RICHMOND — The Patriots will strap on their pads and suit up in full uniforms for the first time in exactly 200 days when they face the Washington Redskins in their exhibition opener Thursday night.
Of course, this contest will hardly resemble January’s AFC Championship game loss to the Broncos. Certainly the intensity won’t be the same, and most of the familiar faces on both teams won’t play much, if at all.
The Patriots will definitely be without Rob Gronkowski, who was left back in Foxborough to continue rehabbing his knee, and Tom Brady, Darrelle Revis, and the rest of the starters won’t play much.
Bill Belichick didn’t say how much he intends to play his starters — expect two or three series, tops — but Redskins coach Jay Gruden said he intends to send his top guys out there for only 8-10 plays. Washington also will be without star receivers DeSean Jackson (ankle) and Pierre Garcon (hamstring).
Still, there is plenty on the agenda for both teams as they try to evaluate and sort out their 53-man rosters. A list of things to watch out for:
A lot more bad than good can happen for the Patriots this training camp, particularly in the form of injuries. They have emerged from the first two weeks relatively unscathed, although Gronkowski still hasn’t been cleared for contact, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is dealing with a leg injury, and backup defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, who made a nice impact down the stretch last year, suffered a hand injury that is “not good,” according to a league source.
The Patriots’ season can literally turn on one play if a key player suffers a significant injury. Already, the Redskins got a scare Wednesday when Jackson twisted his ankle in the walk-through practice.
Our advice would be to hold out key players such as Revis, Julian Edelman and Chandler Jones completely, and to be very careful with players coming off of injury, such as Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. These games don’t mean much for the Patriots’ veteran-laden roster, and the last thing they need is to suffer a bad injury.
2. Backup quarterback bonanza
The game should be pretty fun for college football fans, who will get to watch some old familiar faces at quarterback. Ryan Mallett should get a majority of the playing time for New England, with rookie Jimmy Garoppolo likely to mop up in the fourth quarter. For the Redskins, Robert Griffin III will quickly give way to Kirk Cousins, and then Colt McCoy.
These preseason games are especially important for Mallett, who has thrown all of four passes in three seasons and won’t get off the bench again this season as long as Brady is healthy. Mallett is in the final year of his rookie contract, and has only these four preseason games to prove to the other 31 teams that he is an NFL-caliber starting quarterback, as NFL Network’s Mike Mayock declared this week.
It’s unlikely that Mallett’s performance in this preseason will convince a team that he’s worthy of being handed a starting job, but he could at least earn himself a little money and sign somewhere where he will have an honest shot at winning the job.
For Garoppolo, the game is his first chance to shake off an inconsistent two weeks in camp and show why he was worthy of a second-round pick.
3. Tight end opportunities
The Patriots didn’t have great depth at tight end entering the season — their decision not to draft one back in May is a bit curious — and now it’s paper-thin. Gronk likely won’t play a single snap in the preseason, Hoomanawanui is home in Foxborough (although a source said Hooman is expected to return to the field soon), and third tight end D.J. Williams likely won’t play after sitting out Wednesday’s light practice with a compression sleeve on his right leg.
That means three players will get a tremendous opportunity to play a ton of snaps: tight end Justin Jones, tight end Asa Watson, and fullback James Develin.
Jones and Watson, both undrafted rookie free agents, couldn’t ask for a better situation. They’ll get to play the entire game and work with all three quarterbacks. Jones, especially, could capitalize on this opportunity. At 6 feet 8 inches and 270 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to crack the 53-man roster and be a red zone target for Brady.
4. Sorting out the receiver competition
We know the top three receivers — Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Brandon LaFell, though not necessarily in that order. Aaron Dobson has a roster spot waiting for him, but the fact that he is still on the physically unable to perform list with his foot injury is not a good sign. Special teams captain Matthew Slater will take the fifth receiver spot, leaving six receivers to fight for one spot (or two if Dobson can’t come back, though that doesn’t seem likely).
Kenbrell Thompkins appears to be the leader in the clubhouse, showing toughness against the Redskins this week and going all-out every day of training camp. But he hasn’t exactly seized his opportunity, with too many dropped passes and communication errors with Brady for our liking.
Josh Boyce hasn’t done much to justify his fourth-round draft selection last year and could be in real trouble. We thought seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon had a decent shot to make the team, but he can’t get off the injury list, either.
Wilson Van Hooser, Derrick Johnson, and Brian Tyms are in the mix, and we’ve actually been impressed with Tyms’s size (6-3 with long arms) and the number of plays he has made in a short time with the Patriots.
The tiebreaker could come down to special teams contributions, which could hurt Thompkins, since he doesn’t bring much in that area.
5. Safety battle
The safety position is the one area that isn’t quite settled, other than Devin McCourty at free safety. Second-year player Duron Harmon has the inside track on the strong safety job after a solid rookie season, and could cement it with a strong showing in the first couple of preseason games.
After that, though, is a wide-open competition among Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung, and rookies Shamiel Gary, Kanorris Davis, and Jemea Thomas, who has been out the last week-plus with an injury.
Davis was a solid special teams contributor last year, and the Patriots certainly know what Chung can bring to the table.
But don’t be surprised if Wilson, who played only 15 snaps last year and appeared to be on the outs, sneaks back onto the roster for another year. Teammates and coaches have noticed a difference in the way he prepares and takes his job more seriously, and he has gotten a decent amount of work with the defense this camp.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin