The defending champion Patriots finally get back to the football field Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
It's only a preseason game, but it's certainly a step up from the practice field.
And it's a far cry from an offseason in which seemingly the only storylines percolating through Patriots Nation were the departure of key veteran defenders and the ongoing Deflategate saga.
Now, it's time to talk about players, competition and the formulation of a football team that will look to defend its Super Bowl title.
It's a long, systematic process that Bill Belichick has guided a team through before. It began in the spring of OTA action and mini-camps, rolled into training camp and now takes to the battlefield against the 2014 NFC finalist Packers.
So, what can fans expect Thursday night as two teams unleash 90-man rosters filled with proven veterans and youngster with much to prove? Glad you asked.
Garoppolo's time to shine - Second-year backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is likely to play a lot on Thursday night, probably from the starting snap well into the second half. The 2014 second-round pick has not had the best of summers on the practice field. Even he'll readily admit he needs to improve his decisions, make quicker reads and get rid of the ball faster. His struggles on the practice field are by no means a major concern. The reality is that he is a second-year quarterback out of an FCS program whose college didn't use a playbook. He entered the NFL accustom to shotgun snaps and first-read throws. That's not the game he's playing anymore. He'll get a chance to prove himself and see plenty of looks from the Packers in front of the friendly home Foxborough crowd as he prepares for the possibility that he'll have to hold down the quarterback spot for some period of time come September.
All on the line - The Patriots have been battered by injuries a lot this summer. The positions of offensive line, running back and receiver have been notably lacking a number of key veteran contributors. In terms of the offensive line, the last practice prior to the preseason opener had a group in front of Garoppolo that included five players with a combined zero career NFL starts. That's likely the group that the quarterback will work behind against Green Bay. Chris Barker, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Tre' Jackson and Cameron Fleming must be competitive if Garoppolo and the skill position players are going to get chances to do their jobs. Keeping an eye on Mason and Jackson in particular will be important as the two fourth-round rookie guards have been constants on the practice field this summer and may be competing for starting jobs this season.
Secondary is primary focus - If there is a story worthy of more attention than the quarterback position, it's the new-look New England secondary. The offseason departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington left plenty of roles and holes in the back end of the defense. Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler has been a fixture at Revis' former left cornerback spot all summer on the practice field and has been one of the stars of training camp action. A year after fighting for his roster life as an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama, Butler is now a presumed starter looking to prove his worth in preseason action against the Packers passing attack. The other cornerback position and the safety spot next to Devin McCourt will also be key areas to focus on. That includes not only the guys taking the initial reps, but those fighting throughout the game for depth roles. Logan Ryan, Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher are veterans to keep an eye on at right corner. Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon and rookie Jordan Richards all seem to be very much in the mix at safety. The group has played well this summer against the New England offense, but seeing a different color on the other side of the field could change the competitive mix.
Opportunity knocks - There could be as many as 20-plus Patriots who don't suit up or don't play in the preseason premier. Many of those are key veterans or at least experienced guys fighting for jobs. Their absence will give plenty of younger or lesser-known players the chance to get an early jump on earning their own roles/roster spots. An early good impression thanks to an unexpected opportunity can key a guy's run toward the regular season. It's not all about Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty this time of year. Keep an eye on guys like linebacker Jonathan Freeny, defensive lineman Antonio Johnson and wide receiver Brandon Gibson as the newcomer veterans and others young players like L.J. Fort fight it out as they work to stick for the long haul.
What other things will you be watching for in the preseason opener against the Packers? Let us know with a comment below!