The Patriots’ starters got their work in last week against Carolina when they played more than two full quarters in a 30-7 victory.
Thursday night against the Giants, it’s the backups’ chance to get one last piece of the spotlight.
Tom Brady, Darrelle Revis, and most of the veteran starters will be nothing more than well-padded cheerleaders when New England wraps up its preseason in New York. There’s no sense in risking injury in the final exhibition before the Sept. 7 season opener at Miami, and Thursday night’s game gives Bill Belichick a good opportunity to take one last look at his roster-bubble players before making final cuts by 4 p.m. Saturday.
And there is still plenty on the line, even if you don’t recognize a lot of the names (the Giants plan on playing their offensive starters, but only for a couple of series). Here are five things to watch:
1. The Jimmy G Show: Rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has gotten the most game snaps among the Patriots’ quarterbacks this preseason, and after looking shaky early in camp, he has shown nice improvement and looks like someone who belongs in the NFL. Garoppolo is 24 of 37 passing (64.9 percent) with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, and he’ll be thrust into the spotlight against the Giants when he plays most, if not all, of the game.
A good game could cement Garoppolo as the No. 2 quarterback. Belichick said he wants to see how Garoppolo handles himself all week knowing he will start a game, an opportunity that doesn’t come around too often when you back up Brady.
“He is going to be in the game for every situation — second down, third down, goal line, red area, two-minute, whatever it is,” Belichick said. “He needs to be prepared for everything and handle whatever comes up.
“This is also a week that he will have to deal with the media, deal with the production meeting before the game. I’m sure the fans will have a lot of insults for him when he walks on the field. It’s an away game, it’s all the things that a quarterback eventually will do as a starting quarterback.”
On a related note, Thursday’s game might be the last we see Ryan Mallett in a Patriots uniform. It’s hard to see the team keeping him if he doesn’t play much, if at all, against the Giants. He also only played seven snaps against the Panthers.
2. Offensive line combinations: The offensive line has been fluid all camp, especially at center and right guard, and now there’s even more intrigue surrounding the unit after Logan Mankins was traded to the Buccaneers Tuesday.
At the very least, we know Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will man the tackle spots.
The leaders for the three interior spots appear to be Ryan Wendell at center, Dan Connolly at right guard, and Marcus Cannon at left guard, but Cannon has never played there in his career. Josh Kline, 24, would be a good fit at left guard and played well there in his lone start last season against Baltimore.
Jordan Devey, Braxston Cave, and a trio of rookies — Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming, and Jon Halapio — also factor into the mix, and it’s possible the Patriots aren’t done making surprise veteran cuts (Wendell and Connolly aren’t safe yet). We’ll certainly be watching the rotation all night to try to get a feel for how these position battles shake out.
3. Strong safety rotation: The other spot that still doesn’t seem to be settled is opposite Devin McCourty. The past couple of preseason games, Patrick Chung has surprisingly gotten the start while Duron Harmon, presumed to be the leader for the job entering camp, has been used in nickel and obvious passing situations. Last week against Carolina, Tavon Wilson came back from injury and subbed in for Chung with the starting defense on certain drives. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots treat the position like this all year — using a bigger, physical safety like Chung or Wilson on running downs, and Harmon or a cornerback like Kyle Arrington on obvious passing downs.
The Patriots probably can’t keep everyone — Chung, Wilson, McCourty, Kanorris Davis, and Nate Ebner — so the rotation in Thursday’s game could provide us some clues as to which player is on the way out.
4. Special teams contributors: The guys that play against the Giants won’t play much offense or defense this season, but the backups are certainly expected to be core special teams contributors. And there’s a decent bet that the players featured on the special teams units are the ones that will be there in the regular season. Plays like the one Davis made in the first preseason game — he lost his helmet on a punt but still made the tackle — make an impression with the coaching staff.
5. Injuries: The Patriots have been fairly fortunate in this regard this preseason. Defensive tackles Chris Jones (ankle) and Sealver Siliga (hand/wrist) and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (leg) suffered injuries early in camp but the team hasn’t placed them on injured reserve and hopes to have them back early, perhaps as soon as Week 1. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is still not participating in much contact, but otherwise the Patriots are in pretty good health as they enter the regular season. If the Patriots can emerge from this game without any more injuries, consider the preseason a rousing success.