The third NFL preseason game is always the most interesting dress rehearsal of the summer. The starters often see time well into the second half and it's a chance to see which players are really atop the depth chart and how the coaches plan on using them.
The New England Patriots do a fair amount of rotation and experimentation in the preseason, but Friday's game against the Carolina Panthers should reveal a little more about how Bill Belichick's 2015 edition is coming together. With plenty of wide-open position battles and a fair number of significant injuries, there are still quite a few questions that need to be answered before the season starts in just under two weeks.
Here are five areas that deserve attention:
1. Travaris Cadet and the Running Backs
With the departure of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley this offseason, the Patriots had at least two roles to fill at running back. In the first two preseason games we saw impressive flashes from both James White and Dion Lewis, but it's the return of free-agent signing Travaris Cadet that might garner the most attention. Cadet missed most of the last two weeks of camp with an undisclosed injury, but had his moments prior to that. Cadet had 38 catches for 296 yards and a touchdown with the Saints last season and is the most experienced pass-catching back on the roster, but his extended absence from camp currently has him off many 53-man roster projections.
Replacing Vereen will likely be done by committee, at least early on in the season, but how the snaps are broken down is still up in the air. Cadet has one of the most intriguing skill sets on the roster, but as the saying goes, you can't make the club from the tub. He'll need a big game to re-insert himself into the running back conversation.
2. Rookie Reality on the Offensive Line
Veteran Ryan Wendell returned to practice this week and, assuming he plays in the game, will answer some tough questions we've been asking all summer. Rookies Shaq Mason and Tre' Jackson have been fixtures at the starting guard spots since the start of training camp. Jackson is the more pro-ready of the two, but after only being a right guard in college, he's been only at right guard in the pros as well. This was Wendell's spot last season after making an unexpected transition from center, his starting spot in 2013. Now the question is can Wendell make another transition to left guard? Or perhaps can Jackson? We know that Nate Solder, Bryan Stork and Sebastian Vollmer will start at three of the offensive line spots, but how the guard positions play out now that Wendell is back will be an area to watch.
3. Safety in the Defensive Backfield
After starting camp with 10 cornerbacks, the Pats are now down to six healthy ones. While it appears Malcolm Butler and Tarrell Brown should lock down the two outside spots, little else is set in stone. Robert McClain has looked solid in the slot role while Logan Ryan has been up and down.
But it's at the safety spot where there are the biggest decisions to make. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are locks, while Duron Harmon and rookie Jordan Richards should be too, but the futures of Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner are up in the air. Both Wilson and Ebner are solid special team players, making them wild cards to make the roster. Keeping six safeties might seem a stretch, but when the team could be looking to play more three-safety sets is it crazy to keep three strong safeties who could all play on defense? Maybe not. Wilson needs a big game against the Panthers and should see plenty of action.
4. Reggie Wayne and Aaron Dobson
Julian Edelman returned to practice this week, but Brandon LaFell remains on the PUP list and it's starting to seem possible he won't be ready to go out of the gate. That opens up a spot for someone to start at the X receiver spot, and after season-ending injuries to Brandon Gibson and Brian Tyms, things are wide open. This is the chance Dobson has been waiting for, but a hamstring injury has sidelined him after an impressive offseason in OTAs. He was back at practice this week and could cement a roster spot if he can show good chemistry with Tom Brady. Then there's Wayne, who was expected to play only a specialized role in the offense, but you can never write off a future Hall of Famer with something to prove. Dobson or Wayne need to show something against the Panthers to ensure the Pats' offensive weaponry is ready to go against the Steelers.
5. Defensive Front Seven Starters
Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower are both coming off significant injuries and have yet to see any game action this preseason despite being full-go in practice. Now is the time for Mayo and Hightower to get their feet wet with some game action and it will give us a sense of how the Pats plan on using their talented linebacker corps.
In front of them there's been a healthy rotation at defensive end and tackle, but now we'll see how that rotation might look once the season starts. Will they use big tackles like Sealver Siliga and Malcom Brown as space-eaters together? Or will they balance them with more up-field guys like Dominique Easley and Zach Moore? The Patriots have so much versatility in their front seven, now we'll get a taste of just how they might use it.