Normally, watching a team play in the first week of preseason might just be about monitoring key players, especially rookies, in their first NFL action. But leave it to the Patriots to up the ante a bit.
Sure, everyone wants to see how Cole Strange, Tyquan Thornton, Marcus Jones and the other 2022 rookie rookies do (and what numbers they’ll wear). But we’ll also be trying to answer fundamental questions like, “Can the Patriots execute an offensive play without it going to hell?”
That’s not the sort of thing you expect to write about an NFL team, especially this one. And yet, that’s exactly where the Patriots are right now with a circus surrounding their evolving offensive game plan and who’s calling their plays.
Here are a few things to watch out for when the Patriots take the field Thursday night, starting with — you guessed it — the offense.
Can the Patriots actually run the football?
We don’t know if Mac Jones will play or not — and if he does, it won’t be much. So gauging anything from him might be difficult.
But if there’s one thing the Patriots need to do, it’s prove they can run the football in this new scheme. Honestly, it doesn’t matter who’s on the field either — starters or backups. All that matters is that they do their jobs and do it correctly.
Put simply: the passing offense, while not spectacular, has usually looked a touch better than the ground game all camp — except for Monday when everything was bad.
Jones can get balls to his receivers in 7-on-7s just fine, and the passing game was able to get going a bit during Tuesday’s session. But this team, more than others, has to be able to run the football to be successful. It’s not just about scheme and what the run game — or at least the threat of it — can set up.
It’s about identity: getting Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and your offensive line in a mindset to impose their will on other teams. Do that, and the rest will probably follow.
Keeping up with the Joneses (on defense)
Imagine this: the Patriots take the field in Week 10 of the regular season as the first team in NFL history (probably?) to start three cornerbacks that have the same last name.
If you check out the recent reports, the team might already be 2/3 of the way there. Third-round rookie Marcus Jones has been getting starting reps at slot cornerback while longtime slot man Jonathan Jones, who might be the Patriots’ best overall cornerback right now, bumps outside a bit more.
On top of that, fourth-round rookie Jack Jones has been flashing his nose for the football with several pass breakups over the past week. He’s not going to be taking over as a starter any time soon with Jalen Mills playing as well as he has, but the rookie will undoubtedly get plenty of chances to make plays Thursday night.
The new Joneses will obviously be the biggest focus: how do Marcus and Jack fare in their first action against non-Patriots receivers? But watching where Jonathan Jones lines up, assuming he plays, might be just as interesting.
A lineup with him playing outside and the Marcus inside might even be the best group of three starting corners they can put on the field.
The Tyquan and Tre show?
Given how little the starters are likely to play Thursday, no offensive players are likely to be as interesting as backup receivers Tyquan Thornton and Tre Nixon.
Thornton has outperformed expectations and looks like he’ll manage to carve out a role in a crowded receiver room, not dissimilar to what Rhamondre Stevenson managed last season as a rookie. Seeing him continue his progress as a route-runner and show off his monster speed against real opponents would be a boost to his already-strong camp.
Nixon, on the other hand, has a lot still to prove. He’s shown up as a target in the passing game with the backups and occasionally with Mac Jones as well. But can he make plays on special teams, too? And how will the team deploy him as a return man or gunner on kickoffs and punts? If he’s going to make it as a potential sixth wide receiver, being a valuable contributor on teams is a must.