The final preseason game of the year offers all sorts of intriguing storylines for the Patriots. While the starters are expected to see some time Wednesday night against the Giants, there are a handful of guys playing for jobs, as well as some who need a taste of game action -- even if it's preseason -- before the regular season is set to open on Sept. 9 against the Titans. With those ideas in mind, here are 10 players we’ll be watching Wednesday night.
Running back/returner Jeff Demps: The running back/returner saw action on a handful of plays Friday against Tampa -- the Patriots used him in a variety of ways -- and you have to figure the team will be interested in seeing as much as they can of the former Olympic silver medalist on Wednesday as they try and get him up to speed as quickly as possible in the offense. It’s going to be a crash course for Demps between now and the regular-season opener against the Titans on Sept. 9, and so expect him to get plenty of reps against the Giants, both in the return game and as a running back.
Left guard Logan Mankins: Mankins played a handful of snaps in his return to the field on Friday, and figures to get more of a run Wednesday against the Giants as the Patriots get him ready for the start of the regular season after missing all spring and part of the summer while he recovered from offseason knee surgery. In his limited action against the Bucs, it was clear that his presence did indeed help left tackle Nate Solder. More reps together certainly go a long way toward creating more stability on the left side of the offensive line.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer: Vollmer still hasn’t played since the Super Bowl, and while we're not 100 percent sure what’s slowed Vollmer over the offseason (he was sidelined throughout the spring and for most of camp), it’s clear to anyone who watched him run this spring that he was dealing with some sort of back ailment. He returned to the practice field recently, but he’s another player whom the Patriots would like to get some game reps so they can figure out where he is between now and the start of the regular season.
Defensive back Nate Ebner: Like Marquice Cole, Ebner is a defensive back who is new to the system who has shown steady progress throughout the summer. Both Cole and Ebner were considered bubble prospects with special teams value at the start of camp, but both have become solid defensive backs who have brought value to the defense on third-down and other passing situations. As for Ebner, he won’t start, but he’s moved steadily up the depth chart over the last few weeks, surpassing safeties Josh Barrett (who went on IR this week) and Sergio Brown. While Ebner does have practice squad eligibility, he’s likely performed so well to this point it would be close to impossible to get him through waivers. If he can put together a solid performance against the Giants, there’s no reason to think he hasn’t done enough to land a spot on the 53-man roster.
Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham: When it comes to Cunningham this summer, there’s been some good (including three quarterback hits against the Eagles), but he has struggled to find consistency. Cunningham has certainly shown positive flashes a number of times in camp and in the preseason, but the Florida product could be a victim of the numbers game if he doesn’t have a good final week of the preseason.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard: The slightly undersized seventh-round pick out of Nebraska saw his first on-field action Friday against the Bucs, and played sparingly in the second half. The cornerback hasn’t been healthy enough over the summer (he was slowed by a hamstring early in camp), and so there’s very little on film when it comes to an overall evaluation. Like Ebner, he figures to be too interesting a prospect to try and get through waivers to the practice squad (remember, Dennard was considered a mid-round prospect before red flags popped up in the offseason), which likely works in his favor when it comes to possibly landing a spot on the final 53-man roster. But like many others on this list, the Patriots need to know what they have in Dennard sooner rather than later.
Running back Brandon Bolden: He’s been on and off our final 53-man roster over the course of the summer, and he could ultimately land a spot on the practice squad if the Patriots want to expose him through the waiver process. One thing worth keeping an eye on is the fact that Bolden’s chances of making the team have likely improved with the recent wide receiver cuts, as well as the decision to move fullback Spencer Larsen to IR. While Eric Kettani is still on the roster, at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, the stocky Bolden could be used as a part-time fullback, something Bill Belichick didn’t dismiss on Monday. Regardless, with Shane Vereen unlikely to play because of an injury he suffered against the Bucs (he didn’t practice earlier in the week) and Stevan Ridley all but assured of being the No. 1 back, the opportunity should be there on Wednesday for Bolden to make a case as to why he should stick around.
Quarterback Ryan Mallett: Mallett has shown good improvement in game action over the last three weeks. No one is saying he’s going to unseat Tom Brady or even Brian Hoyer -- and Mallett did most of his good stuff against backups and third stringers -- but he’s now displaying the sort of good, consistent decision-making, mobility in the pocket and easy touch on intermediate and short passes that the Patriots hoped for when they drafted him. (In three games this preseason, Mallett is 25-for-52 for 260 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception.) It’s on Mallett now to continue to make the most of his opportunities, and he should get another one Wednesday night against the Giants.
Tight end Daniel Fells: While we’re still not sure what to make of Visanthe Shiancoe, Fells was on the field in game action for the first time Friday against the Bucs. He doesn’t figure to get many reps as anything other than a third tight end -- let’s face it, the New England offense is less than its best when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez aren’t on the field. I don’t think that Fells is in danger of not making the final 53-man roster, but like many other players on this list who have been missing for some of the summer, the Patriots would like to get him some game reps to get a sense of where he is -- both in his overall fitness as well as his acclimation to the New England system -- before the start of the regular season.
The final linebacker spot: At this point, you figure that final spot is between Jeff Tarpinian, Mike Rivera, Niko Koutouvides and Tracy White. Tarpinian and Rivera have been a bit of a mixed bag over the last couple of weeks, opening the door for the possibility of Koutouvides and (possibly) White, if the latter can ever get healthy. For what it’s worth, the final two bring more special teams value to the field, increasing their chances. Regardless, if you need a reason to watch the fourth quarter, focus on the number of reps and the level of play at the linebacker spot.