Tonight, the wait is finally over: The New England Patriots will play their first game of the 2017 NFL season. In order to beat their opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending world champions need to be at the top of their game – after all, the Chiefs are once again projected to be among the AFC's top teams.
Let's therefore take a look at five key players to watch tonight.
WR Brandin Cooks
One of the biggest acquisitions in franchise history, Brandin Cooks will finally see his first “real” game action as a member of the Patriots tonight. If his training camp performances are any indication, the 23-year old might be in for a big game – not only because of Julian Edelman's absence: While the Chiefs have a playmaking defense, they might have some troubles going against Cooks' quickness especially after having placed primary slot cornerback Steven Nelson on injured reserve. Cooks has seen a lot of preseason snaps in the slot, so this could be a matchup for the team to exploit.
OT Nate Solder
The Patriots' starting left tackle has dealt with injuries throughout the summer and did not appear in any of the team's preseason games. Tonight, Nate Solder has to be ready to protect quarterback Tom Brady's blindside. It will not be an easy task, as the 29-year old will have to square off against talented edge rushers in Justin Houston and Dee Ford. If Solder shows any initial rust, New England's offensive rhythm could get impacted quite a bit.
DT Lawrence Guy
New England's defensive line has seen some turnover since Super Bowl LI. One of the unit's new faces, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, could play an important role along the Patriots' standard 5-man line tonight: After all, the 27-year old has shown some good push as an interior rusher over the summer and could be used to particularly attack the Chiefs' left guard spot – one that has had its own fair share of questions the last few months.
LB Dont'a Hightower
Just like Nate Solder, defensive captain Dont'a Hightower is also projected to make his debut tonight. There are two reasons to take a close look at the 27-year old, who will again serve as the Patriots' defensive on-field signal caller: 1) How will he look after sitting out the entire preseason and only coming off PUP two weeks ago? 2) Will he continue to see considerable snaps on the defensive edge like he has during practice? As one of New England's core defenders, Hightower's usage and performance is worth keeping a close eye on.
P Ryan Allen
Kansas City has one of the NFL's best punt returns: Tyreek Hill. The 23-year old, who also is one of the team's starting wide receivers, returned 39 punts last season for 592 yards and two scores, leading the league with a 15.2 yards per return. In short: The Patriots' coverage units need to be ready for one of the biggest challenges they will face all year long. Punter Ryan Allen will play a key role when it comes to defending Hill: If he is able to maximize hang time and place the footballs well, the defenders' job becomes much easier.