(Yes, I know there’s a bye week in there. Lighten up, will ya? It’s summertime!)
And while nobody takes these contests too seriously beyond hoping that nobody gets hurt, I’m still pretty excited for this game. First and foremost I would have wanted a series or two from the starters with everyone coming off the field healthy, but it looks like they are not going to play. We’ve all heard the reports about how badly the offense is struggling, so this will be a good chance to see how much extra panic we should bake into our daily lives as we continue to overanalyze no-contact practices, walkthroughs, and completely meaningless games.
But here are five specific elements of this game that have my attention.
It seems like the Patriots are more or less locked into a starting five of Trent Brown/Cole Strange/David Andrews/Michael Onwenu/Isaiah Wynn, but there are some interesting wrinkles to watch for. Wynn, if he plays after missing Tuesday’s practice, is starting at right tackle for the first time, with Onwenu next to him after playing most of his pro career thus far either at left guard or right tackle; Trent Brown finds himself back on the left side for the first time since his first stint with the Pats in 2018 (which, for the record, was his only season playing left tackle).
At left guard is rookie Cole Strange, seeing his first ever action as everyone immediately jumps to conclusions about the Patriots using a first-round draft pick on him. Center David Andrews remains consistent, but this is a fairly new-look offensive line that all needs to adjust to their new positions and develop that crucial chemistry quickly if New England is going to have any success this season.
Whoever out of the group will take the field for tonight’s game, it will be a good first glimpse into how that’s going.
While I’m not going to put too much weight into which linebackers start or what the various pairings will be, I am curious to see which combination of players the Patriots march out throughout the game. There are a lot of high-upside, athletic players with legitimate question marks in the linebacker group, and it will likely be a combination of finding the best man for the job and the players that best compliment each other.
Until Dont’a Hightower finally decides to re-sign with the team after deftly avoiding a hot, sticky training camp, this unit is still crying out for one guy to step up and take over the room. Maybe someone, or one particular combination, will stand out tonight.
Punt and kick returners
Most teams use the preseason as a chance to test out a few different players as return men in the kicking game. With Gunner Olszewski now gone (and I only just learned how to correctly spell his last name), there are some open spots in the return game that could either see a roster lock expand his role or allow for a depth guy to make the squad as a special teamer.
We’ll likely see a few different players out there tonight, and throughout the course of the preseason.
The rookie speedster has been a camp standout thus far, and everyone who has watched practice live can’t stop commenting on just how fast he is. As someone who has only seen brief clips of Thornton in camp on Twitter or the Patriots website, I’m looking forward to seeing him in action. I hope he gets at least one deep look tonight, and maybe the chance to return a kickoff or two.
I’m not overly confident that he’ll be an impact rookie this season, but he doesn’t necessarily need to be; if Thornton can emerge as a situational receiver with deep threat ability that can open up the playbook, he’ll be an asset in 2022. Maybe we’ll get a glimpse of that in this game.
Early candidates for preseason darling
Every year, there’s one: that player who is lighting it up in practice, starts emerging on the depth chart, and stands out in preseason games. We all get excited about him, think he’s a hidden gem that the Patriots were able to luck into... and then he completely vanishes during the regular season.
Who’s it going to be this year? Who will we all fool ourselves yet again into thinking is the breakout star of 2022? Who will we all have completely forgotten about by mid-October? Let’s hope we find an answer to that question this evening.