The New England Patriots open their preseason on Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers in a rematch of one of the best regular season games of 2014. Of course, the starters will see limited time, the schemes will be simplified and the result won't mean much of anything, but there will still be plenty of players fighting for a roster spot in many wide-open position battles.
Here are five areas that could have direct impact on the Patriots' final 53-man roster cut in early September.
1. Jimmy Garoppolo
With Tom Brady's suspension still very much up in the air, we don't know for sure yet if Garoppolo will be starting the first four games of the season or no games at all. Regardless, Garoppolo's development is important to the franchise, and in his second year he should be expected to make strides in his decision-making and execution of the offense.
Garoppolo has gotten a fair share of criticism early in training camp for waiting a beat too long to deliver the football, but nothing can slow the game down for a quarterback than game experience. Whether Brady is available or not, Garoppolo will see plenty of action this preseason and if he shows positive strides everyone will feel a lot better about the quarterback situation going forward.
2. Jonathan Freeny, James Morris and the Backup Linebackers
Chris White was released on Monday, opening up a roster spot that has been filled the last two seasons. White had an extensive special teams role and occasionally saw some snaps on defense, so the door is wide open for guys like Freeny and Morris. Add in veteran Dane Fletcher being likely to open the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and there should be at least one or two new linebackers to make the 53-man roster.
Darius Fleming made some contributions last year as well and should have an inside track for a job, while Eric Martin was an offseason award winner and training camp standout before going down with an injury and missing the last few practices. With Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo unlikely to play many snaps Thursday night, the backup linebacker group will see a ton of action. Try to keep a close eye on who's playing special teams and making the tackles.
3. Rookies on the Edge
The Patriots took three potential defensive ends in this year's draft — Geneo Grissom, Tre Flowers and Xzavier Dickson — which seemed a bit of a surprise considering they signed free agent Jabaal Sheard while already having stalwarts Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich entrenched as starters. The top trio of vets should see limited time, so we'll get a heavy dose of Grissom and Flowers on the edges of the defense.
Dickson hasn't had his name mentioned much at all in camp, so it will be good to get a sense of him as well. All three rookies are unknowns at this point, but early reports are that both Grissom and Flowers have seen time both at defensive end and interior rushers. How good those two are could specifically impact Jones' future as he enters the last two years of his deal. You can never have too many pass rushers and it would be great to see explosion and strength setting the edge from the rookies.
4. The Battle for the 4th Receiver Spot
Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are entrenched atop the depth chart at wide receiver, but after them the competition is wide open with Aaron Dobson, Brian Tyms, Josh Boyce and Brandon Gibson in the mix. As a second-round pick, Dobson should have the inside track, but after a strong start to camp he's once again missing time with a hamstring injury after having each of his first two seasons marred with injuries.
Tyms has made some plays of his own over his last year with the team and he does something Dobson does not — play special teams. But Tyms is battling an injury of his own, only missing two practices despite being carted off late last week. Boyce has always been on the bubble in his first three seasons, but has managed to stick by staying healthy. Then there's free agent Gibson, who has had an up and down camp, but boasts more experience than anyone else fighting for a job.
One or even two of these players should secure a roster spot, but all three are fighting through some kind of issues at the moment. Whoever can suck it up and turn some heads on Thursday night will take an early lead in this competition.
5. Rookie Guards Ready?
With Ryan Wendell still on the PUP list the Patriots have thrown two rookie guards, Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason, right into the fire with the first team offense. Belichick praised Mason as being ahead of the curve in the run game, but with a long way to go in the passing game. Jackson comes from a pro-style offense at Florida State and should be ready to start from the get-go.
Still, this will be their first NFL action and it will be most interesting to see how consistent Mason can be in both phases of the offense, while also getting a sense of how ready Jackson really is. This is a critical area of the Patriots' offense and there are a lot of unknowns right now.