Cam Newton and Mac Jones headline a list of crucial players to keep an eye on when the Patriots take the field Thursday night.
Patriots football is back tonight, folks.
Well, sort of.
New England will face off in their first glorified scrimmage of the preseason against the Washington Football Team at Gillette Stadium Thursday night, giving everyone their first taste of “actual” football in a game setting.
Starters aren’t expected to play much, of course. The first preseason game is almost always dedicated largely to getting the regulars out there for a few series before allowing the backups to fight it out for their roster spots.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of interesting storylines to follow in this one.
For one thing, Patriots fans will get their first look at the re-imagined offense (sans Hunter Henry, of course). That includes both Cam Newton and Mac Jones, who fans will get to see in game action for the first time, as well as new pass-catchers like Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne.
The revamped front seven, with newcomer Matthew Judon and returning stars Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, will also take center stage for a defense that should (hopefully) be much improved.
And as always, a number of backups will get their first big opportunities to show why they should make the 53-man roster or work their way up the depth chart will.
Here are five players to keep an especially close eye Thursday night, beginning with a two-for-one special everyone will be watching with rapt attention.
- & 2. Cam Newton and Mac Jones
ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported that both of the Patriots’ top quarterbacks are expected to play Thursday night. Jones was always going to get a lot of work as a backup playing in the preseason, but Newton’s status had been a bit more up in the air until that announcement.
Chances are that Newton will play one or two series before ceding to Jones, who likely would play most of the first half with the second-string offensive line and receivers. After that, we might see a heavy dose of third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer.
As such, we might not see anything that dramatically affects the competition that appears to be unfolding between the incumbent starter and upstart rookie. Assuming both quarterbacks play more or less the way they have throughout camp, the Patriots will likely stick with Newton as the clear starter heading into Preseason Week 2, which will feature joint practices and a game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The only possibility that might alter that: a rough performance from Newton – say, he turns the ball over during his limited time or generally looks like he’s not processing things the way Josh McDaniels is hoping for – combined with an absolutely sterling showing from Jones, who plays like he has command of the offense and makes Newton look lost.
That might give the Patriots incentive to give more Jones more reps with the first team with an eye toward truly opening up a competition against the Eagles next week.
The flip side of that could also occur: Newton might prove his veteran mettle the way he did in the team’s first padded practice while Jones struggles in his first action against a non-Patriots defense. That could swing the pendulum almost insurmountably in Newton’s favor at this juncture.
Otherwise, expect to see the Patriots treat Newton like the starter and Jones as the No. 2 quarterback. But regardless of the implications Thursday night might have down the line, it will be interesting to see how Jones’s strong recent performance in camp carries into his first taste of live NFL action.
Maybe we’ll see glimpses of the “special” capabilities his teammates have been talking about. Maybe we’ll see some of the inconsistency and rookie mistakes he’s also put on tape during camp as well.
One thing’s for certain, though: Jones won’t be wearing No. 50 anymore.
- N’Keal Harry
How much has been real with Harry, and how much has been a flash in the pan? We might soon find out.
That string of dominant practices and highlight real catches he’s put up in training camp in one-on-one segments have re-energized interest in him as a contributor at the wide receiver position this season, though he still sits well behind Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers as primary options.
There are still a few caveats to that excitement, though.
For one, he’s largely been making those plays against backup corners like the aforementioned Joejuan Williams. He’s also made more of those plays in one-on-one drills than in team segments, and he’s not getting nearly as busy against J.C. Jackson, the team’s best available cornerback at the moment.
Then, of course, there’s that whole trade request thing. Who’s to say this surprising stretch of good play from Harry won’t simply help him land on another team by the time training camp is done?
The last part of that equation is hard to predict without knowing what Bill Belichick has planned for him trade-wise.
But the first points might get a bit more clarity when Harry goes up against another team’s cornerbacks Thursday night, presumably in the first half.
How does he look coming in and out of his breaks? Is he actually separating from receivers with improved agility and speed, or is he still largely boxing defenders out for contested catches? Can he generate yards after the catch even if he’s not winning down the field?
Those are a few things to keep an eye on with Harry on Thursday. If Agholor doesn’t see many snaps, that could be yet another chance for the third-year receiver to make the most of an opportunity.
- Kristian Wilkerson
If you’re looking for the biggest surprise of Patriots training camp thus far, Wilkerson might be the one.
The 2020 undrafted free agent seemingly emerged from nowhere with some big downfield catches from both Newton and Jones and suddenly became one of the most targeted receivers by both quarterbacks over the last week with Agholor in and out of practice.
One thing working in Wilkerson’s favor: he’s a more explosive player than Harry, separating frequently from corners with speed and quickness on his routes rather than with pure size and strength.
He’s also made his interest in special teams very obvious, working as a gunner and blocker with special teams ace Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel during individual drills. When you’re trying to make a team as a fourth and fifth receiver, contributing on special teams is almost a necessity.
It’s notable, therefore, that Harry hasn’t stood out much on special teams, which could make him expendable if Wilkerson can continue to make plays.
Some solid routes and catches to go along with disciplined play in the kicking game Thursday would make yet another case for Wilkerson in a tight roster battle at the receiver spot.
- Josh Uche
Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy sit firmly atop the outside linebacker depth chart, and nothing but injury will change that.
But Uche definitely has a role to carve out with this potentially resurgent Patriots defense.
The second-year linebacker has been dancing around tackles in one-on-one drills and flying off the edge like a firebolt all camp, seemingly bent on being first off the bench as a situational pass-rusher.
Even more importantly than that, though (at least as far as the Patriots are concerned), he’s also been a factor in stopping the run in padded practice.
In addition to the three “sacks” Uche racked up in Monday’s competitive 11-on-11 segments, he also knifed into the backfield to wreck some goal line runs during padded practice.
Being able to disrupt offenses in the ground game will be what gets Uche on the field consistently enough to show off his pass-rushing chops. As such, his run defense will be just as interesting to watch as what he does on passing downs.
That said, it will be intriguing to how Uche’s burst off the edge shows up against another team, whether he gets snaps against Washington’s starting offense line or not. The Patriots’ backup tackles Alex Redmond and Yodny Cajuste haven’t done much to stop him thus far, after all.
- Joejuan Williams
It’s now or never for the former second-round cornerback out of Vanderbilt.
Williams’s elite size still makes him a tantalizing prospect at his position, and there have been a few times where that size and length have made life difficult for Patriots quarterbacks and receivers in the red zone. Simply having to fit balls over or around the 6-foot-3 corner can be a challenge. He’s also shown he can break up a pass or two when he can break downhill on a ball.
But he’s also gotten abused one too many times in man coverage, especially by N’Keal Harry. He’s not a sticky coverage guy by any means, with his long frame at times lacking the agility and quick-twitch ability to mirror routes and run with receivers down the field.
The Patriots now have too many versatile defensive backs, including Myles Bryant and the newly added Jalen Mills, to keep Williams around on potential alone. Michael Jackson Sr. has also had some strong practices of late and is a strong contender for one of the last cornerback spots. And that doesn’t even account for the eventual return of Stephon Gilmore, which New England has all the incentive in the world to make happen.
Either Williams starts playing consistent ball, especially against real competition, or he’ll find himself on the outside looking in. Thursday would be a great time for him to do something big, whether on defense or special teams, to show that he’s worth keeping.
- Quinn Nordin
The undrafted rookie kicker will once against get a chance to prove himself with Nick Folk expected not to play Thursday. So far, Nordin hasn’t missed a kick inside Gillette Stadium while showing off his cannon-like right leg.
Another strong showing could create a very interesting situation with the kicking room. Though Folk’s veteran presence and steady kicking last season has him entrenched as the top kicker at this point, he does need to be available in order to keep his job
Even if Nordin doesn’t end up making the final 53, there might be a practice squad spot waiting for him if he keeps this up.