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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Patriots-Panthers

Week 3 of the preseason brings a different level of interest than the others. Fair or not, it's the game in which the starters play the longest and therefore most fans treat the most seriously. For the Patriots there's a chance that some players could return to action, specifically rookie D.J. Foster, who missed the first half of the preseason dealing with an undisclosed injury.

Rob Gronkowski, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich continue to deal with injuries and are unlikely to play, but that doesn't mean there won't be plenty of reasons to keep an eye on the action at Bank of America Stadium.

Here are five things to watch in Friday's preseason matchup with the Carolina Panthers.

1. Jimmy Garoppolo's progress - The Patriots de facto starter turned in an uneven performance against the Saints but picked things up a week later against the Bears. Consistency and accuracy have eluded the young quarterback over the past couple of weeks and it will be interesting to see if he can put two solid weeks together. It won't be easy on the road against a tough Panthers defense, and he'll likely be facing Carolina's top unit for at least the first half. 

2. Tom Brady's involvement - Will Brady play? Will he be on the sidelines? Anything involving Brady at this point constitutes news. TB12 continues to lobby for playing time and it will be interesting to see if Bill Belichick gives in, therefore taking some reps away from Garoppolo in the process.

3. D.J. Foster's debut?- The rookie out of Arizona State has yet to play in the preseason and only recently returned to practice. Belichick discussed the difficulty in evaluating young players with no track record without benefit of seeing them perform, so this could be a great opportunity for the versatile running back to show what he can do - assuming he's healthy enough to go. 

4. Is Trey Flowers for real?- The second-year defensive end has flashed serious pass-rushing ability in his very limited preseason action the last two summers. He's been outstanding thus far, culminating with the strip sack and fumble return for a touchdown against the Bears. Can he continue to put some heat on the quarterback, and even if he does can he play the run well enough to be more than just a situational player? With injuries to Ninkovich, Sheard and McClellin, the Patriots could use someone like Flowers to emerge.

5. Young corners- Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan appear set as the starting corners but there are still plenty of roles to be earned. Justin Coleman has enjoyed a solid camp but struggled at times against New Orleans and Chicago. Cyrus Jones has been inconsistent in the slot (and catching punts) but came up with an interception while playing outside against the Bears. He's obviously a lock to make the roster regardless. Rookies Cre'von LeBlanc and Jonathan Jones have outplayed second-year man Darryl Roberts thus far and could be in the mix, although Roberts played well against Chicago with a couple of pass breakups. This competition will be worth watching all preseason.

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