This game will wrap up a five day excursion for the Patriots, as they arrived to the city of brotherly love on Sunday in advance of a couple of joint practice sessions with the Eagles.
Those practice sessions brought plenty of storylines with them, many of which should have an impact on what we see Thursday night. Multiple injuries at the tight end position have left just one man fully healthy and available, a chirping session between a Patriots quarterback and Eagles defender has raised questions about the legitimacy of some practice statistics, and a couple of players made their return to Patriots training camp.
All of this should have a profound impact on not just what the Patriots will do, but a group of players who are looking to push themselves to another level. Here are those players:
QB Cam Newton
There were two main, Cam Newton based, storylines that came out of joint practices with the Eagles. First was the jawing that went on between he and Philadelphia DB K’Von Wallace, when Wallace referred to Newton as the “Checkdown King.” Second were the —inherently flawed — training camp stats, that showed Newton finishing Tuesday going 11/12 in 7-on-7 drills.
Many people correlated the two things, assuming that Newton’s strong performance could only be attributed to the fact that he wouldn’t take any risks. While that statement may have some truth to it, Mike Reiss of ESPN offered up some important context:
Five off-day thoughts on the Patriots’ break before Thursday’s preseason game against the Eagles. pic.twitter.com/5aQ1ubG9oR— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 18, 2021
Reiss said that the Eagles primarily played a zone based defense throughout the day. That means that led to shorter and safer throws from Newton. In fewer words, he played smart. Reiss would go on to add that “the idea that Newton should be dinged by anyone for throwing short so much Tuesday is generally off the mark. If anything, he was taking with a defense was giving him in the red zone, where things happen fast and decisions have to be made quickly.”
So why watch for Newton on Thursday? Because everything that we heard from Reiss suggests that there may be a corner turned in the short passing game. Taking what is given was not a part of the Cam Newton experience in 2020, perhaps tonight he can show that it will be in 2021.
LB Chase Winovich
Chase Winovich made his training camp debut on Sunday, returning from an unknown injury that kept him sidelined for the first 12 practices of camp. He was thrown right into the fire on Monday and Tuesday against Philly during joint practices, and will likely make his preseason debut Thursday night.
Why watch Winovich? Well, I'll let Bill Belichick tell you.
Bill Belichick on Chase Winovich, who is coming back from injury: "He needs to work in every area because he hasn't done much. We'll just try to catch him up the best we can. He'll work hard, and he'll do what he can and just take it day by day." pic.twitter.com/mPqF9x24G7— Henry McKenna (@McKennAnalysis) August 18, 2021
What better way to work on everything than during live game action?
Another reason to watch will be in finding out how the Patriots deploy Winovich. Will they play him on early downs? How much will he play on special teams? Will they look to work him into the interior line backer rotation? Preseason isn’t the perfect indicator of what the Patriots will look to do during the regular season, but it’s a start.
DT Christian Barmore
It’s been an on and off camp for Christian Barmore. A blister on his foot and an ankle injury have kept him from three practices and the Patriots first preseason game. He did however return on Sunday and now has three practices under his belt, setting up for his preseason debut on Thursday.
Why watch Barmore on Thursday? Trying to sniff out the rookie’s role.
Last week we saw Akeem Spence get the start alongside presumed starters Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux, while Barmore watched from the sideline with his uniform on. Barmore went through warmups but didn’t play, suggesting he was a true game time decision.
This week I'd like to see who Barmore sees the field with, and how well he performs in short yardage situations. It’s clear when you watch him that he can rush the passer, but can he hold his own against and NFL rushing attack? That should be a good indicator on whether or not he’s ready for a full-time role on the Patriots defense.
TE Devin Asiasi
The Patriots luck at tight end has been atrocious since Rob Gronkowski departed New England in March of 2019. The 2019 group combined for 37 total receptions, the 2020 group combined for 18 total receptions. Understandably they loaded up at the position in preparation for this season and now everyone but Devin Asiasi is hurt. Tough luck for the group.
Of course, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, and Matt Lacosse will all be back eventually, but for now the Patriots are left with Asiasi to go at it alone. Why watch for Asiasi on Thursday? Well, I just told you. He’ll be the only tight end on the field for New England so it will be hard NOT to see him.
For the first time in his pro career, Devin Asiasi will be the number one tight end. Meaning he will have every opportunity in the world to show that he should have a role on this team. It’s a big day for the former third round pick.
WR N’Keal Harry
Forever a polarizing player, N’Keal Harry is now coming up on his final chance to prove that he is worthy of a spot on the Patriots roster and the Patriots are coming up on their final chance to find a spot for a player that they’ve invested so much into.
Why watch for Harry on Thursday? There is a great opportunity ahead of him.
The 6’4”, 220lb wide receiver is all of a sudden the Patriots biggest and strongest target regardless of position. He showed out in the red zone against the Eagles during joint practices and will likely see the majority of offensive snaps on game day like he did last week.
Preseason is the perfect time to try something new. Which is exactly what force feeding the ball to your big, strong receiver would be for the Patriots. If there isn’t a notable performance from Harry on Thursday then it’s likely there never will be. Patriots at Eagles in week two of the preseason is all of a sudden the biggest game of N’Keal Harry’s career.