While we’d all rather hit the fast-forward button and jump ahead to Week 1 of the NFL regular season, there’s still this pesky matter of the Patriots’ fourth and final preseason game, to be played Thursday night against the Giants in MetLife Stadium.
The fourth game is usually the most meaningless of all the meaningless preseason games, but this one has a little added intrigue with Jimmy Garoppolo not playing well last week in Carolina, the potential for Tom Brady to take a few final snaps before his suspension, and a handful of roster battles still to be sorted out.
We probably won’t see many players of significance Thursday night — put us in the “leave Brady on the bench” camp — but here are five things we’ll be watching for:
1. Can Garoppolo rebound (and handle the blitz)?
There has been some thought around town of sitting Garoppolo for this game to protect him for the regular season, but that is nonsense. Garoppolo needs as much work as he can get, especially after not playing well on the road last week, and after losing out on four valuable series to Brady. He also could use another experience of going through the pregame routine as the starter.
Despite last week’s performance, the sky isn’t falling for Garoppolo. He looked great two weeks ago against the Bears, and fans were ready to pencil in the Patriots for 4-0. Garoppolo and the offensive line need to do a better job of identifying the pressure and the matchups. Far too often against Carolina, the Patriots had two or three linemen blocking one defender while a blitzer raced in untouched. And Garoppolo needs to work on his feel for the pocket, and that only comes with reps.
Ideally, we’d like to see Garoppolo play the first half and Jacoby Brissett play the second.
2. Can Brissett keep nipping at Garoppolo’s heels?
Just as we shouldn’t react too harshly to Garoppolo’s performance last week, we shouldn’t anoint Brissett the next franchise quarterback after his great game, either. He wasn’t playing against Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, or any of the Panthers’ excellent starting front seven that tormented Garoppolo.
That said, you can’t fake a 9-for-9 performance, and Brissett looked comfortable, smooth, and tough in the pocket, taking a big hit and delivering the football exactly where it needed to be. We also don’t think it would be the worst thing for Bill Belichick to throw a curveball and tell Brissett at the last minute that he is the starter. There’s no guarantee that Garoppolo will make it out of the first four games injury-free, and Brissett could certainly use the experience.
Brissett still looks to be a year or two away from being a legitimate NFL quarterback, but he has great athleticism and a big arm. After being forced to play spectator for much of camp while Brady and Garoppolo split the reps, Brissett has a great opportunity to get a lot of game reps before he assumes the backup role.
3. Can D.J. Foster win a roster spot?
The Patriots have a dilemma at running back, with five capable bodies and most likely only four roster spots. LeGarrette Blount and James White are in, leaving Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney, and Foster fighting for two spots.
Bolden has the lowest ceiling as a runner but is an ace on special teams, and we all know how much Belichick values that. Gaffney runs hard and could be a good backup for Blount, while Foster showed good shiftiness in his preseason debut last week and could be White’s backup. Thursday’s performance should foretell whether Foster is destined for the 53-man roster or the practice squad.
4. How will the Patriots use Barkevious Mingo?
The Patriots acquired Mingo, the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft, in a trade last week with the Browns, and this game will be a good opportunity to get him up to speed on defense. We’re interested to see how the Patriots plan on using the wiry, 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound tweener who has skills rushing the passer and as an off-the-line linebacker.
The addition of Mingo gets Belichick one step closer to his dream: an entire defense of 11 hybrid players who could be rushing the passer or dropping off into coverage on any play.
Mingo also excels on special teams and projects as a key player on punt coverage and field goal blocks.
5. Who wins the battles at offensive line and cornerback?
We have seven roster locks so far for the offensive line: Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle, and Jonathan Cooper. And Josh Kline, a backup center and versatile guard, is probably on the final roster, too. That leaves four players battling for one or two spots: Chris Barker, Cameron Fleming, Jon Halapio, and rookie sixth-rounder Ted Karras.
Karras has the leg up, in our view, after putting together a good, tough training camp. But Barker had several impressive run blocks last week against a tough Carolina defensive front. Considering the importance of keeping Garoppolo and Brady healthy, the Patriots wouldn’t be wrong to keep both Karras and Barker around.
And Cre’von LeBlanc appears to have a leg up on Jonathan Jones and Darryl Roberts for the fifth cornerback spot. But LeBlanc missed Tuesday’s practice for an unknown reason, while Roberts has also played well and Jones has been a key special teams player. This is a position to monitor closely against the Giants.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin