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What to watch for when the Patriots open exhibition play vs. the Giants on Thursday

Rookie receiver Tyquan Thornton, a second-round draft pick, has blazing speed and other tools to show off against the Giants.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It’s football season. Well, sort of.

The Giants come to Foxborough Thursday night for their annual preseason matchup with the Patriots — 17 straight non-COVID years and counting — and though everything will look shiny and new, don’t expect a lot of bells and whistles from either sideline.

The initial exhibition game is more an extension of practice than anything else. It’s always good to compete against fresh faces, but the focus is on getting better far more than it is on getting a W.

“There is no game-planning in the preseason,” Bill Belichick said this week. “Zero. I mean close to zero. Not zero, but close to zero.”


Things will crank up more over the next two weeks during joint practices with the Panthers (in Foxborough) and Raiders (in Las Vegas) than they will in any of the three preseason games.

Devin McCourty and the Patriots are ready for something approximating real football when they face the Giants Thursday night.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“The preseason games, I know for [the media], you have to write about it. It sets a bar and all that, but for us, it’s another opportunity to get better,” said 13-year veteran Devin McCourty Tuesday. “They don’t count yet. So it’s a better practice. It’s a more evaluated practice for us.

“So the things you didn’t do well in the first week or two, you want to improve those Thursday night. You want to do them better against somebody else. You want to show that you can communicate.

“I think the fundamental things that we’ve been working on, we want to go out there and do those things well. And I think for each individual here, the things that show up on film, you want to make it better.”

McCourty did say the game atmosphere elevates things to a degree and that he stresses to the younger Patriots that mistakes will be made but the key is not to repeat them.


“You go up a notch,” the perennial captain said. “How can you still stick to the communication aspect, the execution aspect? How can you stay focused on those things? So I think those are the things that we’ll try to stay calm, keep our energy directed and focused.”

Here are some things to watch for as former longtime Patriots assistant Brian Daboll debuts an NFL head coach with the Giants. For the record, Daboll told reporters he plans to play his healthy guys.

Will Mac Jones play?

The guess here is that the second-year quarterback will take some snaps to get the competitive juices flowing a little bit. Not a ton of work, and nothing will be exposed schematically, of course, but with a new play-caller in Jones’s head — whether it’s Belichick, Matt Patricia, or Joe Judge — it might be a good time to test how the operation works.

What about the veterans?

Players such as McCourty, Lawrence Guy, Adrian Phillips, Jalen Mills, and Matthew Judon on defense and Nelson Agholor, Hunter Henry, DeVante Parker, David Andrews, and Trent Brown on offense will be in uniform but likely will be relegated to spectator status.

What about the rookies on offense?

There will be plenty to watch here. Whether you’re into the flashiness of the skill players or the grunting work of the guys in the trenches (or both!), you’ll be busy.

Rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe said this week he’s “really excited to go sling the ball around,” and he’ll get an opportunity to do just that. He’s had a pretty decent workload this summer, working as the No. 2 with Brian Hoyer out, and has flashed some real zip. His accuracy has been inconsistent, but the steady improvement has been noticeable.


Rookie QB Bailey Zappe figures to get an extended look Thursday against the Giants.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Tyquan Thornton has shown up and shown out a lot in camp. The blazing receiver has more than speed in his tool bag as he’s shown off quickness, moves, a willingness to get physical, and strong hands.

First-round pick Cole Strange has been solid at left guard. He’s taken some lumps and some L’s in his one-on-one battles but bounces back strong.

Running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris will get plenty of opportunities to earn playing time. Strong can run, catch, and block, and now that he’s healthy, he could have a real impact as an all-purpose depth weapon. Harris runs with low pad level and protects the ball.

They’ll get their first real contact of the summer (ball carriers are normally touched or “thudded” but not tackled at practice).

Who’s hanging on the corners?

Two more rookies, Marcus Jones and Jack Jones, have looked sharp in camp. Marcus looks suited more for slot duty and Jack as a boundary guy. They have competed well with a bevy of veterans (Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, and Joejuan Williams) and have not looked out of place.

This franchise is excellent at grooming young cornerbacks, and these two are shaping up to be the latest.


Who’s returning kicks?

Gunner Olszewski’s jobs are up for grabs, and there’s no shortage of candidates. Marcus Jones and Kyle Dugger were exquisite returners in college, and J.J. Taylor has looked comfortable, too. Is there an under-the-radar candidate? The first clues will be unveiled Thursday.

Jim McBride can be reached at Follow him @globejimmcbride.