Regardless of whether Tom Brady plays a single snap or not, it's unlikely that we'll see much more than a series or two from New England's returning starters and frontline players tonight in the preseason opener in Washington.
There will be a lot of time over four quarters of action for many new faces to make a first impression in game action for the Patriots. With that in mind here are six first-year New England players to keep an eye on tonight as they don a Patriots helmet for the first time in game action.
- – Brandon Browner** – The big-bodied, physical corner took a lot of reps with the second unit in Wednesday's walk-through in Richmond. So it won't be a surprise if the veteran free agent addition gets a little more work than many other projected starters against the Skins. With a four-game NFL suspension to open the regular season, Bill Belichick will need to find out what he has in Browner in August action. It will also be interesting to see how many flags are thrown at the veteran pass defender who has had his hands all over every receiver he's faced to date in training camp.
2. – Brandon LaFell – The free agent wide receiver addition got off to a slow start in practice in New England. After missing most of the spring for unknown reasons, LaFell was inconsistent and dropped too many balls to open training camp. But he's come on over the last week and Tom Brady has already talked about No. 19's bigger catch radius and enjoying having a bigger receiver in his arsenal. LaFell has bounced between the top unit and second group in practice, so he'll probably see decent action in his New England debut. We'll see if he can build on a solid week of joint-practice action in Washington.
3. James White – The fourth-round rookie has been one of the more impressive, consistent players in training camp practice. He's made plays on the ground and through the air, while also in the mix in the return game. Initially he projects as an extra passing back who'll slid in behind Shane Vereen. But White may be more than that and we'll get a taste of his talent in game action tonight.
- Justin Jones** – With Rob Gronkowski not making the trip and both Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams nursing leg injuries, the tall undrafted rookie Jones finds himself atop the depth chart right now. A raw project who didn't play a year ago in college for academic reasons, Jones has been inconsistent in camp. His intriguing size and athleticism will get a chance to face off against live action against the Redskins as he tries to prove himself worthy of a roster spot, or at least a place on the practice squad.
5. Will Smith – The veteran defensive end has been relatively quiet in practice action this summer as he returns from a torn ACL and gets acclimated to life in New England. He's seen reps as a sub rusher as well as at defensive end in the 3-4 with the second unit. He's by no means a lock to make the roster at this point and it will be interesting how much action the veteran gets and what he can do with it in the first exhibition contest.
6. Taylor McCuller – The undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M has been playing both ways throughout the summer. A linebacker on the roster and in college, the New England coaches have also asked him to give it a shot at fullback as well. He's actually had to change from a blue to white No. 48 jersey on the fly rather often in practice. Thursday night he'll be able to keep the same jersey as he bounces between defense and offense. Undrafted rookies always do whatever they can to stand out, but McCuller will likely get the chance to show his stuff in all three phases of the game.
Bonus – Jimmy Garoppolo** – Ryan Mallett will reportedly start the preseason opener and likely play the bulk of the snaps. But at some point we should get a first look at the second-round pick Garoppolo in his first game action, the first time he's ever actually even attended an NFL game. Garoppolo has struggled mightily in training camp, but he's seen as the heir to Brady's throne and this will be the start of his road toward that goal.
Want to talk about these players and more? Be sure to tune in to the Patriots Pre-Game Social radio show at 5:15 p.m. on the Patriots mobile apps, Facebook page and Patriots.com.
What do you think of this list of guys to watch? Which other players are you focused on heading into tonight's action? Let us know with a comment below!