The Patriots will wrap up their preseason on Friday night against the Titans, capping off their 2023 summer with a final contest to determine how the team will take shape next week when the roster is cut down to 53 players and an initial 16-player practice squad is set.
It's been an interesting summer for the Pats, as the offense has been remade under Bill O'Brien's guidance and has shown nice progress over the last four weeks as their attack rounds into form. Defensively there wasn't much changeover from 2022, the retirement of Devin McCourty aside, and with a fresh injection of high draft picks, there's reason to believe the unit can be even better in 2023. Even special teams units have featured plenty of intrigue with position battles at kicker and punter that have gone back and forth through the summer and right into the final week of practice.
Now, players will get one final chance to put it all together on the game field and make their case, not just for a roster spot but for a significant role with the team on gameday.
Here are 10 positions and players that will be under the microscope in Nashville.
After the cancellation of joint practices this week, Mac and at least some of the starters should see some action in this game before the long two-week break until the opener against Philly. Mac showed improved poise and control in his first action last week against the Packers, with a strong showing in joint practices that carried over to the game, with his two third-and-long conversions standing out on his final drive. The Titans have a dangerous defensive front when their starters are in, and those players should provide another good test for Mac and especially his blockers up front. With a similarly ferocious front coming to Foxborough on September 10, Mac needs all the reps he can get to be ready to face one of the league's best defensive units.
Tre Nixon was injured and moved to Injured Reserve this week, while Tyquan Thornton was not spotted at practice on Tuesday or Wednesday, as the wide receiver room has seen its depth thinned in the late stages of training camp. That will put an even bigger focus on rookies Malik Cunningham, Kayshon Boutte and Thyrick Pitts. Boutte especially continues to gain momentum. After catching a slant and running for a touchdown against the Packers, Boutte was among the most active receivers in this week's practices. This push is coming at the right time. Cunningham has seen more time at receiver since getting a look at quarterback against the Texans but couldn't corral any of his five targets against the Packers. Both, along with Pitts, should see the majority of snaps late into this game, when it will be their time to shine and put a final exclamation point on their summers.
The offensive line has been hit hard by injuries this summer and that was after Calvin Anderson (NFI) and Michael Onwenu (PUP) were unavailable at the start of camp. A recent injury to Conor McDermott, coming on the first day of joint practices with the Packers, has further complicated things at the tackle position when the team had already been juggling combinations, looking for answers. Onwenu returned to practice on Wednesday, albeit in a limited fashion, which is reason for some optimism, especially with Cole Strange also hovering on the sidelines as well during practice. That leaves the offensive line depth one final chance in preseason to get some quality experience in. This is especially important for rookies Atonio Mafi and Sidy Sow, who have seen their workloads rise. Even if Owenu and Strange are back in the mix by Week 1, it's a good bet Sow and Mafi will still be called upon for some snaps over the course of the game. Second-year OLs Andrew Stueber and Chasen Hines will also be heavily in the mix as the team searches for enough depth to protect from the inevitable injuries that always strike this group.
With the addition of Ezekiel Elliott and the return to practice by Ty Montgomery on Tuesday, it seems like they will form a primary trio with Rhamondre Stevenson to carry the load in the Patriots backfield. But there should be at least one more open roster spot for some RB depth and this final game could determine who it goes to. Pierre Strong also returned to practice on Tuesday in a red jersey, then ditched the red jersey on Wednesday, a positive sign of his recovery that could mean he'll suit up Friday. If not, that leaves Kevin Harris, J.J. Taylor and C.J. Marable. Harris averaged 3.1 yards per attempt on 10 carries against the Packers, while Taylor had four carries for 29 yards and three catches for 27 yards. Both could be practice squad candidates as well, but they'll have an extended chance to make their roster cases late into the game.
Hunter Henry has been one of the team's best offensive players this summer, looking spry and healthy while consistently making catches in training camp. Mike Gesicki was coming on as well before going down with an injury last week. Gesicki returned to practice this week in a red jersey, a good sign he'll be ready to go for the season opener, but even still, the position feels light with just two players. Matt Sokol has had a solid camp himself and is more of a physical blocker than the rest and that could give him an inside track on a role. Anthony Firkser can't be ignored either with his NFL experience and versatility to play in the backfield as an h-back. He had a nice catch in practice on Wednesday from Mac Jones that could help his cause. Both could offer some offensive twists that might be intriguing to Bill O'Brien. Johnny Lumpkin and Scotty Washington remain in the mix, but it's Sokol and Firkser who should get the longest looks for a 53-man roster spot.
Perkins has had tough injury luck through his first two seasons and that bad luck continued into the summer, with the edge player missing joint practices but returning to practice this week. The Pats depth is still a bit thin at stand-up outside linebacker. Matthew Judon, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are a good top trio, and beyond them, the team will consider using Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jahalani Tavai along the edges at times as well. Uche and Jennings are free agents next offseason, meaning there's at least a long-term need at the spot and if injuries were to strike there could even be a more immediate one as well. If fully healthy, Perkins should get plenty of snaps against the Titans and could benefit from a solid all-around game where he stands out a little bit. Having some back-up pass-rush juice from Perkins would be nice, but he hasn't shown it consistently yet.
Bill Belichick confirmed on Tuesday that Isaiah Bolden is in concussion protocol, putting a hopefully temporary pause on what was turning into a promising summer for the rookie cornerback. His projected absence means a high volume of snaps for the remaining corners, including Shaun Wade, Ameer Speed and Quandre Moseley, along with Rodney Randle in the slot. Wade has had a strong third training camp and could benefit the most from Bolden's absence. This could be a crossroads for Wade as it seems like one of these remaining players could be due for a roster spot and he might be the favorite. Randle also can't be ignored even with solid depth in the slot behind Marcus Jones and Myles Bryant. He's been coming on over the last week-plus after getting picked on by the Texans in Week 1.
Defensive Line Depth
The Patriots are entering their third season with this core group along the defensive line but could it be time for a younger face to work into the mix? It appears that rookie Keion White is carving out a role for himself, but Sam Roberts also deserves a long look. The second-year player is big and country strong and despite two penalties against the Packers, he's been showing up more and more. It's unlikely the vets like Godchaux, Guy and Wise play very long in this one, and that should mean Roberts, Jeremiah Pharms and Justus Tavai will get plenty of snaps in relief of secondary starters Daniel Ekuale and Carl Davis, who both seem pretty close to locks at this point.
Despite McCourty's retirement, the depth at safety remains strong with the ascension of Jabrill Peppers and the emergence of Jalen Mills. Mills has been one of the most consistent playmakers this summer while playing more of a safety role instead of the outside corner role he held down the last two seasons. Most intriguing is the potential debut of Marte Mapu, who could add even more potential depth to the group. Mapu ditched his red jersey in Green Bay and got in two physical practices but didn't dress for the game. He should be in line to make his debut against the Titans, offering a glimpse of how he stacks up against NFL game speed. Finally comes Josh Bledsoe, who has been very much in the mix with the rest of the safeties and has had a handful of positive moments himself. Like Wade, the third-year Bledsoe is facing a critical week that could determine the direction of his future.
What will the final game hold for rookies Bryce Baringer and Chad Ryland, and veterans Nick Folk and Corliss Waitman? While the rookies demonstrated stronger legs in their respective competitions this summer, the veterans might've maintained a slight edge in consistency and that's something that cannot be ignored. In Nashville, all four could have a final opportunity to showcase their strength and reliability, but through 16 practices and two joint practices, it appears both contests are too close to make a definitive call on.
View photos from Patriots training camp in Foxboro on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.