Here are seven things we’ll be looking for Thursday night when the Patriots meet the Giants in the preseason finale for both teams:
Who doesn’t play.
When it comes to the preseason finale, it’s just as important to figure out who doesn’t play as opposed to who does play. As we detailed here, if you’re a starter — or even a veteran — and you find yourself on the field for anything more than 10-15 snaps on Thursday night, it’s a bad sign. (The only area where this might be an exception is along the interior of the offensive line, for reasons we will address shortly.) Based on the work they were able to put in last week against the Panthers when they looked mostly razor sharp on both sides of the ball, don’t expect many of the starters to see the field against the Giants, despite the fact that we know New York is going to roll out its starters for between 15 an 18 snaps.
A good chunk of this relates back to the first point — we know quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is going to start and get the bulk of the snaps. But given the fact that history tells us those who don’t play are likely to have a secure roster spot, we’ll be keeping an eye on a few first-year players and monitoring their playing time. Cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back James White have been among the rookies who have played well enough to land a roster spot over the course of the summer — if they end up sitting Thursday night, it’s a good bet they’ve made the roster.
Thursday will be the first professional start for Garoppolo, and he’ll get a chance to show what he can do against a No. 1 defense for the first time in the preseason. The New England coaching staff will be interested in seeing him in as many different situations as possible: two-minute, end-of-half, under pressure from a steady rush, as well as a potential four-minute offense situation. Everything is on the table when it comes to evaluating Garoppolo. From this viewpoint, Ryan Mallett is still the No. 2 quarterback on the roster, but the rookie will certainly get his opportunity to show what he can do come Thursday evening in North Jersey.
Who gets the majority of snaps along the interior of the offensive line.
Things were muddied even before the Patriots traded left guard Logan Mankins to the Bucs on Tuesday — at that point, the only two real questions were right guard and center. Now, it’s even more unclear who will play all three interior spots along the offensive line. While Dan Connolly has played both guard and center over the course of his career — but having taken more snaps at center than guard this summer — with the move on Mankins, you figure he’s probably more valuable to the team at guard (Mankins’ old spot in particular), given the fact that the Patriots have Ryan Wendell and Bryan Stork as possibilities at center. Meanwhile, the right guard spot could be a combination of Jordan Devey, Jon Halapio and Josh Kline. Or do they take Marcus Cannon from working as the backup swing tackle — a spot where he’s looked pretty good at all summer — and stick him back at his more natural position of guard? Lots of questions, very few answers. Hopefully, there will be some clarification Thursday against the Giants.
Almost as up in the air as the interior of the offensive line. There have been several candidates at the position, but no one has managed to seize it as his own to this point in the preseason. From this viewpoint — as we explained in detail here earlier in the summer — the three best options are likely Matthew Slater, Josh Boyce and Finch. But all three have been relatively underwhelming, with Finch providing the only real fireworks with a fumble in the first preseason game but bouncing back with a pair of impressive returns against the Eagles. That being said, Boyce remains the most impressive physical presence of just about anyone on the roster, and if he could ever manage to click, would seem like a natural at the spot. Another position that could use some clarification against the Giants.
The positional battle among the safeties/special teamers.
The Patriots have five safeties/special teamers who bring roughly the same skill set to the field in Slater, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Kanorris Davis and Patrick Chung. While it’s a safe bet that Slater makes it through — his speed, smarts and leadership skills make him a lock to be the special teams captain again in 2014 — the rest of the field is wide open. With a handful of cornerbacks working more and more at safety over the course of the preseason, spots along the back line will be at a premium this year. As a result, the safeties have to do everything they can to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field. When it comes to the group after Slater, Ebner likely remains second behind Slater in terms of overall importance, while Wilson has carved out a nice special teams niche for himself over the last year plus and Davis has a gonzo coverage attitude that consistently shows up on film. Some tough decisions for the coaching staff, who will likely have to cut at least one from this grouping before the start of the regular season. (For what it’s worth, Davis, Ebner and Wilson all have practice squad eligibility.)
The back end of the receiver depth chart.
As we previously mentioned, Boyce needs to find a way to separate himself from the rest of the pack, and if he can’t do it as a kick returner, he needs to bring more oomph to the passing game as a receiver. (He also has practice squad eligibility, although it might be tough to sneak a guy through who has that sort of skill set.) Feel-good story of the summer Brian Tyms has played well, but still needs to finish strong heading into cutdown weekend if he wants to be able to stick around. Tyms does offer them some roster flexibility, however, as his four-game ban means that if he does survive, he won’t count toward the final 53-man roster. In addition, he’s also a p-squad candidate.