In each of the last three years, the Patriots have spent the days leading up to their first exhibition game taking part in joint practices with their opponent for that game — last year, they were in Richmond with Washington, two years ago in Philadelphia with the Eagles, and in 2012 they hosted the Saints.
New England was able to fairly quickly see how it stacked up against other players and another team, an exercise coach Bill Belichick clearly deems valuable.
It isn’t just a time to raise the level of competition, it’s also a time for the team to bond as a whole.
The Patriots will have that opportunity this year, but it’s been delayed. Green Bay, which will be at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night, has not taken part in any joint practices under coach Mike McCarthy.
But the Patriots will practice with New Orleans, with whom they have gone this route two times previously, at the Saints’ summer home in West Virginia next week.
So Thursday will be the first opportunity the Patriots have had to measure themselves against another club, and one of the most successful teams in the NFC in recent years.
The preseason doesn’t include much game planning, but Belichick acknowledged Tuesday there would be some Packers-specific work done in practice.
“We’ve got a little bit on Green Bay, but there are a lot of things we just need to work on no matter who we’re playing or what we were doing,” he said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time. We had two big days here [Monday and Tuesday], to clean up some things from training camp and start transition into a game-type week.”
As things kick off, here are five things to keep an eye on:
How does Jimmy Garoppolo perform?
After missing practice Tuesday and preparations for the game Wednesday as he dealt with his court case against the NFL, Tom Brady is not expected to play against the Packers. That means Garoppolo will start before ceding things to newcomer Ryan Lindley.
Garoppolo has not been sharp, or not as sharp as one would expect, over the last week of practice. He is holding the ball too long, and his passes, particularly those to the middle of the field, have often been too high.
But last year, Garoppolo seemed to struggle over the first days of training camp and then rose to the occasion against Washington, both in practices and in the game. Playing the second half that night, his first NFL action, he was 9 for 13 for 157 yards and a touchdown, completing five of his passes to Brian Tyms, including a 53-yarder and 26-yard touchdown.
How do the rookie offensive linemen fare?
While we may not see tackles Nate Solder (who left Monday’s practice early and didn’t practice Tuesday) and Sebastian Vollmer (who’s been limited as he returns from shoulder surgery), it’s very likely we’ll see rookie guards Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson at left and right guard, respectively.
The pair, both fourth-round picks, have been working with the top offensive line throughout camp, and Jackson in particular has fared quite well. They may be joined by another rookie, undrafted center David Andrews. With Bryan Stork missing time of late, Andrews and Josh Kline have been working at center.
Andrews, listed at 6 feet 3 inches, 294 pounds, was undrafted out of Georgia.
How is James White used?
The second-year running back has earned plaudits from Belichick and Brady, and flashed some nice hands Tuesday with a great deep sideline catch from Garoppolo, one of the few highlights from an otherwise sloppy practice.
But being able to handle pass protection is a big part of the job description for the Patriots’ third-down back. Kevin Faulk was fantastic at it, and Shane Vereen improved markedly. Because of his slight stature, concerns about how White would fare in that role played a factor in his being active for just three games last season.
It will be good to know if a year in the weight room helped.
What could be expected of Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown?
The Patriots used their first-round draft pick each of the last two years on a defensive lineman. Easley’s rookie season was largely forgettable as he struggled to get past lingering issues after tearing his right ACL in his final season with Florida.
Brown has been painted from Day 1 as Vince Wilfork’s successor in the middle of the line, a high bar for such a young player. But with the secondary a work in progress and given how it drafted and spent in free agency, New England is focused on strengthening the front seven. Easley and Brown should be young keys to that.
Who lines up at cornerback and where?
Things can change of course, but currently it appears Malcolm Butler has one of the starting corner spots, with Logan Ryan or Tarell Brown at the other outside spot. Free agent pickup Robert McClain has the most experience at nickel.
If the Packers play their starters, even for a quarter, this unit will certainly be tested by Aaron Rodgers and receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
. . .
According to the NFL transactions wire, the Patriots waived running back Tyler Gaffney, who was on the field for the first couple of training camp practices but had not been spotted since.