At long last, the "all-important" third preseason game. Finally a chance to see what the 2014 Patriots will look like. After a month of practices and brief cameos, we'll get a chance to see the real thing out on the Gillette Stadium field tonight.
OK, not so much. It's still just the preseason, and even though Tom Brady and the rest of his mates are expected to get some extended time against the Carolina Panthers, not much can be determined anytime the games don't count. After all, it was just last year when the Patriots were decimated, 40-9, in the third preseason game in Detroit, and that didn't seem to affect New England much during its 12-4 season.
But even though we're still about three weeks away from the real thing, there are some players and developments worth watching tonight and we'll highlight them here in our six-pack:
- Sorting out Safety –** After an entire spring of OTAs and mini-camp, and the first two weeks of the preseason there still doesn't seem to be any consensus as to who the starter will be next to Devin McCourty. Tight ends gave the Patriots problems last week against Philadelphia, particularly when Patrick Chung was on the field. Perhaps Bill Belichick is leaning toward a corner manning the spot, as was the case against the Eagles when Kyle Arrington got the nod. We've also seen Logan Ryan there, and Duron Harmon recorded an interception last week and remains a candidate. Interested in seeing who gets the call tonight.
2. Guard-ians at the Gate – The same sorting out process appears to be ongoing on the offensive line, particularly along the interior. Dan Connolly started at center in both games and continues to work more in the middle than at right guard. Jordan Devey, who spent last season on the practice squad, and Josh Kline have gotten lots of reps with the starters as well. Ryan Wendell, last year's starter, has come off the bench so far this summer. Sebastian Vollmer also missed the entire week of practice, so expect Marcus Cannon to man the right tackle spot. But the intrigue is in the middle, where some veterans could be playing for jobs.
- Charting the WR depth –** Aside from Julian Edelman, every receiver is still fighting to establish his role. Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Brandon LaFell are locks to make the team. Dobson is still fighting back from offseason foot surgery and looking to knock off some rust. LaFell is coming on strong of late and the Panthers game could offer some additional opportunities for him to establish a rapport with Tom Brady. Kenbrell Thompkins made a huge step in that direction against the Eagles with a perfectly timed back shoulder fade for a touchdown. It was the kind of timing play Thompkins struggled to make with any consistency a year ago. Beyond those players, Josh Boyce and Brian Tyms are still trying to prove they belong. It will be interesting to see if either gets a chance to work with Brady.
4. Backing up Brady – Speaking of the quarterback, it wouldn't be a preseason game if we weren't discussing Brady's backups. Jimmy Garoppolo was first out of the pen against the Eagles after Ryan Mallett got the start in the opener. With Brady potentially playing into the third quarter against the Panthers, there doesn't figure to be much time left over for both backups to get work. If Garoppolo replaces Brady and continues his impressive work, perhaps Belichick will look to move on from Mallett and save a roster spot. Mallett could also have something to say about that if he follows up on his terrific performance against Philadelphia.
- Mayo on the Move –** Jerod Mayo has yet to play in a preseason game, and his absence during the Eagles week has remained unexplained. The linebacker wouldn't say if it was injury related or not, but he has returned to practice and could see his first action tonight. Assuming that's the case, it could be an opportunity to see the front seven intact for the first time, and if so it's worth noting how the group is aligned. Mayo and Jamie Collins have been the inside linebackers in 3-4 sets with Rob Ninkovich used as an outside linebacker. Chandler Jones has been both an end and outside linebacker in those looks, with Dont'a Hightower patrolling the outside 'backer spot when Jones is at end. Lots of personnel groups to monitor tonight on defense.
6. Toting the Rock – Last week offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got lots of carries for all of his backs against a small Eagles front seven. This week it will be tougher to get that many carries against Carolina, so it's worth monitoring how the carries are divided. Stevan Ridley fumbled against the Eagles but he remains the team's best option in terms of a pure ball carrier. Rookie James White is more in the Shane Vereen mold as guy capable of getting carries but better suited as receivers. Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray both made plays against Philly and could be fighting for a roster spot. If either gets a chance with Brady in the game it could foreshadow how Belichick is envisioning the back end of the running back depth chart.