FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady expects to be under center, and that alone makes Thursday night’s game against the Eagles — the Patriots’ final Gillette Stadium appearance before the regular-season opener Sept. 9 — a compelling one.
But there are plenty of other things to keep an eye on as the NFL reaches the halfway point of the exhibition season and competition for playing time and roster spots ratchets up a few notches.
Brady, who did acknowledge that any decision on playing time always sits with Bill Belichick, missed the preseason opener with a sore back, has increased his workload daily over the last week, and likely will make more than just a cameo appearance as he continues to build chemistry with his pass catchers, new and old.
Here are some other things to watch in a game that features the teams that battled in Super Bowl LII but is by no means a rematch.
1. Can Eric Decker make a push?
The ninth-year veteran hasn’t had the smoothest transition to Foxborough, with his first few practices dotted by dropped passes and what appeared to be wrong routes (whether he went the wrong way or the quarterback threw the wrong way, we’ll never know for sure).
There is reason for optimism as Decker shook off a sluggish start Monday and finished practice strong and continued that surge Tuesday. Decker has excellent size (6 feet 3 inches, 214 pounds) and strength, and has long used those attributes to consistently gain separation.
If Decker can find his comfort zone — and a few open spots — and gain Brady’s trust, he could help shore up a receiving corps that’s short on experience outside Julian Edelman (who’ll miss the first four weeks) and Chris Hogan.
2. Will Jason McCourty play?
It’s been a strange camp for the 10-year veteran and first-year Patriot.
The slightly older brother of team captain Devin, Jason has at times seemed the odd man out at practice while at other times has run with the first-team defense.
He certainly has been more than solid and very competitive when on the field, registering an interception and a handful of pass breakups.
McCourty didn’t play against the Redskins, and perhaps the reason is the team wanted to take a deeper look at the bevy of talented young players at the position.
3. Can Ja’Whaun Bentley continue his surge?
The rookie linebacker was stout against the Redskins, registering six tackles (two for losses) and a quarterback hit. He showed excellent instincts and aggression. That performance translated into more run with the 1s in practice.
Linebacker depth was a weakness at times in 2017, and Bentley’s emergence could help prevent that from happening again this year.
A smart and versatile player, the 6-2, 255-pound self-described “thumper” has shown that he can be more than that. He has the quickness to shoot gaps, the size to defend the point of attack, and the agility to drop in coverage.
Though he’s known to leave literal impressions on opponents, Bentley has impressed teammates, too, including the leader of his position group.
“He’s a young guy, he’s eager to learn, very smart in the classroom, always asking questions,’’ said Dont’a Hightower. “He can cover, he can do a little bit of everything.”
“He’s still obviously got a ways to go being a rookie or whatever, but I mean every day he wants to get better, and that’s a great way to start.’’
4. Can Mike Gillislee build on last week?
The Patriots started training camp with a deep and versatile group at running back, but three weeks in, injuries already have taken their toll.
Rookie Sony Michel (knee) and veteran Rex Burkhead (unknown) have been missing from practice for more than a week. Additionally, Jeremy Hill appeared to favor his leg after a carry early in Monday’s session and didn’t participate in full-squad drills Tuesday.
Michel and Burkhead likely are out for Thursday, and Hill may be rested as well. That leaves lots of opportunities for Gillislee, Brandon Bolden, and rookie Ralph Webb, the offensive star of the win over Washington.
Gillislee has been locked in a battle with Hill for the “big back” role, with Hill gaining a foothold based on his performance against the Redskins (11 carries, 51 yards). Gillislee wasn’t bad in that game (14 carries, 43 yards, two fourth-down conversions) and has taken the bulk of the carries the last two days.
He could gain the upper hand — or at least pull even — with a strong performance against the Eagles.
5. Will Isaiah Wynn make his debut?
The Patriots’ top pick, who sat out the Redskins game, has been working at right tackle this week after spending the majority of camp at left tackle (behind projected starter Trent Brown).
With Marcus Cannon sidelined, Wynn has split snaps with LaAdrian Waddle as the Patriots look to build depth at both tackle spots.
Changing sides has its challenges, according to Wynn.
“It’s just everything is flipped around,’’ he said Monday. “If you’re righthanded, try writing with your left, you know?”
Wynn is an adaptable sort, however, and excelled at both left tackle and left guard in college. That versatility is part of the reason the Patriots were attracted to him.
“I always want to step up to the plate,’’ he said.
On Thursday night, he’ll likely get to do it at the big league level.