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Keys to the Starting Lineup Presented by CarMax: 10 things to watch for Patriots vs. Jaguars

Finally, football is back in Foxborough!

Thursday night’s preseason opener at Gillette Stadium against the Jaguars is a far cry from the historic events we witnessed last time the Patriots were on the field, putting forth an historic comeback for an overtime victory over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

But, it’s an exciting first step to open up 2017 for the defending champs.

There is no question that there is plenty of excitement and elevated expectations swirling in Patriots Nation these days. Discussions of possible a possible 19-0 season and back-to-back titles have been prevalent this summer with fans and media alike.

But that’s well off in the distance at this point. For now, it’s about laying the foundation for such lofty goals. After a week of productive practice action against Jacksonville, New England will take the next step in the summer process with tonight’s preseason battle.

Here are 10 things to watch for in the Patriots 2017 preseason opener:

*Quality quarterback reps – *Tom Brady will reportedly sit out the preseason opener. Assuming that’s the case, it will leave 60 minutes of football to be played by fourth-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo and second-year No. 3 Jacoby Brissett. Neither has been overly impressive this summer on the practice field. It’s likely that Garoppolo, the center of plenty of offseason trade speculation will get the start against Jacksonville. Can he look more like the guy who put up elite production over the first six quarters of last season filling in for Brady than the guy who’s been practicing? When Brissett gets in the game can he show some progression in his reads and comfort running the offense, as well as more timely accuracy? Regardless of who the young guns are throwing to, they need to look the part of a trusted Patriots quarterback.

*Debut night – *The Patriots brought in plenty of new faces this offseason, including many who could be key contributors in 2017. Some are unlikely to play against Jacksonville. Running back Mike Gillislee has been missing practice nursing a hamstring and likely won’t play. Brandin Cooks, who’s been lighting the practice field, reportedly won’t play. But, it could be a first chance for fans to get a peek at Stephon Gilmore as the second-part of the Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback duo. At defensive end trade addition Kony Ealy and rookies Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr. should make their first plays in a Patriots uniform as they battled to fill the void left by Rob Ninkovich’s retirement. Veteran former Jet David Harris may get his first few snaps across the Border. Dwayne Allen should get some blocking and catching reps working with Garoppolo. They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, so plenty of newcomers better be ready for their first action in front of the Foxborough faithful.

Rex in effect - One of those potentially making a debut will be versatile running back Rex Burkhead. The free-agent addition has caught the ball extremely well in camp, while at times showing a second-effort nose for the goal line. His value as a true ball carrier could key his playing time in his first season in New England and he could get a chance to prove those skills against Myles Jack and the Jags defense early on Thursday night.

Warm receptions* -* The receiver position probably won’t field its top talent tonight. It’s very possible that Cooks, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Matthew Slater and even Chris Hogan could sit out. All have dealt with minor ailments in camp at one point or another, other than Cooks. Certainly won’t see Mitchell or Slater. That will leave plenty of reps for a small group of targets led by second-year former practice squader Devin Lucien. He’s been so much better in his second NFL camp than a year ago. He’s made plays down the field and caught the ball better than last August. He should get plenty of chances to show up working with Garoppolo and Brissett. Undrafted rookie Austin Carr, who has been OK in camp and gotten some high-end reps, is also worth watching. The Northwestern product is a bigger and less quick slot receiver than is traditional in New England. It will be interesting to see if he can get open and create separation, which hasn’t always been the case in practice. For better or worse, Lucien, Carr, Tony Washington and K.J. Maye will get plenty of run tonight.

Left tackle backup battle* -* Nate Solder has missed the last few practices with an unknown injury and is unlikely to play. That means the ongoing camp battle for the swing tackle backup job will be very much worth watching. Cameron Fleming has filled in for Solder of late in practice to mixed results. LaAdrian Waddle has also taken some of Solder’s reps. Neither veteran returner has been overly impressive. Third-round rookie Tony Garcia has gotten limited reps and missed practice time the last couple days. Fellow rookie Conor McDermott has gotten more notable reps this summer than Garcia, but mostly on the right side. The tackle backup battle, especially regarding potential left tackle reps, seems wide open and a bit dubious right now.

Second-year standouts* - *Lucien has shown great improvement from his work a year ago. But he’s far from the only second-year player whose development is in focus. Brissett would be atop that list. So, too, would Elandon Roberts’ work at inside linebacker. He’s been very physical in training camp and will get the chance to bring the wood even more in game action against star rookie Leonard Fournette and the rest of the Jags running game. Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine will have similar opportunities up the middle. On the other side of the ball Ted Karras can continue to build his case to be the top interior line backup, possibly with action at both guard and center. Maybe most notable in the group is Jonathan Jones, an undrafted rookie a year ago who remains in the mix for high-end reps as the No. 3 cornerback. He can move closer to that regular season role, especially with veteran Eric Rowe missing time of late to an apparent lower-body injury that’s likely to sideline him for Thursday night. Passing back D.J. Foster is another intriguing guy in a crowded backfield. He has ability as a runner, a receiver and versatility in the kicking game. Foster may just end up being one of the last guys on/off the roster at the cut to 53. As such, every snap matters to him.

Lightning Lewis?* -* Dion Lewis returned late last season to mixed results. While the veteran made some plays – including three touchdowns in the playoffs against Houston – he’s admitted he didn’t feel at that time like quite the same guy who burst onto the scene as a breakout start for the Patriots early in 2015 before being sidelined to a torn ACL. Lewis has looked good in camp and says he feels very good, back to his normal self. He’ll likely get a chance to show his playmaking ability against Jacksonville as he battles it out for a role in the deep backfield.

Now or never?* - *Some veteran players find themselves at a potential crossroads of their careers in New England. Guys like Fleming, defensive end Geneo Grissom, safety Jordan Richards, guard Jamil Douglas and others may be in a fight to retain roster spots or roles in 2017. Grissom and Richards, in particular, may need to prove their value on defense and not just as options in the kicking game. Many project that the bulk of the Patriots roster is made up of “locks.” But this group of guys may need to battle down to the wire to claim the final few slots this season and that battle heats up tonight.

Special attention* -* Can Stephen Gostkowski put a shaky 2016 behind him and get back to his sure-thing, All-Pro ways on a newly-installed turf at Gillette Stadium? Will Cyrus Jones make people forget his ugly rookie season as a returner and show the playmaking ability that helped him become New England’s top pick a year ago? Are Ryan Allen’s inconsistent punts in camp practice a reason for concern? The specialists’ work in the preseason in terms of their individual jobs is not much different than it will be in a month when the real games begin. Thursday night is a good time for them all to get off to a good start in the third phase of the game.

Undrafted but not unnoticed* -* It’s no secret that undrafted rookies have a long history of winning roster spots and key roles each season in New England. From recent stars like Malcolm Butler and David Andrews back to guys like Randall Gay and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, undrafted players have found ways to create careers in Foxborough. This year’s undrafted class brings plenty of candidates led by linebacker Harvey Langi and defensive tackle Adam Butler looking to extend this long tradition. Langi has been getting high-end reps, mostly on the edge of the defensive front, while Butler has been a disruptive force on the interior throughout camp. Carr, offensive linemen Cole Croston/Jason King and defensive backs Kenny Moore II/D.J. Killings/Damarius Travis/Dwayne Thomas/Jason Thompson all are worth watching for their contributions, including in the kicking game.

Other things you’ll be watching for as a Patriots fan? Let us know with a comment below!

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