With the preseason game against the Lions coming up later tonight, the Patriots will get their first NFL game-like action for the 2019 season. Quarterback Tom Brady and many other major players on the starting offense and defense will be sitting out for this game, which means mostly rookies and bubble players in this game per standard operating procedure. That will give those players looking for opportunities some tape for the Patriots and the other 31 teams to evaluate.
The following eight players on the bubble stand to gain or lose a lot depending on their performance in this game:
Offensive Tackle Dan Skipper
Skipper has been rotating with the first unit in camp as the team brings last year’s first round pick Isaiah Wynn up to speed after missing a year due to an Achilles injury. He probably would have been matched up with edge rusher Trey Flowers for the first pair of series, but the former Patriot is still on the Lions’ PUP list and unlikely to come off ahead of today’s game. No matter the opponent, though, a quality outing could go a long way towards Skipper making the roster as the early starter at the position and later a swing tackle once Wynn is completely up to speed. — Michael McDermott
With Isaiah Wynn still working his way back from his Achilles injury, and rookie swing tackle Yodny Cajuste having yet to suit up due to recovery from quad surgery, Skipper has slotted in as the team’s first-team left tackle. Skipper is a 6’9”, 325-lb. tackle from the University of Arkansas, going into his third year in the NFL. He did not play a single snap in the NFL last season, spending time on the Detroit Lions’ and Denver Broncos’ practice squads. As a rookie in 2017, Skipper played in one regular season game for the Lions. In the 2017 preseason, Skipper rotated between left guard and left tackle. — Aidan Curran
Wide Receiver Maurice Harris
Harris has had a pretty strong camp so far, so he’ll need to take that momentum into the first preseason game. Rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers have flashed promise in camp, which puts some pressure on Harris to claim a receiver spot. He should get plenty of opportunities with the first/second string unit alongside Meyers to see how they hold up. Harris has seen time in both the slot and on the boundary, so having the versatility to do both roles should help in rounding out the depth chart in case a) Josh Gordon is not available, or b) Harry and Meyers are slow to learn the playbook or being situational-only players. — Michael McDermott
Slot Cornerback Duke Dawson Jr.
The depth at the cornerback position has pushed Dawson to the bubble, with five players ahead of him likely making the roster and plenty of competition in case there is a sixth spot open. The former second-round draft pick will have to outplay rookies Joejuan Williams and D’Angelo Ross tonight and through the rest of preseason to justify having a roster spot as a slot only corner and possibly depth safety. — Michael McDermott
Slot Receiver/Punt Returner Braxton Berrios
Berrios, the second-year wideout out of the University of Miami, started slow out of the gates in training camp, not connecting with Tom Brady on a pass until the second week of camp. With Julian Edelman still recovering from thumb surgery, and the Patriots’ wide receiver corps in flux, Berrios won’t have a better opportunity on this team than the present to show he can be the future at the slot receiver position for the Patriots after Edelman eventually retires.
By most accounts, though, Berrios has come on strong of late, and has looked good out at joint practices with the Lions, perhaps because he isn’t matching up with the lockdown New England secondary. A strong Week 1 preseason performance for the 5’9”, 190-lb. pass-catcher would perhaps give him a lift up the receiver depth chart. With Demaryius Thomas and newly-signed veteran Cameron Meredith still on PUP, and Josh Gordon still suspended, the Patriots need bodies at the receiver position. The door is still open for Berrios, and carrying over his good performance in practice this week into the game on Thursday would help his odds at making this roster. — Aidan Curran
Given the performances of other receivers in camp, Berrios is going to have to make the team on a special teams basis and as a rotational receiver in the slot. Berrios’ quick-twitch athleticism and quick acceleration in theory play well on punt returns on paper, an area he excelled at in college, so that will be his path to the roster. His ability to get up to speed quickly and his quality route running would also make him a solid matchup in the slot against a team that doesn’t have a great slot corner, although he’ll be splitting that role with Meyers, Harry, and other receivers who can use size as a match-up buster. — Michael McDermott
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham
Stidham appears to have hit his groove in the last week or so, even taking reps with the second-stringers at times, in place of Brian Hoyer. There’s still a long way to go for the rookie signal-caller out of Auburn, who has gotten in trouble in training camp with holding onto the ball for too long, but he is clearly picking up the offense at a decent pace, and the arm talent is evident. According to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, Stidham went 13 of 16 in team drills in yesterday’s practice, including going 8 of 9 with the backups in the final 7-on-7 period.
With Brady likely to sit out the entire game tomorrow night, as he sat out Wednesday’s walkthrough practice, Stidham will get plenty of run out there, to show the coaching staff what he’s got. A good night from Stidham would stoke the embers of the conversation about Stidham supplanting Hoyer as the backup to Brady. Stidham isn’t deserving of that position yet, but if he can string together some nice preseason performances, it’s a conversation the coaching staff should at least have, at the very least. New England could potentially save a roster spot by keeping two quarterbacks instead of three. And looking past this season, a strong preseason showing from Stidham would give him pole position at being the first player given the chance to be Tom Brady’s successor, when the time comes. There’s a lot on the line with Stidham, both for team and player. — Aidan Curran
Quarterback/Wide Receiver Danny Etling
Etling faces an uphill battle of making the roster, after converting to wide receiver from the quarterback position. If Etling has any shot of making the team, it will likely be on special teams, where he has been taking reps in practice as a punt protector. On offense, it will be curious to see how much of an opportunity the team gives him to show what he can do as a wide receiver, with so many unproven receivers already on the roster as is. Do the Patriots try Etling out in a Taysom Hill-like role on offense at all? I doubt it, but Bill Belichick does love his versatile players... — Aidan Curran
Punter Ryan Allen
The Patriots drafted Jake Bailey in the fifth round to create competition and the rookie has out-performed the six-year veteran in camp so far. Bailey also had the added bonus of kickoff specialist, so Allen will have to greatly outperform the rookie in the punting battle to stick. — Michael McDermott
Punter Jake Bailey
Adding a little extra spice to this year’s training camp is the punting battle between the incumbent Ryan Allen, and fifth-round draft pick Jake Bailey, from Stanford. Allen and Bailey have been splitting reps fairly evenly in training camp so far, and Bailey has also been handing kickoff duty at times during practice. Bailey has a cannon of leg, there is no denying that; and he is currently winning the average hang-time battle on punts, per Boston Sports Journal’s Greg Bedard, with a camp average of 4.59 seconds, compared to Allen’s 4.17. Bailey’s issue early on has been consistency, as he has shanked a couple of punts in practice. But he looks to be ironing out those kinks, as Bedard’s camp report from Tuesday mentioned Bailey executing not one, but two coffin corner punts in practice against the Lions.
Bailey will be given every opportunity to beat out Allen this summer. You don’t draft a punter in the fifth round unless you’re serious about having them make your regular season roster. Bailey is cheaper, younger, has a bigger leg, and could also spell Stephen Gostkowski on kickoff duty too, as Gostkowski gets up there in age.
It will be interesting to monitor how the coaching staff handles Bailey in preseason games. Last year, the team didn’t have then-rookie punter Corey Bojorquez punt in a preseason game, in an attempt to hide him from the eyes of opposing teams who could pick him off waivers if the Patriots tried to sneak him through to the practice squad. The maneuver was ultimately unsuccessful, as the Buffalo Bills picked him up off waivers when the Patriots cut him at the end of training camp. Will New England treat Bailey similarly, to try and limit his exposure to the rest of the league? The guess here is no, after last season’s unsuccessful attempt with Bojorquez. If another NFL team would pick up an undrafted punter off waivers, surely a fifth-round rookie punter would get picked up as well. — Aidan Curran