FOXBOROUGH — The past three days of joint practices between the Patriots and Bears were crucial evaluation periods for Bill Belichick and his staff. Thursday night’s preseason game is going to be even more important for the starters and the fringe players as the Patriots’ 53-man roster starts taking shape.
“That was good exposure to a team that we really aren’t very familiar with,” Belichick said Tuesday morning. “That will certainly help us evaluate our players Thursday night, so that when we do play, we’ll have a little bit of an idea of what’s going on and hopefully be able to execute it.”
The Patriots are coming off a 34-22 win over the Saints in the preseason opener, but still have plenty of questions to answer and areas in which to improve.
Here are five things we’ll be watching for Thursday night against the Bears:
1. Will Tom Brady play? And can Jimmy Garoppolo and the offense start faster?
This is probably Brady’s only realistic shot to play snaps in the preseason. Garoppolo will likely need to start the ever-important third game, and then play well into the third quarter.
It doesn’t make much sense to play Brady with the backups and third-stringers at the end of the third game, or at all in the fourth game, when no one of significance ever plays.
So will Brady start Thursday night and get a few reps under his belt, or will the Patriots simply sit him out and let Garoppolo get the work?
“We’re trying to get them all ready,” Belichick said coyly this week. “Jimmy is the priority, but everybody’s important.”
As for Garoppolo, it would be nice to see him and the offense start quicker, after going three-and-out on their first two possessions against the Saints. I also want to see if Garoppolo can have a better sense of the pass rush, and whether he can go through his progressions and hit his second and third receivers.
2. Can Aaron Dobson take advantage of his opportunity?
Dobson couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than the one that has unfolded in this camp. The 2013 second-round pick is facing an all-or-nothing preseason as he fights for his future with the team, and he is certainly getting every chance to prove himself.
We probably won’t see Julian Edelman after he had a foot scare in practice. Danny Amendola is still on the physically unable to perform list. Chris Hogan is back to full contact after missing a week of practice, but we’ll see if he plays. Keshawn Martin has been out with an undisclosed injury, and now Malcolm Mitchell is out about a month with a dislocated elbow.
That leaves the wide receiver snaps for Dobson, DeAndre Carter, Chris Harper, Nate Washington, and Devin Lucien. Last week against the Saints, Dobson caught 3 of 4 passes thrown his way for 27 yards, and drew Belichick’s praise for delivering a huge block to spring James White on a 56-yard screen pass. He needs to keep the positive momentum going.
3. Can Tyler Gaffney keep outplaying James White?
Gaffney, who spent his first two NFL seasons on injured reserve, entered camp as a long shot to win the fourth running back job. But with Dion Lewis still on PUP, Gaffney has been getting plenty of work, with the starting offense and backups.
He showed impressive vision and breakaway speed on his 44-yard touchdown last week, and contributed three nice blocks in blitz pickup, a crucial skill for a third-down back.
White, meanwhile, continued his inconsistent play from last season. He showed great moves on his 56-yard catch, but also got caught from behind at the 1, then later couldn’t hold onto a fade pass in the end zone on fourth down.
D.J. Foster and Donald Brown are also in the mix, but neither played against the Saints, and they have been in and out of practice during camp.
4. Will David Andrews fortify his spot at center?
Bryan Stork was taken in the fourth round in 2014 while Andrews went undrafted in 2015, but Andrews has been the far more dependable player the past two years, and particularly in this camp.
Andrews appears to have taken a clear lead in this battle, earning first-team reps for the last two weeks and getting the start against the Saints last week, playing 25 snaps to Stork’s 16.
While a bit undersized for the position, Andrews has been healthy, steady, and quiet throughout camp, perhaps the best things you can say about an offensive lineman.
Stork, meanwhile, has durability issues after missing eight games last year and repeated concussion issues that cost him more than a week of training camp this year. On top of that, Stork let his anger get the better of him Tuesday, getting in a fight with a Chicago player and earning an ejection from practice.
If Andrews can play another clean game, he might lock up this position.
5. Which young cornerback can separate from the pack?
Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Cyrus Jones are locks, and Justin Coleman is looking close to one as well, leaving one cornerback spot open for Darryl Roberts, Cre’von LeBlanc, Jonathan Jones, V’Angelo Bentley, and E.J. Biggers.
LeBlanc, Roberts, and Jones each played 40-plus snaps against the Saints and appear to be ahead of Bentley and Biggers. Roberts, the only second-year player, has the most experience, while LeBlanc had an impressive interception against the Saints and Jones has blazing speed.
Can any of them separate themselves from the pack Thursday night?
Video: Wednesday’s training camp report