Tonight, the New England Patriots will host the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium for what will be the team’s third game of this preseason. The importance of exhibition contest number three is of course well known: it is widely dubbed the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the regular season, because a team’s starters will see considerable playing time while the pre-game process closely resembles that of a normal week during the year.
This also means that we will get our best impression to date of the 2019 Patriots and how the team’s roster and position battles stand nine days away from cutdown day. With that in mind, let’s take a look at six things to keep a close eye on during today’s game.
Tom Brady’s performance
The last time we saw Tom Brady in action, he carved up the Tennessee Titans’ defense pretty good during joint practices. Practice, of course, is not the same as an actual game so tonight — even though it will be an exhibition setting — we will get a better look of the 42-year-old. How big will this look be? Based on the last two preseasons, we should expect Brady to be on the field at least for the first two quarters:
2017 vs Detroit Lions: 6 drives, 37 snaps, last play with 4:10 left in the second quarter
2018 vs Carolina Panthers: 3 drives, 30 snaps, last play with 2:00 left in the second quarter
Of course, both years Brady had already played preseason snaps up to that point. 2019 is therefore different as he has not seen the field since Super Bowl 53. The future Hall of Famer should therefore be expected to be used quite a bit today — just like the rest of the starting offense surrounding him. His playing time will of course be only one thing to keep track of; his performance per se will also be interesting to watch.
So far this summer, there have been no signs of Brady slowing down despite oftentimes playing with a pass-catching group primarily made out of young players and/or depth pieces. While it remains to be seen how many snaps if any Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry or Demaryius Thomas will receive, the quarterback should be expected to look good when throwing to the likes of Jakobi Meyers and company. He did all summer, so why should today be any different?
How does the offensive line’s chemistry look?
Isaiah Wynn returned to the field last week for his first in-game action in a year, and he looked as advertised: his movements were fluid, his technique was on-point, and he did not make many errors as a pass-protector and run-blocker. In short: he looked like a first-round pick should look like in year two, even one coming off a major Achilles injury. Now, Wynn will get another look to show that his encouraging performances in practice and against the Titans were no fluke.
This will also give us a chance to watch New England’s starting offensive line in action for the first time this year (outside of practice, of course). While four of the five spots are filled with veterans who have plenty of experience working alongside each other — Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon — Wynn is the new kid on the block. It will therefore be interesting to see how the unit’s chemistry looks like, and whether or not Thuney in particular will be used like he normally is.
The position battles
While the Patriots will not be at full strength against Carolina — Josh Gordon is still on the non-football injury list (NFI), while previously injured players are no locks to see the field — the overall idea of how the team will look like will be on display: players with serious chances of making the team will play alongside Tom Brady and the other veterans who were previously held out of preseason.
Tonight should therefore give us another glimpse at how the position battles at the most intriguing positions are developing:
Tight end, X-wide receiver, Swing offensive tackle, Defensive edge, Slot cornerback, Rotational defensive tackle, Slot wide receiver, Depth linebacker, Kickoff returner
For more on where those competitions are standing heading into the Patriots’ third preseason game, please visit our article from earlier this week. One of the ten positions listed, however, has of course already found its winner:
Jake Bailey and the kicking operation
With the release of Ryan Allen, we now know that the Patriots will move forward with rookie Jake Bailey as their punter. This means that he will see all snaps at the position and at holder tonight. His performance as part of the kicking operation certainly needs to be kept a close eye on, especially as it relates to his potential third role: doing kickoffs. Will New England use him there as well, or rather have Stephen Gostkowski perform the duties to have Bailey focus on his ‘normal’ responsibilities?
Will the starting defense be able to build on its training camp success?
New England’s defense looked outstanding so far in training camp, with the starters regularly getting the best of the offense. Tonight, the unit can take another step towards cementing its status as one of the most talented in the NFL heading towards the regular season: while the scheme will be comparatively vanilla, the unit’s depth and overall level of talent will be on display against a talented Panthers offense.
Four points in particular will be worth keeping an eye on when it comes to the Patriots’ defense:
- How will the defensive line rotation look like at both tackle and end?
- Will New England again use more 3-4 looks?
- Which linebackers will be used in which capacity?
- Can the secondary continue its hot streak of shutting down opposing passing attacks?
So far this summer, all of these points were hinted at during practice but now we will finally see them in live-action.
How will the youngsters be incorporated?
During the first two weeks of the preseason, the Patriots’ first or second year players saw considerable action (with few exceptions). With the veterans entering the equation today, the youngsters’ usage could tell a lot about which players are on their way to earning roster spots, or which have climbed up the depth chart recently. Two men to keep an eye on are training camp standouts Jakobi Meyers and Chase Winovich.
While Meyers is fighting for a spot on the team as an undrafted rookie — his chances appear to be very good at the moment — Winovich improved steadily during camp and may have earned some time in the starting lineup. Of course, other youngsters such as quarterback Jarrett Stidham, cornerback Joejuan Williams and defensive tackle Byron Cowart also will be incorporated into the mix. The question is how big all of their roles will ultimately be.