It’s the last rehearsal before the show begins, but based on recent history, the stars will not be out in the Meadowlands Thursday night.
The Patriots will square off against the New York Giants in the teams’ annual exhibition finale, and it’s the final chance for players on the roster bubble to make an impression.
Only 38 players took the field for New England in this game last year, and only six of them earned a spot on the initial 53-man roster. And three of those were specialists Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, and Joe Cardona.
Undrafted rookies Jacob Hollister and Cole Croston as well as veteran LaAdrian Waddle also made the cut.
While the game might be viewed as a formality by some, Bill Belichick said there is still plenty to be gleaned from the last week of the preseason.
“We still have a lot of evaluations that we’re trying to work through and start to look towards the start of the season,” the coach said this week. “Some roster cuts, breakdown, and the opportunity for players in the last preseason game.”
While not every player will end up in New England, getting released Saturday is not necessarily the end of the line, as Rob Gronkowski reminded this week.
“Just go hard, play hard, give it all you’ve got in this game,’’ said the All-Pro tight end. “I mean, you’re not just showcasing for the Patriots but you could possibly be showcasing for around the league. So just play hard, do the best you can, and finish plays.’’
In addition to the possibility of hooking on with another team’s roster, there will be 320 practice squad jobs available.
Here are some things to look for Thursday night, before the games begin for real.
1. Does Jason McCourty play? And if so, where?
The veteran was signed to compete for a starting cornerback job but last week played some safety against the Panthers for the first time in his career.
There have been some bumps in the road at both positions, but overall McCourty has had a pretty good summer, and now it looks as if he could provide valuable depth all over the secondary.
As a bonus, McCourty can get private technique tutorials from his brother Devin, who has earned Pro Bowl nods at both positions.
2. Who carries the ball?
Under ideal circumstances, this would be the time to continue the summer battle between Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill. Give both players equal time and let their actions speak for themselves.
It’s complicated, however, because three guys are likely out: James White, Rex Burkhead, and Sony Michel, the latter two as they recover from injury. If those ailments linger, both Hill and Gillislee could make the original cut, so there’s no sense exposing them to injury.
This could mean a whole lot of touches for Kenneth Farrow and Khalfani Muhammad, both of whom signed this week.
As for Ralph Webb? After an impressive Week 1 showing, the Patriots may want to limit his tape in hopes of stashing the rookie on the practice squad.
3. Who impresses most out of the young cornerback group?
This has been one of the most competitive positional groupings throughout camp, and there are likely to be opportunities available for a number of these guys despite what happens in Thursday night’s game or in Saturday’s cutdown.
Keion Crossen, J.C. Jackson, and Ryan Lewis have all flashed at times, but have struggled at other points. A.J. Moore and Jomal Wiltz are very athletic and just need more reps and seasoning.
This bunch has impressed cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer with eagerness and competitiveness.
“All of our guys come in with the right mind-set, and that’s: ‘We’re going to get better today, going to be better tomorrow than we are today,’ ’’ Boyer said. “We’re focused on improvement and that’s the way we approach it with our guys, and where the chips fall, they’ll fall.
“I think the reality of it is, my job as a coach is to make them better players, their job as players is to perform, and I think we all understand that. However things shake out, we kind of deal with it as it comes.’’
4. Can Vincent Valentine secure a spot on the defensive line despite impressive depth on the interior?
Valentine had a strong surge at the end of his rookie season in 2016 but missed all of last year with an injury. In that time, a lot of tackle depth has been built.
Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, and Adam Butler all are ahead of Valentine in the pecking order. There also are players (Trey Flowers and Keionta Davis) who will flip inside in certain sub packages.
This is a position of strength for the Patriots, and a trade to bolster another spot (receiver?) makes sense. It also could clarify Valentine’s status for the future.
5. Will we see Corey Bojorquez?
The undrafted rookie punter has yet to make his debut after dazzling with some booming kicks throughout minicamp and training camp.
If his only assignment this summer was to push fellow lefty Ryan Allen, then put him down for an A-plus.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if he ended up on the practice squad.