White
Tight end: Martellus Bennett
Wideouts: Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson
Offensive line: Nate Solder, Josh Kline, David Andrews, Joe Thuney, Marcus Cannon
Defensive line: Chris Long, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers
Linebackers: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny
Cornerbacks: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan
Safeties: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung
Only two starters from last year’s finale against the Giants did not go on to play a regular-season down for New England. Dobson, a 2013 second-round pick, was waived as the roster went from 75 to 53 on the afternoon of Sept. 3. And Kline, after a trade to the Philadelphia Eagles yielded a failed physical, was ultimately waived and claimed by the Tennessee Titans.
Don’t expect the list of starters-turned-cuts to be as short this year. Don’t expect seven of the 10-highest snap counts on both sides of the ball to be there for the opener, either.
The Patriots won’t be mandated to part ways with 15 players just two days prior.
“In the past, when you made that cut to 75, some of those 15 players could have had an opportunity to play in the game,” head coach Bill Belichick said last week on WEEI’s Dale & Holley with Rich Keefe, “just because after five weeks of training camp, you’ve got guys that are banged up and you’ve got guys that you still want to watch play. So, having a few extra players, to give them that opportunity actually, I think, works. Maybe you don’t need all of them, but sometimes you could certainly use a few more than 75. I know that seems like a lot, but everybody’s not playing the whole game.”
Now, there’s more leeway for the coaching staff, and also those running out of it.
“It’s not like a normal regular-season game,” Belichick added. “Once you take the first group out, you take out, call it 40 guys, now you’re down to trying to play the game with, let’s call it 30 once you get rid of the specialists and the quarterbacks. That’s not really all that many guys to play all the kicking-game plays and offense, defense. You end up limited in your system quite a bit. Maybe you only use nickel defense, not dime. Maybe you only use two-receiver sets if you don’t have depth at receiver. You only use one tight end if you don’t have depth at tight end or whatever it is. I think it kind of compresses that last preseason game.”
The last preseason game still is what is always has been: A last call for back-of-roster and bubble players to put something on film for their current team or prospective ones. But this year, with nearly 1,200 of whom set to hit the transaction wire at 4 p.m. ET on Sept. 2, how will that last call be handled?
New England subbed 39 players onto the field during the last Giants finale, and 17 of whom were part of the moves that got the roster to the 53-man limit two days later.
Fullback Joey Iosefa, tight end Bryce Williams, wide receiver DeAndre Carter, guard Jon Halapio, linebacker Kevin Snyder, and defensive tackles Joe Vellano and vested veteran Markus Kuhn subsequently became free agents. Running back Tyler Gaffney and wideout Keshawn Martin, meanwhile, hit injured reserve and later reached settlements.
But another wideout, Devin Lucien, as well as interior lineman Chris Barker, defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton, edge-rushers Rufus Johnson and Geneo Grissom, and safety Vinnie Sunseri went unclaimed and joined New England’s initial 10-man practice squad.
The Patriots were unable to keep a few others in Foxborough under the same capacity.
2015 seventh-round pick Darryl Roberts was claimed by the New York Jets after leading the defense with 84 percent of the snaps in the finale. And then-rookie sixth-rounder Kamu Grugier-Hill was scooped by the Eagles after being on the field for 91 percent of the special-teams plays against the Giants.
There was no “hiding” for either. There was no room to.
In what was a 17-9 loss at Metlife Stadium, only 14 Patriots failed to check in. And whether it was due to injury, precaution, or simply coaches’ decisions, most were virtual certainties to stick around after it.
But second-year target Chris Harper and undrafted corner Cre’Von LeBlanc were not, and neither remained in the Patriots’ fold as the regular season got underway.
Harper cleared waivers before signing with the San Francisco 49ers. LeBlanc, on the other hand, had put enough out there for the Chicago Bears to claim him outright.
Which should make this year’s pastime with the Giants all the more interesting. Who’s evaluation is ongoing? Whose last downs have already been logged? Who else is watching?
This much is known: There will be more players on the field who need to be.
“I think having more people available will allow teams to play it more like they play the first three [preseason games]. So, we’ll see how it goes,” said Belichick. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. It gives those players another week to make an impression.”