As they've done every summer for more than a decade, the Patriots will close out the preseason with a battle against the Giants on Thursday night in New York (well, actually New Jersey).
Though reports out of Giants country indicate that New York may play some of its personnel that will end up on the 53-man roster, recent New England history shows that very few guys who line up and see significant reps in the finale for the Patriots will make it to regular season action. One difference from last year, though, is that the Patriots are preparing for a traditional Sunday afternoon season debut and not the post-Super Bowl Thursday night opener.
Still, don't expect to see too many Patriots starters or even high-end backups for too long against the Giants. No, this game is a chance for those fighting for those last couple roster spots and to continue their football futures in either New England or elsewhere to show their stuff.
That doesn't mean there won't be competitive action, though. As Bill Belichick so often reminds us, every game is important to the players who play in it. That will certainly be true on Thursday night.
"Just go hard, play hard. Give it all you got this game," Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski advised his younger teammates earlier this week. "I mean, you're not just showcasing for the Patriots but you could possibly be showcasing for around the league. So just play hard, do the best you can and finish plays."
Finish plays and finish the preseason on a high note.
With that in mind, here are six key things to watch for in Thursday night's battle – with the Giants and for roster spots – in New York:
Oh Danny boy – Rookie seventh-round quarterback Danny Etling has nearly as many fumbles (1) as completions (2) to date in preseason action. As Tom Brady prepares for the regular season, Etling should get a decent taste of action against the Giants backups in this battle. Etling showed inconsistency on the practice field, including accuracy issues. This likely extended series of snaps should help guide the Patriots as they decide how much to invest in the young passer moving forward as a possible practice squad candidate.
End of the line – The Patriots have displayed impressive, experienced depth this summer along the offensive line. The battle for the final one or two backup offensive line roster spots may already be decided. But it might also be altered by action against the Giants. Guys like Ulrick John, Matt Tobin, Cole Croston and Luke Bowanko won't all be Patriots come Saturday night. Which ones remain in New England could very well depend on how the veterans finish out the preseason. Of course, if any of those guys get the veteran treatment and remain on the sideline in New York it could be a sign of their spot on the 53.
A Boot-jorquez sighting? – Rookie undrafted punter Corey Bojorquez has yet to get a chance to show off his strong left leg in preseason game action. It's a curious case of a punter supposedly competing for a job without getting a chance to actually show his stuff in a competitive environment. Bojorquez was up and down in very limited chances in team action in training camp. But there is no question he has a very strong leg. It would be nice to see him use it in game action to see if he might be in line for a developmental job on the practice squad.
Pay special attention – The Patriots have a strong core of special teams contributors. Many, like Matthew Slater, Brandon King, Nate Ebner and Nicholas Grigsby, appear poised to lock down roster spots. Could there be room for a few others in the kicking game? Linebacker Christian Sam is a guy who might have to carve out his future with kicking game contributions. It's also possible that roster bubble candidates such as cornerbacks Keion Crossen and J.C. Jackson could finalize their futures, for better or worse, as much based on special teams work as anything they do on defense.
Who's in, who's out? – Fifty-two Patriots sat out last year's preseason finale against the Giants. The bulk of that list ended up being the bulk of New England's 53-man roster a couple days later. In fact, the only notable names to play in last year's finale were LaAdrian Waddle, Ted Karras, Cole Croston, Jacob Hollister, Jacoby Brissett and the team's specialists. Now, given the extra few days between the finale and the season opener, Bill Belichick could always change way he deploys his personnel. (Two years ago, while prepping for a Sunday opener, only 14 guys sat out the preseason finale against New York.) But, guys who are healthy and sit out on Thursday night would seem to be in line for roster spots. Guys who see extended action on Thursday night may not be. It is what it is.
In a flash – The road to an NFL roster – or to a practice squad or even just staying on the league's collective radar – is a long one. It starts in college, continues through the pre-draft process and then extends into offseason and summertime practice action. But sometimes one or two so-called flash plays might be enough to keep the door ajar for a player. A big catch, long run, key defensive play or some other single contribution might catch the eye of a coach or a scout and alter a player's scouting report. Every play matters. Standing out, even for a fleeting moment, might be the difference between having a future in the NFL and looking for the next employment opportunity outside the league.
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