Preseason Preview: Who to watch in tonight's opener
How will Garoppolo fare without most of the team's top weapons? David Butler II/USA Today Sports
At long last, the first Patriots game of the year kicks off tonight at 7:30. Of course, this being the preseason opener, plenty of key players won't be on the field tonight, with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks and Dont'a Hightower headlining the list of those expected to be held out. This will just mean more big reps for some of the younger, less-proven guys fighting for jobs on this loaded roster. With that in mind, here are some of the guys I'll be keeping an eye on tonight, divided up by position battle.
1: Edge (Defensive end/outside linebacker)
Edge duties are becoming more and more of a hybrid position in New England, hence the inclusion of both linebackers and defensive ends on this list. With Hightower and Shea McClellin likely out and Trey Flowers unlikely to play extensive snaps, there will be ample snaps for all competing for jobs behind that presumed top three. If we are to take any cues from this week's joint practices with the Jaguars, we can expect to see plenty of Deatrich Wise (#91) and Harvey Langi (#48) early on. Both rookies played exclusively with the top defense in practice all week, with Langi serving as more of a pure edge guy and Wise moving all around the defensive line. Langi particularly whipped the Jags offensive linemen in pass rush one-on-ones this week; can he carry that over to game situations? His ability to hold up and set a strong edge in the run game is also unproven and will be tested by a Jacksonville offense that wants to establish an identity around it's power rushing attack.
Another rookie to watch in this mix is top draft pick Derek Rivers (#95), who saw by far his most playing time with the top defense this week in practice. Thought of as a traditional speed edge rusher when drafted, Rivers was playing a variety of roles in practice. While he did rush the edge some, he was also used quite a bit in a two point stance, often faking an inside rush before dropping into coverage. Keep an eye on not only on his performance, but also the different ways the Patriots use him. They seem to like his athleticism enough to utilize him more in space than most anticipated.
If the practice reps hold up to game conditions, we could see plenty of veterans Geneo Grissom (#92) and Kony Ealy (#94) deep into the second half. Ealy was expected to become a starter when the Patriots acquired the former second round pick via trade this offseason, but he seems to be struggling with his transition to the Patriots defense. He's flashed the ability to be a dangerous pass rusher against NFL tackles (including a dominant Super Bowl performance two years ago), but has done little on the field in New England while reportedly clashing with coaches off of it. A few impact plays would go a long way towards throwing his name back into the starting mix, as the aforementioned rookies appear to be ahead of him for now on the depth chart.
With Edelman, Cooks, Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell all unlikely to play, the depth guys facing a numbers crunch at receiver will get a huge opportunity to show their stuff tonight. Chris Hogan is the only roster lock expected to play tonight, and its unlikely he'll be in for long. That will leave a ton of snaps for the likes of Devin Lucien (#13) and Austin Carr (#84) each of whom have flashed with the 2s throughout camp. Lucien has seemingly been good for a big play per day in practice, working mostly against the 2s, while Carr's shifty route running and reliable hands bring to mind the long list of Patriots slot stalwarts. The opportunity to go against a top defense is huge for those two, although it is worth noting that Jacksonville is without two of their top three corners with Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Colvin still on the PUP list. Those two, along with the smaller, shifty KJ Maye (#16) figure to play pretty much wire to wire due to the injury bug at the position.
3: Offensive tackle
There's a battle brewing for swing tackle duties on this Patriots team. With starter Nate Solder injured and rookie Tony Garcia behind on the depth chart (Garcia's absence at practice this week suggests he might not play tonight), the snaps at left tackle have divided between Cameron Fleming (#71) and LaAdrian Waddle (#68). Neither has particularly stood out positively, although Waddle has had fewer noteworthy struggles than Fleming. However, line play is the toughest to evaluate in practice settings, so the performance of these guys live tonight bears close monitoring. My guess is that Waddle starts at left tackle, where he'll be tested by a talented group of Jacksonville edge guys (Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr). Look for Fleming to take over at right tackle when starter Marcus Cannon gets subbed out, and keep an eye on how he deals with speed off the edge. Speed rushers have given him trouble in practice throughout the summer. Fleming will also likely get a series or two at left tackle, where his struggles with speed could be even more exposed. We'll also get our first live look at rookie Connor McDermott (#67), a behemoth with plenty of physical talent who was considered very raw as a collegiate prospect. McDermott will likely play the bulk of the second half at right tackle.
4: Off ball linebacker
With Hightower out and longtime veteran David Harris unlikely to see many snaps, we'll likely see plenty from the familiar faces battling for regular season roles. Practices have seen Kyle Van Noy (#53) entrenched with the 1s at weakside linebacker. An early sub for him alongside the rest of the established starters would prove his standing as one of the top dogs on the depth chart. That would also mean more snaps for the likes of Jonathan Freeney (#55) and Elandon Roberts (#52). Those two were paired together as the second string during practice this week and they could be fighting for one roster spot given their similar skillsets. Both project as downhill thumpers against the run, with Roberts bringing more sideline to sideline range and Freeney offering more special teams production along with a veteran presence in the locker room. Extended playing time for Roberts will mean plenty of snaps against the pass, where his struggles in coverage held him back from a bigger role last season. Improved pass coverage from Roberts would not only cement a lead over Freeney for a job, but put him in the mix for a bigger role with the starting defense, given his proven ability against the run.
Ok, this is less of a position battle here, with Jimmy Garoppolo entrenched as the second quarterback and Jacoby Brissett as far behind him as Jimmy is behind TB12. However, live game reps are preciously scarce for backup quarterbacks, making tonight well worth watching for those interested in either player. Garoppolo has had some shaky moments in training camp, but he's shaken similar situations off in the past with strong play in preseason games. Tonight, he'll be challenged by the absence of nearly all of the teams top receivers, along with its starting left tackle. Can Jimmy move the ball against a solid Jacksonville defense throwing to the likes of Carr, Lucien and Dwyane Allen? The rest of the league (especially those without a franchise quarterback) will be watching intently. Meanwhile, Brissett will be looking display improvement from last summer, when he mostly stuck with safe checkdowns. Brissett has looked more confident testing coverages and throwing into tighter windows this summer, but he's also thrown his share of bad interceptions as a result. Look for how comfortable he looks running the offense (in the pocket, making reads, etc), as his development will certainly play a factor in whatever decision the team makes in the future regarding the two ahead of him on the depth chart.