The Patriots’ exhibition game against Carolina Friday night doesn’t count in the standings, but it will be quite revealing about the team’s progress.
Training camp opened 30 days ago, and the Patriots’ roster is taking shape. The third game is where the starters get their last significant live reps in the preseason. Tom Brady will likely play the entire first half, and possibly into the third quarter. Same with Darrelle Revis and most of the other starters.
The players that get the most snaps in this game usually make the Week 1 roster. Last year against Detroit, we saw a healthy dose of Kenbrell Thompkins, Will Svitek, Josh Kline, and Zach Sudfeld, all of whom made the team out of camp.
Of course, there are always exceptions, especially when Bill Belichick is making the decisions. Jake Ballard, Matt Stankiewitch, and Markus Zusevics also got a lot of playing time against Detroit, and all were cut. Belichick just wanted to take a longer look at them. Same could happen this time with Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson, Steve Maneri, or Josh Boyce.
The third preseason game is a good barometer of the team’s progress. In last year’s game, the offense under Brady had three lost fumbles, an interception, three punts, a turnover on downs, and one field goal — signs of the struggles to come early in the regular season.
Here are five things to watch against Carolina:
1. Quarterback rotation
It’s do-or-die time for Ryan Mallett, who suddenly might be expendable thanks to the improvement shown by Jimmy Garoppolo throughout camp and the first two exhibition games. With Brady likely to take up at least the first half, there may not be enough reps to go around for both Mallett and Garoppolo.
Last year, Tim Tebow didn’t play at all in the third exhibition game, which pretty much sealed his fate.
Mallett was 7 for 11 with a touchdown last week against the Eagles, but his spot likely could come down to Belichick’s comfort level with Garoppolo. Whether Mallett plays is by far the game’s most fascinating story line.
2. Offensive line rotation
Patriots fans shouldn’t feel great about the line right now. It allowed 40 sacks last year, Nate Solder is struggling in camp, Logan Mankins is coming off an average season, two of the interior spots aren’t settled, and Dante Scarnecchia isn’t around to patch things together.
Realistically, the Patriots have 11 players vying for nine or 10 spots, and the winner of the Dan Connolly/Ryan Wendell battle at center will probably cause other dominos to fall.
Connolly appears to be winning the battle, and the scales could be tipped even further in his favor if he restructures his contract (he’s in his final year).
Jordan Devey, who was on the practice squad last year, has played every snap so far and could lock up a roster spot with a solid performance. The right guard battle could come down to Connolly (if the Patriots decide to keep Wendell at center and put Connolly back at his old position), Kline, Devey, or Marcus Cannon, who will likely start at right tackle Friday, with Sebastian Vollmer (foot) absent from practice all week.
3. Safety rotation
Other than the offensive line, the only starting position that needs sorting out is strong safety. Second-year pro Duron Harmon looked to be the favorite entering camp, but he has been sitting out a lot of reps in practice and games.
Maybe Belichick is certain about Harmon’s development, and he’s just using the preseason as an opportunity to give the other players a closer evaluation. Or, more likely, the free safety spot will be a rotation with Harmon and two or three other players.
Chung and Wilson appear to be battling for a roster spot, and Wilson needs to get back on the field after missing last week with an injury. Cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan have been getting snaps at free safety in the dime package. Nate Ebner looks like a decent bet to make the team given his special teams skills, and sixth-round pick Jemea Thomas needs to prove he’s worthy of a roster spot.
4. Tom Brady and his receivers
As we said, this is really the last chance for Brady and his receivers to get live reps together. Brady and Julian Edelman have looked terrific all camp, and Brady seems to have a better connection with Thompkins and Danny Amendola in their second season together, as well. Brandon LaFell is the one playing catch-up, but he has been a good red zone target in practice and is fitting in well. Training camp hero Brian Tyms might get some reps with the starters in this game, and Boyce badly needs to have a good game.
Let’s see whether the Patriots or Panthers have learned anything over the first two weeks about how to play under the new NFL rules emphases.
The ticky-tack defensive penalties are way up — holding, illegal contact, and pass interference — but that’s not the only area being called tightly. The big guys on the line are also getting flagged at an alarming rate. The Patriots and Eagles combined for nine penalties for illegal use of hands last week.
We’re hoping this game doesn’t turn into another penalty-fest, but that’s probably wishful thinking.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin