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Instant analysis from Patriots’ 20-10 preseason win over Panthers

Observations from Friday night’s preseason meeting at Gillette Stadium.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After two sessions of joint practices outside Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots defeated the Carolina Panthers 20-10 under the Friday night lights.

Here’s a glance back on the preseason meeting before head coach Bill Belichick’s roster glances ahead to the 80-man NFL deadline and the August finale versus the Las Vegas Raiders.

Mac settles in through three drives

The 7 p.m. ET kickoff saw Carolina alternate between P.J. Walker and Matt Corral at quarterback as Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold looked on. But New England took more of a “dress rehearsal” approach under center.

Mac Jones stayed in for three drives after sitting out the preseason opener against the New York Giants. He completed 4-of-8 passes for 61 yards with no touchdowns nor turnovers in his 2022 debut. A sack by Panthers linebacker Julian Stanford turned the first series into a three-and-out. An in-cut that sailed high and a not-on-the-same-page shake route led to a punt on the next series. Then a rainbow of a deep ball followed down the left sideline to wide receiver Nelson Agholor. It set up a 7-3 lead.

Backup Brian Hoyer relieved No. 10 with seven minutes to go before halftime. By then, play-action and outside-zone wrinkles had been shown. Patriots offensive line coach and senior football advisor Matt Patricia took the offensive play-calling duties. That continued when Bailey Zappe entered the huddle for the home stretch. The Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky record-setter went 16-of-25 for 173 yards and had a late decision become an interception. Cornerback Tae Hayes returned it for a 50-yard TD.

2019 Patriots third-rounder on track at swing tackle

With Isaiah Wynn still sidelined and Trent Brown also not in uniform for New England’s starting offensive line, the bookend depth continued to take shape versus Carolina.

Yodny Cajuste got the call at left tackle after starting on the left side last week. The West Virginia product, who spent his initial NFL campaigns between the non-football injury list and injured reserve, was penalized for one false start on Friday. He remains on track to be the primary swingman. Justin Herron, who held that title last campaign, had two false starts in the preseason opener before becoming a recent training camp absence. Mike Onwenu got the nod in his place on the right side.

Friday’s interior starters would be center and captain David Andrews flanked by Cole Strange and James Ferentz. The latter guard conceded a bull-rushing sack and was penalized for unnecessary roughness.

Ground growth

A game removed from averaging 2.9 yards per rushing attempt, New England’s running backs took a subtle step forward on Friday.

Damien Harris began as the deep man in “12” personnel and stayed on the field for third down. He finished with three carries for 18 yards versus Carolina. Rhamondre Stevenson headed on by the midway point in the first quarter to take a pair of handoffs and his own chance on third down.

Waiting from there was Ty Montgomery, who logged 18 yards from scrimmage through five touches and walked in for a goal-line touchdown to give the Patriots a 7-3 lead. In a backfield no longer featuring retired All-Decade selection James White, the hybrid receiver projects to move the chains. J.J. Taylor had a de-cleating blitz pickup in the second half, however, and the 5-foot-6, 185-pound back then broke loose for a long of 15 yards.

A Week 1 glimpse into New England’s receiver room

In addition to Kristian Wilkerson, who went down on a kickoff drill during fight-filled practices with the Panthers, the Patriots were without Kendrick Bourne. Even so, the first wide receivers to take the field could be the ones to do so come September.

DeVante Parker and Jakobi Meyers each caught one pass for a combined 21 yards on a handful of targets. And the aforementioned Agholor converted on a third down to close the first quarter before reeling in a 45-yard deep shot to open the second. That was the starting nucleus with rookie ex-Baylor burner Tyquan Thornton later ruled out in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.

The battle for a potential final spot in the room is waning behind them. Tre Nixon was the intended target on a pick-six and dropped a touchdown that he had separated from coverage for. But Lil’Jordan Humphrey appears to be trending in the other direction. The June signing by way of the New Orleans Saints had found the end zone while doubling as a 6-foot-4, 225-pound punt gunner last week. He stretched out to prevent a touchback this week and logged five receptions for a team-high 71 yards in a growing rapport down the seam.

Starting cornerback combination

The league’s 85-man cutdown saw New England’s cornerback group thin out as Malcolm Butler and Joejuan Williams landed on IR. And on Friday evening, the question as to whom will be starting next to new No. 1 Jalen Mills got closer to being answered.

Longtime nickel Jonathan Jones started on the boundary across from last year’s 16-game starter. In the slot by second down was Myles Bryant, who flashed in the opener with his first punt returns since high school and soon retrieved more. The third-year pro also recovered a challenged fumble that was forced by safety Joshuah Bledsoe.

The next corner to step in for the Patriots would be the experienced Terrance Mitchell. He was flagged for pass interference on an out pattern before nearly picking off an overthrow. Shaun Wade, a trade acquisition last summer, joined him before intermission and broke on the football for a head-over-heels interception after it. The 2020 Ohio State All-American is making a push for a spot on a depth chart also occupied by rookies Marcus Jones and Jack Jones. A lapse came as Wade collided with the former on a punt return.

Under-the-radar defensive lineman in the end zone

From Northwest Missouri State to No. 200 overall, rookie Sam Roberts doesn’t look out of place.

After generating five quarterback pressures and six tackles versus New York, Roberts’ leverage and explosiveness surfaced with a three-yard tackle for loss against Carolina. The defensive lineman later fell on a fumble in the end zone following a strip-sack from undrafted rookie DaMarcus Mitchell out of Purdue. A 10-point advantage was the result in the final frame.

But a starting line comprised of Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore served as a reminder of the numbers game ahead.

Time at tight end

Only one New England tight end took the field for more than pregame warm-ups in last week’s exhibition, as the well-traveled Matt Sokol logged 51 snaps on offense and 14 snaps on special teams. He had company versus Carolina that extended beyond starter Jonnu Smith.

Devin Asiasi filed on to collect a trio passes on a trio of opportunities in two-minute mode prior to halftime. The 2020 third-rounder finished with 32 yards. And Thursday arrival Jalen Wydermyer, having begun camp as a Buffalo Bills rookie free agent, also dressed.

Top red-zone target Hunter Henry did not after missing both joint workouts due to injury.

Jennings among those carving an edge

Be it weakside or strongside, Patriots linebacker Anfernee Jennings has put himself on the right side. His rotational role could develop into a starting one across from red-sleeved three-time Pro Bowler Matthew Judon. It did in white sleeves against the Panthers.

Friday marked 599 days since Jennings played his last snaps in the regular season.

The Crimson Tide alum recorded three tackles to go with a sack and relentless pursuit in the final minutes. Fellow 2020 draft choice Josh Uche also rose to the occasion with his second sack in as many contests off the edges. Sophomore Ronnie Perkins and veteran Deatrich Wise Jr. hit home, as well, during an outing that gave way to five altogether for New England.