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Instant analysis from Patriots’ 23-21 preseason loss to Giants

Observations from Thursday’s preseason opener at Gillette Stadium.

NFL: New York Giants at New England Patriots Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots kicked off the 2022 preseason Thursday night at Gillette Stadium against New York Giants.

A 23-21 loss followed for head coach Bill Belichick’s side with a field goal in the final seconds.

Here’s a glance through what went into it as the 85-man roster deadline and joint practices with the Carolina Panthers near.

Zappe’s audition under center begins in second quarter

As Mac Jones stood on the sideline for the Patriots’ new-look offense, rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe stood on the field.

The record-setting transfer from Houston Baptist to Western Kentucky completed 19-of-32 passes for 205 yards with two touchdowns and a tipped interception from the sidearm. Errant throws were among the sample size. So were decisive, boundary connections of 36 yards and 32 yards. A quarterback sneak and a backfoot toss for go-ahead points would also be in the cards for Zappe, who landed in the fourth round and has since landed jersey No. 4.

But Brian Hoyer got the start on Thursday. Second-in-command on a two-year contract that brings $3 million guaranteed, the veteran backup went 5-of-8 for 59 yards and one touchdown before departing as assistant coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge split play-calling duties.

Without a four-time Patriots captain in the backfield picture

Patriots running back James White announced his retirement Thursday morning, ending a tenure that included three Super Bowl rings, four captainships and a place on the franchise’s All-Decade team. The 30-year-old had the most receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by any player around the NFL at the position from 2015 through 2020. But after last September’s right hip subluxation required season-ending surgery, White had resided on physically unable to perform since the beginning of training camp.

The depth chart continued in his absence versus the Giants. Behind Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and hybrid receiver Ty Montgomery, former undrafted arrival J.J. Taylor drew the start. He accounted for 27 yards from scrimmage on seven touches.

Rookies by way of South Dakota State and South Carolina then got their turn. Pierre Strong Jr., who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, handled six carries for 25 yards in his debut. Kevin Harris, from the bruiser mold at 5-foot-10, 225 pounds, added six carries for nine yards and a touchdown along with a dropped pass.

Separating out wide

On an evening where Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne served as spectators, there were Patriots wide receivers to watch.

Baylor alum Tyquan Thornton’s quick release to stack cornerbacks resulted in a penalty for illegal contact on an underthrown fade ball. It soon saw him draw defensive holding in the back of the end zone, as well. Thornton caught two passes on as many targets for nine yards against the Giants. A scramble drill was among them for the No. 50 overall selection, now wearing No. 11. Thornton gathered the game’s initial touchdown from two yards out. He broke off his route against Giants cornerback Aaron Robinson to break the first quarter in the process.

Past practice squad members in Tre Nixon and Kristian Wilkerson also got the starting nod for New England’s wideout room. Nixon had a third-down drop yet rebounded with back-shoulder adjustments down the field, totaling four catches for 81 yards. Across from him, Wilkerson corralled a team-high eight catches for 99 yards. Both continued after intermission next to Josh Hammond and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who doubled as a punt gunner and caught six passes for 62 yards and a backpedal to the end zone that made it 21-20.

New England’s opening O-line

New England’s starting offensive line included Justin Herron at left tackle, Cole Strange at left guard, James Ferentz at center, Arlington Hambright at right guard and Yodny Cajuste at right tackle versus New York.

By game’s end, one sack had been conceded while the Patriots averaged just 2.9 yards per ground attempt. Herron, the team’s top swingman in 2021, was flagged for two false starts and jogged off midway through the fourth quarter with lower leg issue. Cajuste, his current contender, also exited in the final frame.

Last season’s initial 53-man roster included nine offensive linemen. The established David Andrews, Mike Onwenu, Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn did not see snaps on Thursday. The war room’s top selection in April, however, stayed on for two drives and had his athleticism deployed in the screen game.

Monitoring the movement at linebacker

Neither outside linebacker Ronnie Perkins nor inside linebacker Cameron McGrone appeared in a game for New England during their rookie regular seasons. Last year’s third-round pick out of Oklahoma and fifth-round pick out of Michigan looked to make up for redshirt time. And after a scout-team summer to date, that time carried beyond halftime.

Perkins rotated in for four tackles off the edge of a defensive line that began with emerging third-year Alabama product Anfernee Jennings, who also missed all of 2021 and logged a third-down quarterback hit that gave way a field goal. Josh Uche followed up on the next series with a sack on Giants starter Daniel Jones after recording a trio last fall.

As for McGrone, the sophomore Wolverine finds himself in the off-the-ball projection behind Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson, who racked up a handful of early stops. McGrone checked in Thursday as part of New England’s first kickoff unit. He recorded six tackles and dove for a pair of near-interceptions in the next hurdle of his ACL recovery.

Veteran cornerbacks Mitchell, Butler have a hand in turnover

New England blended age with youth in the secondary against New York, starting 183 games of combined experience between Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler with fresh faces Brad Hawkins, Joshuah Bledsoe and Jalen Elliott.

It paid off as the page turned to the second quarter. Mitchell punched the football out of Giants receiver Collin Johnson’s grasp after a pickup of 17 yards. There to recover it was Butler in his second tour with the organization he first joined as an undrafted tryout in 2014. The March signings are on the other side of 30, and in the 53-man hunt.

Rookie fourth-round pick Jack Jones, Shaun Wade and Joejuan Williams, who was later eclipsed for a touchdown by wideout Richie James, subbed in at cornerback for the Patriots on the subsequent series.

Northwest Missouri State product in the middle of things

Patriots rookie defensive lineman Sam Roberts blocked five kicks at Northwest Missouri State, and the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Cliff Harris Award winner generated problems up the middle during the visit with the Giants.

Roberts worked as a catalyst on New England’s lone sack and went on to log three pressures. The next came versus backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the second quarter. Moments later, so did a third-down holding penalty on interior blocker Josh Ezeudu. He tacked on a half-dozen tackles.

Pick No. 200 overall shows signs of length and the bull rush to go with it.

Back for New England’s returns

It remains to be seen whom the Patriots will have deep to field kickoffs and punts in September. Thursday’s exhibition provided a snapshot.

Nixon, the final selection in New England’s 2021 draft, took a knee in the end zone on the first kickoff opportunity and took it out to the 25 on the next. The aforementioned J.J. Taylor then checked in for an average of 23 yards per through three kickoffs and gained seven yards on a single punt return. And in between, third-year defensive back Myles Bryant returned his first punt since high school up the right sideline for a gain of 30 yards before grabbing his next for 15 yards on the run.

Looking on was rookie corner Marcus Jones, who had tied an NCAA record with nine return touchdowns during his Troy-to-Houston career. The Paul Horning Award winner as the nation’s most versatile player remains a primary candidate in the return game.

Second string of specialists

As the preseason opener hit the later stages, the kicking operation turned to Tristan Vizcaino while the punting operation turned to Jake Julien. That was the result of Nick Folk, under contract through 2023, and Jake Bailey, under contract through 2025, taking a seat for New England. Both incumbents were featured on the gameday magazine cover alongside long snapper Joe Cardona.

A recent Patriots minicamp tryout, Vizcaino converted both of his extra points. And Julien, a member of the club’s latest undrafted class, turned two punts into an average of 40.5 yards with one rolling out of bounds at the opposing eight.

Rookie defensive back Brenden Schooler out of Texas got the call as the personal protector.