Unlike last week's preseason opener, tonight should at least offer a brief glimpse of some of the players and personnel groupings that we can reasonably expect to see in the regular season. While we won't get to see everyone (Rob Gronkowski), Tom Brady and most of the first offense should get their feet wet at minimum.
But there are others to keep an eye on against the Eagles in the preseason home opener, and here are six we'll be watching …
1. The offensive line – I know, that's five players not one, but bear with me. The unit has been in a bit of flux this summer with Bill Belichick choosing to use a variety of combinations. Logan Mankins is expected to make his debut and Sebastian Vollmer is set at right tackle, but Nate Solder left Thursday's walk-through early and could be fighting an injury. Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Josh Kline, Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey have all taken reps with the first group this summer. It will be interesting to see what Belichick decides to open the game with, especially assuming it's Brady taking the first snap.
- Patrick Chung –** When he re-signed for a second stint with the team many assumed he would be hard-pressed to even make the club. After watching Chung receive multiple reps next to Devin McCourty, it would not be out of the question if he earned the starting job at strong safety. Duron Harmon and Nate Ebner also factor into this mix (Tavon Wilson hasn't practiced all week and is unlikely to play), but it's been Chung more often than not. I'll be watching to see if that continues tonight.
3. Second QB – Will it be Ryan Mallett or Jimmy Garoppolo getting the call after Brady replaces his helmet with a baseball cap? Mallett missed some practice time earlier in the week but said on Thursday that it was simply due to "maintenance" and he declared himself ready to go. If Garoppolo gets an early call, perhaps it would be a sign that Belichick wants to evaluate the rookie with a higher level of personnel on the field. Either way it's something to keep an eye on tonight.
4. Brandon LaFell – Andy had him in focus last week and he's continued to build some momentum with the Eagles in town. After a rocky start to camp LaFell has been more consistent lately, and his size is tough to ignore, especially in the red zone. It would be nice to see him and Brady establish something against Philadelphia that might carry over into the regular season, perhaps giving the offense an added dimension on the outside.
5. Chandler Jones – The Patriots base defense has been predominantly in a 3-4 alignment for the better part of the last two weeks, and Jones has been employed both as a down lineman and standup outside linebacker in those looks. Lately it's been more of the latter, which would seem to be a better fit for his frame and athleticism. Jones said that he's dabbled in coverage going back to his high school days and it will be a different look watching him play in space after two years of being strictly a 4-3 defensive end moving forward. Even if only for a couple of series, it will be worth noting how Jones is used.
6. Malcolm Butler – The rookie opened eyes a week ago with a strong game against the Redskins, and he followed that up with a competitive week of work against the Eagles. With Brandon Browner headed to a four-game suspension to open the season, Butler could benefit from an extra month of evaluation time and carve out a roster spot. If he can build off last week's effort, he may just do it. Butler was with Alfonzo Dennard and Browner at corner for much of Thursday's walk-through, which is perhaps an indication that he will receive early playing time against the Eagles top offense.