9 things to watch for in Patriots preseason opener

75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E

Thursday night is another key step forward in the summertime NFL team-building process as the Patriots hit the game field in Detroit for the preseason opener against the Lions.

After two weeks of training camp practices, including this week’s joint workouts with Matt Patricia’s Lions, full-speed, full-contact game action is the next landmark in the march toward roster cutdowns and the regular season.

While Tom Brady reportedly will sit out the preseason opener for the fourth straight year and high-end players on both sides will be scarce, here are a few key things to keep an eye on in tonight’s action. As Bill Belichick always points out, the game is extremely important for whichever guys actually play in it.

Jarrett Stidham’s debut – Quarterbacks are always in the spotlight, and with Brady sitting out that puts the focus on the fourth-round rookie Stidham’s debut. The Auburn product has been impressive at times in camp, showing a nice ball and decent accuracy. But as is the case with so many young quarterbacks he struggles under pressure and in 11-on-11 drills going through his reads in a timely fashion. While first impressions are only so valuable in the long run, it will be interesting to see how Stidham deals with the bright lights of NFL game action and the Detroit defense. A strong summer, which begins tonight, could see him push Brian Hoyer for the backup job.

Jerod Mayo’s role – Similar to Stidham play, Mayo will be making his NFL debut as a coach. The former All-Pro linebacker has been the primary defensive playcaller during practice action and likely will maintain that role against the Lions. Though tonight’s action is far from the real deal work that begins against the Steelers on opening night, seeing Mayo on headset and calling plays will be another step toward him taking over a key leadership role on the defense in his first season on the sidelines.

See the Skipper – With Isaiah Wynn yet to takeover full-contact reps at left tackle, Thursday night will likely see a healthy dose of Dan Skipper at the position. While the 2018 late-season practice squad addition has the look of an NFL left tackle, he’s struggled at times with both speed and power rushers in practice action. The idea of him having to take real reps in September protecting Brady’s blindside is a scary one, but Skipper could ease some of those fears with an impressive performance against the Lions.

Catch(es) of the night – The receivers and tight ends have been the talk of the town this summer in Foxborough. Though top pick N’Keal Harry may not see much if any action after limping off the practice field, there will still be plenty of focus on what plenty of different guys do with their chances to catch the ball in Detroit. If Matt LaCosse plays, he should look like a veteran among youngsters trying to prove they belong. If he doesn’t, it’s not ideal. At receiver, guys like rookie Jakobi Meyers and second-year player Braxton Berrios get the chance to bring their practice field work – successes and failures – to the more competitive environment. Roles and roster spots are up for grabs with every throw, even if the passes aren’t coming from Brady.

Boom goes the punt – A year ago Ryan Allen had camp competition, but rookie Corey Bojorquez never really got the chance to show his stuff in game action. This time around it’s more likely that strong-legged draft pick Jake Bailey gets a fair shot at winning the punting job. Bailey’s ability to bomb high, long punts is unquestionable. But he must find more consistency, especially in live action against a return unit. There will likely be some nerves for all involved, including the young punter, but tonight is a good first chance for him to prove he’s a legitimate candidate to take Allen’s job.

In the running – While the focus has been on the passing game, New England’s running game hasn’t looked all that good in practice action, either. Though the first line and top runners may not spend much time on the field, the preseason is always a good time for young running backs to show their stuff. Damien Harris, Nick Brossette and the reserve linemen would be well served to find some production on the ground.

Return to form? – The returner jobs on both punts and kicks appear to be wide open competitions at this point. The hectic nature of preseason games in the kicking area – scheme, personnel and execution are tough to pull together on the fly in the chaotic third phase – does allow for returners to use their natural athletic abilities to make plays. Berrios, Meyers and others could open some eyes with productive work on returns that could earn them not only a shot at the return roles during the regular season but also bolster their bids to make the roster.

Where do they slot? – On of the more interesting battles for roles and roster spots will come at cornerback, maybe the deepest position on the Patriots camp roster. While Jonathan Jones brings veteran experience to the competition, young second-round picks Duke Dawson and Joejuan Williams have the most to prove. They bring two very different skill sets to the competition but neither has done much to really bolster the idea that they are ready to be top four or five cornerbacks on a very good defense at this point in their careers. The coverage and competition in the slot deserves a little extra focus when the Lions are passing.

On edge – One area of competition that doesn’t get as much attention is the edge of the defense. Trey Flowers is now on the Lions. Deatrich Wise isn’t fully healthy. Derek Rivers is in a make-or-break summer. Chase Winovich is showing flashes early on in practice, while veteran Shilique Calhoun has also opened some eyes of late. The unsettled nature of the first preseason game, especially in the passing game, opens up chances for edge players and pass rushers to stand out. Doing so could have an early effect on how the back end of the defensive end/outside linebacker battles play out over the next month. Right now there appears to be more competitive bodies than jobs on the edge of the New England defense.