How should the Patriots split the reps at QB Friday night? (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Here are seven things we’ll be looking for Friday night when the Patriots meet the Panthers in the third preseason game for both teams:
1. How the reps are split at quarterback:
Nine of the last 10 times the Patriots took the field for the third preseason game of the summer, Tom Brady was at quarterback deep into the contest. (He sat out the third preseason game in 2008 entirely.) For the record, over those nine appearances, he finished with an average line of 15-for-22, 179 yards, 1.4 TDs, .33 INTs and 40.5 snaps, with the bulk of the work coming over the first two-plus quarters. But with Brady’s status for the regular-season opener still unclear, there has to be some thought given to the idea of having Jimmy Garoppolo get more snaps than usual Friday against the Panthers with an eye toward making sure he’s ready for opening night against the Steelers if need be. From this viewpoint, the cautious play would be to have Brady start the game, but yield at roughly the 30-snap mark, depending on the offensive rhythm at that point in the evening. That way, Brady still gets in his needed work, but Garoppolo gets a little more activity than usual in advance of the regular-season opener against the Steelers.
For the record, here’s Brady’s workload and production in the third preseason game over the last 10 years:
2014: 17-for-21, 204 yards, two touchdowns, 42 snaps vs. Panthers
2013: 16-for-24, 185 yards, one interception, two sacks, 46 snaps vs. Lions
2012: 13-for-20, 127 yards, one touchdown, one interception, two sacks, 45 snaps vs. Bucs
2011: 12-for-22, 145 yards, one touchdown, one interception, two sacks, 37 snaps vs. Lions
2010: 18-for-22, 273 yards, three touchdowns, 30 snaps vs. Rams
2009: 12-for-19 for 150 yards, two touchdowns, one sack, 29 snaps vs. Redskins
2007: 17-for-22, 167 yards, two touchdowns, 47 snaps vs. Panthers
2006: 17-for-30, 231 yards, one touchdown, 49 snaps vs. Redskins
2005: 12-for-21, 127 yards, one touchdown, one sack, 40 snaps vs. Packers
2. The third-down back competition:
This has been one of the best positional battles the Patriots have had in the last decade or so. Over the course of camp, the smart money appeared to be on Travaris Cadet, but he suffered an injury, and wasn’t heard from for a couple weeks. With that void, after Week 1 of the preseason, James White appeared to have the best shot at the job with a really nice outing against the Packers. But last week against the Saints, Dion Lewis really flashed positively, so much so that he looked to be in command. Now? Who knows? Cadet needs to stay healthy if he wants to stay in the race, but it was hard not to look at the White/Lewis combo over the first two weeks of the preseason and imagine a combo role while White grows into the job on a full-time basis a year or two down the road, a la Shane Vereen.
3. Fast starts:
After slow beginnings by the No. 1 offense in the first two preseason games, a quick start will certainly be a point of emphasis this time around for New England. The Patriots have been outscored by a combined 30-18 margin in the first half against the Packers and Saints, and while the score is often the last thing you should be worried about when it comes to the preseason, an ability to execute right out of the gate and control the pace on both sides of the ball is always key. While some of the offensive numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt — the Patriots haven’t had Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson or Bryan Stork take a single snap in either preseason game, while Brady is 3-for-9 for 23 yards on 16 snaps — a quick start and nice rhythm for the offense in the early going would be a positive for the Patriots.
4. Containing Cam
The Patriots will have the opportunity to face any number of big, mobile quarterbacks over the course of the 2015 season, and Carolina’s Cam Newton should provide them with an excellent test Friday in Charlotte. The ability to keep containment on the edges and maintain gap discipline throughout each of the gaps will be key for New England’s front seven when it comes to defending Newton, who was third in rushing yards (539 yards) among quarterbacks in 2014. Figuring out how to diagnose and slow down Newton will provide a good test for later in the regular season when the Patriots go up against running quarterbacks like Indy’s Andrew Luck, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, three of the six quarterbacks who rushed for at least 270 yards last season.
5. Combinations in the secondary
The decision to move Devin McCourty to cornerback appears to be done, at least for the time being, but the different personnel packages that the Patriots decide to go with in the secondary will certainly bear watching against the Panthers. Is new veteran cornerback Tarrell Brown ready to assume a greater role? Can Malcolm Butler maintain the same high level of play that he’s been able to demonstrate throughout the summer? Can Jordan Richards push for playing time at either safety position? And can it all gel quickly enough for the Patriots to have a competitive secondary before the start of the regular season? We should get more answers to those questions on Friday against Carolina.
6. The bubble guys:
By our count, we have nine guys who need to perform well if they want to continue their push for a roster spot on the final 53. Our list includes (but is not limited to) linebackers Jonathan Freeny and James Morris, defensive lineman Rufus Johnson, safeties Tavon Wilson and Brandon King, offensive linemen David Andrews, Josh Kline and Michael Williams and wide receiver Josh Boyce. With the first round of cuts looming on Sept. 1 (that’s when New England has to be at 75 players) and their chances starting to dwindle, it’s vital for them to get some good performances on film.
7. Reggie Wayne:
The veteran receiver showed up this week, and while he’s still in the infant stages of his New England career, the Patriots need to be assured that Wayne is capable is getting up to speed as fast as possible, particularly if he’ll be taking some of Brandon LaFell’s reps. Gifted with smarts and a veteran savvy, the viewpoint here is that Wayne gets on the field for roughly 20 snaps, a brief baptism in a Patriots’ uniform. Then, he needs to build on that the following week with a good week of practice. (Given his background, it would probably be smart to at least give him a few reps in the preseason finale as well for several reasons, not the least of which it would allow the coaching staff to determine his level of fitness before the regular-season opener against the Steelers.)