After two weeks of lining up against each other, the New England Patriots will finally match up against a different opponent as the New York Giants visit Gillette Stadium Thursday night in the preseason opener.
The first preseason game marks the beginning of a busy week for the Patriots, highlighted by another matchup with the Panthers after a pair of joint practices with Carolina next week. This week will be the first real test for the Patriots of the summer, perhaps getting a clearer look at the new-look offensive scheme that has had their documented struggles so far.
Lost in the shuffle is also the first roster cut deadline, where the team must cut down to 85 players by August 16. With just one practice currently scheduled before that cutdown, Thursday’s preseason opener will be a key showing for many players on the outside looking in.
Here are players from each position with something to prove heading into Thursday night.
Quarterback: Bailey Zappe
Mac Jones is not expected to see the field Thursday night. That will mean lots of work for rookie fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe. Zappe has been busy this summer, as Brian Hoyer missed a period of time with an illness, and has gotten better as time went on.
His arm is clearly lively as he fired the ball all over the place early in camp. Since, the rookie has appeared to settle down and has been able to get the ball out quicker and more accurately of late. It will be intriguing to see how he fares against a real, live NFL defense for the first time.
Running back: Pierre Strong Jr.
It was a slow start to camp for the rookie runner as he worked his way back from an injury. If Strong Jr. is full-go and not seen by the coaching staff as too far behind, he’ll see his fair share of work against the Giants. The fourth-round pick has the speed (4.37 40-yard dash) to bring promise in the Patriots’ new outside-zone rushing attack.
Seeing more work in the red area during Tuesday’s practice, Strong showcased his pass-protection skills in one instance as well. With James White likely set to miss regular season time as he remains on the PUP, the emergence of Strong would help New England’s offense in several areas.
Fellow rookie running back Kevin Harris also gets an honorable mention. Harris, who is built like a Mack truck, will finally get to showcase his skillset and power in game situations.
Wide receiver: Tyquan Thornton, Tre Nixon
There has been a lot to like from Tyquan Thornton throughout 11 training camp practices. The second-round speedster has consistently showcased skills beyond being a straight speed threat, including his release package and ability to track the football. He’s also made life difficult for opposing Patriot cornerbacks in 1-on-1s, including beating both Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell on Monday.
Like Thornton, Tre Nixon came into the league last year known as a vertical burner. However, he’s impressed in other areas throughout camp. While he hasn't been the star of the summer like he was in the spring, he’s had a solid camp and has made a living underneath the defense out of the slot — a favorite target for both Brian Hoyer and Zappe
It will be interesting to watch Nixon work in game action, especially with the ball in his hands. Also, as Nixon is firmly on the roster bubble, he’s become a regular in the kicking game at practice both as a returner and coverage guy.
Tight end: Devin Asiasi
The hope is Asiasi will be healthy enough to play after leaving Monday’s practice and being limited on Tuesday. The former third-round draft pick got off to a strong start in camp, earning praise from Bill Belichick himself. Yet, as his (and Dalton Keene’s) career has gone, availability continues to be an issue.
Offensive line: Justin Herron, Yodny Cajuste, Arlington Hambright
Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste have been the top two backup options behind Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn at offensive tackle this summer. With Wynn limited this week with an injury, it was Herron who got first crack at right tackle. He was in the midst of a solid camp, but struggled mightily in place of Wynn. It was bad enough for New England to make a switch on Tuesday, replacing him with Cajuste.
Cajuste, a third-round draft pick three years ago, held his own as the Patriots had their most success on the ground all summer. We’ll see if that was a coincidence or not, but the backup tackle positions are mighty important for New England given the injury histories of both Brown and Wynn.
Arlington Hambright, meanwhile, gained some early camp traction mixing in for Michael Onwenu with the starting offensive line. The athletic lineman could be a strong fit for New England’s new zone-run scheme. He’s since retreated mainly to the second unit, appearing at both guard positions, but his skillset is intriguing to watch.
Defensive line: LaBryan Ray
Ray is likely the leader in the UDFA clubhouse at this point of camp. The Alabama product has been in a play-a-day territory, showing up in one-on-ones — highlighted by a victory over Trent Brown last week — as well as competitive team drills. The former five-star recruit out of high school could become a rotational pass rusher from the interior.
Edge: Anfernee Jennings
A slew of injuries over his first two seasons resulted in Jennings being a forgotten name in a new-look Patriot linebacker room. But at this point in the preseason, he’s been heavily involved with the starting unit, even replacing Pro Bowler Matthew Judon when the veteran missed some time earlier in camp. Jennings has been used along the edge and on the inside, making plays in both the run and pass game.
Linebacker: Mack Wilson Sr.
The Patriots have certainly gotten faster at the linebacker position, largely because of Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson Sr. McMillan has been first up next to Ja’Whaun Bentley all training camp, which means we may see more of Wilson on Thursday night.
Wilson has been impressive in pass coverage while also showing up as a blitzer from time to time. The additions of both players have allowed Bentley to be used closer to the line of scrimmage, achieving New England’s offseason goal of becoming faster at the second level.
Cornerback: Everyone minus Jalen Mills
Besides watching New England’s offense in a live situation, the cornerback competition will be a focus. Throughout training camp, the cornerbacks continued to be mixed-and-matched. Terrance Mitchell was a staple on the opposite boundary of Jalen Mills early on, but the past two practices have seen Jonathan Jones on the outside with Marcus Jones manning the slot duties.
Beyond that group, veterans Malcolm Butler and Joejuan Williams are battling with rookie Jack Jones as potential depth options on the outside. Shaun Wade has also thrown his name in the mix appearing mostly in the slot this summer. New England will continue to experiment at the position throughout the preseason, finding their best bunch and building depth along the way.
Safety: Joshuah Bledsoe
The early star of camp, Bledsoe has done his best to earn an early nomination for a 53-man roster spot. Despite a crowded safety room, Bledsoe’s versatility guarding tight ends and playing deep safety certainly has caught the coaching staff’s eye.
After missing all of last season, the versatile defensive back recorded a handful of pass breakups in the first week of camp and ended Monday’s practice with an interception on Brian Hoyer. With special teams ability as well, he may already be a favorite for a spot on the roster.
Specialists: Brenden Schooler
If the Patriots weren't loaded with specialists players like Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, and Cody Davis, Schooler would have a serious shot to make the roster. The undrafted free agent has been a staple working his special teams and gunner skills with the aforementioned players throughout every practice. An impressive athlete, him sticking around throughout the year on the practice squad would be no surprise — if he can't squeak his way onto the roster.