What to Watch for in New England Patriots' Preseason Week 1 Matchup
The last time we saw the New England Patriots on a game field, they were scoring a walk-off touchdown in overtime to win the Super Bowl.
A lot has changed since that final play of Super Bowl LI, however. Rob Ninkovich retired, LeGarrette Blount and Martellus Bennett left in free agency, and the Patriots brought in a plethora of new veteran players to bolster the roster.
This Thursday, we'll see just how this new-look version of the Patriots performs on the game field for the first time. New England will host the Jacksonville Jaguars at 7:30 p.m. ET on August 10 in the team's first of four preseason games.
While we don't always learn definitive facts in early preseason games—primarily because most starters don't see extended playing time—there are some things we can glean from the Patriots' preseason opener. We're here to examine some of the things worth watching for.
How Does the Running Game Operate?
The power running of LeGarrette Blount was one of the strongest—and most underrated—aspects of the Patriots offense in 2016. Blount was responsible for 1,161 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns last season. He's gone, though (now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles), so finding a new leading running back before the start of the season is paramount.
Backs like Dion Lewis, James White and Brandon Bolden return. The Patriots also added Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead in the offseason. Gillislee and Burkhead seem like the most-likely candidates to take over the rushing duties—they were the league's two most efficient backs on a per-play basis last season, according to Pro Football Outsiders.
Heading into the preseason opener, though, the Patriots seem likely to be without Gillislee. According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, Gillislee has been out of practice with a hamstring issue for the past few days.
Gillislee, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season, appears to be the favorite for the leading-rusher role. With him out, however, we should get a look at how the other backs on the roster operate in the current offense.
For a team missing the production Blount had last season, the backfield will be worth watching throughout the preseason. If Gillislee can't go, it will be worth watching to see if another back is capable of carrying the load in Week 1 of the preseason.
How Far Has Dwayne Allen Progressed?
Can tight end Rob Gronkowski stay healthy and be productive throughout the 2017 season? That's a question we cannot answer at this point in the preseason.
In reality, we probably won't even get an answer on how healthy Gronkowski is at this point. Gronk hasn't had a regular preseason presence in several years. According to Howe, he is one of the players not expected to play against Jacksonville—along with Tom Brady and newcomer Brandon Cooks.
Allen was acquired in order to provide a complement to and injury insurance for Gronkowski—the same reasons Martellus Bennett was acquired last offseason. Unfortunately, Allen hasn't experienced the smoothest of sailing throughout the offseason.
Allen struggled with drops and with acclimating to the Patriots offense.
"I think anytime you're adjusted to a new quarterback, new offensive system, everything, there's going to be some struggles," Allen said, per Henry McKenna of Patriots Wire. "And I certainly struggled early on."
Hopefully, the Patriots will be able to count on Gronkowski during the regular season. Even if they can't, they'll still be better off with Allen being a reliable No. 2 option. Per Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Allen has been a regular red-zone target for Brady during the offseason.
This week, we should get a better idea of just how well Allen fits into the offense.
Jimmy Garoppolo's Performance
If Brady isn't likely to play, then we should see a fair amount of backup Jimmy Garoppolo.
Now, normally, we wouldn't look too closely at the performance of a backup QB in the preseason opener. However, Garoppolo's situation is quite different than most. He's widely expected to be the heir apparent to Brady, and he was a coveted trade target this past offseason.
From now until the next stage of his career—he's scheduled for free agency next offseason—Garoppolo is going to be under heavy scrutiny.
So far, it's been a mixed bag for Garoppolo in camp. By mixed, we mean it's been pretty underwhelming. Per the Boston Herald's Howe, Garoppolo was "woeful" in the team's first scrimmage of camp. According to Howe, Garoppolo also tossed a whopping seven interceptions through the first nine practices of camp.
Does any of this mean that Garoppolo won't be a fantastic future starter? Of course not. It also doesn't mean New England made any sort of mistake by not trading him. Yet, we're all going to be watching intently to see if Garoppolo flashes some signs of either extreme each and every time he's on the field this season—beginning on Thursday.
The Battle for Receiver Depth
We probably won't see Cooks, who should be one of the starting wideouts opposite Julian Edelman. What we should see is a number of other receivers battling for their spot near the top of the pecking order. Specifically, we should see receivers fighting for the third receiver spot.
There are plenty of candidates in the running here. Among them are second-year wideout Malcolm Mitchell, 2016 acquisition Chris Hogan, rookie Austin Carr, former practice-squad member Devin Lucien and mainstay Danny Amendola.
Obviously, it will be fascinating to follow the battle for No. 3 receiver over the next four preseason games. However, this receiver battle could also give us a glimpse into the future. Amendola, for instance, has been part of the team for several years but is also entering the final year of his current contract.
Could a young receiver like Lucien already be poised to replace Amendola next year? Perhaps. Lucien has been standing out in camp and, according to the Boston Globe's Volin, he "knows how to get the ball."
We might get a look at the immediate and long-term futures of New England's receiving corps as early as Thursday, but only if we're watching.
How Does Stephon Gilmore Hold Up in the Patriots Defense?
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was one of New England's biggest acquisitions of the 2017 offseason. The team gave him a massive five-year, $65 million contract to join the secondary. What we'll be looking to see is if he can live to the up standard.
New England boasted one of the league's top defenses in 2016—they allowed a league-low 15.6 points per game—and team features top-tier pass-defenders like Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon.
Gilmore, who is coming off his first Pro Bowl campaign, should fit right into this championship-caliber defense.
However, Gilmore hasn't necessarily been a revelation during training camp. His biggest highlight of camp so far was getting into an altercation with wideout Julian Edelman, and before that—according to NFL Draft Diamonds—he was regularly burned in practices.
The Jaguars have some quality receivers, like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, so Gilmore should face a fair test in the preseason opener.
With him coming to a new team, it'll be understandable if Gilmore experiences some growing pains. We should get an idea of what the transition period will look like early in the preseason.
How Will the Rookies Fare?
The Patriots don't typically rely heavily on their rookies in any given season. They also didn't spend much of their draft capital on actual rookies this offseason—a mere four drafted players. However, this doesn't mean rookie players can't and won't have an impact on this season and on New England's future.
While the Patriots may not have drafted a player before Round 3 this year, it's already beginning to look like the team grabbed some draft steals.
Fourth-round pick Deatrich Wise has been a star at defensive end. Undrafted linebacker Harvey Langi has been a standout, too. Both have made quick transitions to the pro game. Their versatility is appearing incredibly appealing.
"Bill Belichick and his staff are clearly investing valuable time in both," Adam Kurkjian of the Boston Herald recently wrote. "Langi is mostly standing up at outside linebacker while Wise has primarily been at tackle, but the team has moved them around, mixed multiple fronts and not dumbed anything down when the two are on the field."
Rookie third-round pass-rusher Derek Rivers is expected to be a part of the Patriots' plan in 2017. Undrafted defensive tackle Adam Butler has been an impressive piece of Patriots camp.
According to Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal, Langi, Wise and Butler were all starting with the first-team defense during the pre-game walkthrough.
Rookies like Malcolm Mitchell and Elandon Roberts ended up having significant impacts for the Patriots during last year's Super Bowl campaign. We might just get a look at the franchise's nest rookie contributors during the first week of the preseason.