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Patriots vs. Lions: What to Watch For

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Four things to watch for in tonight’s preseason matchup between the Patriots and Lions.

NFL: New England Patriots at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

With the Patriots set to play their first preseason game of the year against the Detroit Lions, we shouldn’t expect to see much from the starters. Tom Brady rarely plays more than a series or two, if at all, during Week 1 of the preseason, and based on yesterday’s practice it doesn’t look like Brady or many of the projected starters are going to be taking the field tonight.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any takeaways from this game, though; far from it. Every aspect of the NFL season has value, and the first actual “game” of the year is no different. Michael and Aidan did a great job breaking down some individual players to keep an eye on tonight, and so I thought I’d pull the camera back a bit and highlight some of the more big picture elements that are worth paying attention to. Here are four things in particular to watch for as the Patriots continue to solidify their roster.

Secondary rotation. The Patriots are incredibly deep in the secondary; there are currently 16 players on the roster listed as a CB/DB. Stephon Gilmore is a lock, as are the McCourty brothers. Duron Harmon is a solid, and Nate Ebner is a core special teamer. Joejuan Williams is a lock due to his draft status...but after that? No guarantees. Players like Keion Crossen and JC Jackson will be looking to build off of solid 2018 campaigns, whereas players like Duke Dawson will be looking to showcase why they’re worthy of a spot. We won’t be able to glean much as to who will be starting come September, but the secondary is extremely crowded right now and the coaching staff is likely to be swapping guys in and out of the lineup constantly as they evaluate talent. Whoever is able to shine in very limited reps will give himself the inside track on staying on the final 53.

Left tackle. Whether or not Isaiah Wynn starts tonight, I’m going to be paying very close attention to the left tackle position tonight and throughout the preseason. Nate Solder was a solid LT, and Trend Brown was a monster in his limited time here - but the most important position on the enitre offensive line is now a question mark, both in regards to starter and depth at the position. Joe Thuney has seen time at tackle this training camp, as has Dan Skipper, and there have been rumors swirling regarding the Patriots trading for Trent Williams, so there is obviously some uncertainty at the position right now. The offensive line is the one unit that you can get a decent sense of during the preseason, and while all signs point to Wynn getting the nod. Belichick has never hesitated to bump a camp standout over a highly touted draft pick.

Punter. Jake Bailey is apparently the real deal, with a hangtime of upwards of five seconds and the ability to coffin corner his kicks. He’s a righty, which is a big shift from how Belichick usually selects his punters, but if the reports of his training camp are accurate, Bailey could usurp Ryan Allen for good with a strong showing in a game scenario. As we saw in the Super Bowl, field position wins the day, and while you never like seeing your punter out there, it’s a crucial role for any team. Jake Bailey is also apparently a kickoff specialist, which means that Ghost no longer has to worry about placing the ball high and inside the five yard line on his kickoffs. If you remember, the new touchback rule forced Ghost to alter his kicking style, and it ended up having a negative affect on his field goal attempts. I’ll be curious to see if Bailey is able to put together both a solid day punting and kicking off.

Tight end versatility. Gronk is gone, and perhaps the most unheralded aspect of his game that the Patriots are going to miss was his ability as a blocker. Not only was Gronk a receiving threat and matchup nightmare, but he was hands down the best blocking tight end in the league, and the ability to move him all over the line depending on what the defense was showing was an incredible weapon for this offense. Without that, New Englnd may be forced to show its cards a little more regarding where they have the tight end lining up. Lance Kendricks is still nursing an injury and Ben Watson is both old and suspended for the first four games of the season, so it’s likely to be Matt LaCosse and Stephen Anderson getting reps tonight, with 2nd year man Ryan Izzo contributing late. Will they line up mostly at the line? Out wide? Any versatility there whatsoever? Now is for sure the time to experiment with it, so I’ll be looking for what the Patriots are hoping to get out of the position in 2019.