As exciting as the opening of training camp was two weeks ago, the lack of joint practice action left fans and players alike wanting for more this summer.
And more they shall get Thursday night at Gillette Stadium with the preseason against the Redskins.
Finally, there will be full-speed football. Hitting, tackling and blocking are back. New rules and big plays.
It's the next step in the process as Bill Belichick and his players build toward the regular season at a workmanlike pace. It's the feverish continuation of the competition for roles and roster spots.
It's (preseason) game time!
Here are a dozen things to watch for in the Patriots 2018 preseason opener against the Redskins:
Passing tests – While Tom Brady's exact status for the opener is unknown after a pretty quiet week of reps on the practice field, the quarterback position will be to some degree the focal point regardless of who's under center. Veteran backup Brian Hoyer and rookie No. 3 Danny Etling have had more downs than ups on the practice fields this summer. Hoyer is what he is at this point in his career, but it would be nice to see him instill some confidence with a positive showing. Etling has shown incremental improvement in practice of late, but remains a raw youngster who needs to show he's worth developing. That process begins tonight.
Helmet check – In case you haven't heard, the NFL has instituted a new rule against players lowering their helmets to initiate contact with an opponent. The wide-ranging rule was controversial in the Hall of Fame Game. Officials have warned players, media and fans to expect a lot of flags early in the preseason as everyone gets used to the new guidelines. It's almost certain there will be a controversial call Thursday night, both in New England and in every other game played. That's the reality of the controversial new rule aimed at continuing to improve player safety.
Wide receiver depth – Though Julian Edelman may see few reps if any as he works back from a torn ACL, there is a lot to look for at the receiver position. The depth chart is wide open after Brandin Cooks (trade) and Danny Amendola (free agent) left town this offseason. It got even more interesting with Jordan Matthews and Malcolm Mitchell being cut early in camp. Newcomer Eric Decker has to prove his worth. Cordarrelle Patterson has had a solid camp, but has never been the kind of reliable receiver the Patriots covet. Phillip Dorsett needs to step up. Youngsters Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios may have a chance simply due to the lack of options. There is plenty of competition at receiver, but is it quality competition? And don't sleep on second-year tight end Jacob Hollister being a possible breakout option in the passing game.
What's in store at cornerback? – Jason McCourty joins his twin brother in the back end, but will the veteran trade addition be a starter, a backup or even have a job come September? There is plenty of competition after No. 1 option Stephon Gilmore on the depth chart. Thursday night a lot of that young competition – second-round pick Duke Dawson, undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson and former practice squanders Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz – will get the first chance to show their stuff in game action, likely with extended reps. The depth in the back end could be youthful and competitive this fall.
Pay special attention – Some might think that the kicking game in August action is time to get a snack. But if you really are interested in roster competition and the minutiae of the 53-man roster then the third phase is a key factor. While there will be obvious, glamorous battles for work at punter – rookie Corey Bojorquez gets his first chance to show his strong yet inconsistent left leg in his battle with veteran Ryan Allen -- and punt returner, the overall work in coverage and returns can lead to guys making the team. New England is a place that has always valued the kicking game and kept guys primarily for that role, but if young players can prove their value on special teams as well as show potential on offense or defense it can alter the way the roster is constructed. Watch the third phase as closely as offense and defense.
Big-picture changes – It's just the first preseason game, so things won't be too dramatic. But the Patriots will be debuting a new defensive boss in Brian Flores. The league is debuting not only its new helmet rule, but also a stricter emphasis on illegal contact and a complete overhaul of kickoffs. There have also been questions regarding the overall "feel" of training camp in Foxborough. Will that lead to some noticeable "feel" in the preseason opener? It's our first taste of what New England will be in 2018. Enjoy the flavor of a new season.
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