Nelson Agholor coming on strong, and other takeaways from Patriots' preseason win over Panthers

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At least the Patriots and Panthers made it through a day without dropping the gloves, right?

That bit of news might have been the best part about Friday's preseason game, which got a whole lot more boring once the Patriots' first-team offense left the field early in the second quarter.

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Speaking of which…that was hardly a dominant performance by the "1s" against the Panthers' backup defense. But on the bright side, it did get better with time.

Plus, one offensive player keeps climbing up the power rankings of training camp stars.

Mac Jones, first-team offense scuffle before finding their way.

Two three-and-outs is not how this offense imagined its day starting on Friday.

But there it was: a short run by Damien Harris, a drop by DeVante Parker and a sack leading to one punt; and another short run by Rhamondre Stevenson followed by an overthrow to Jakobi Meyers and an errant angle route to Stevenson for the next punt.

Fortunately, the third drive proved fruitful.

Jones converted two third downs with passes to Nelson Agholor and Ty Montgomery, who looks every bit the replacement for James White, before lofting a beautiful deep ball down the left sideline to Agholor for 45 yards.

Montgomery punched it in from two yards out a few plays later.

For whatever reason, the second-year quarterback still doesn't look fully comfortable despite generally having time to throw in the pocket (the sack notwithstanding). But he at least got to leave with some positive momentum.

Nelson Agholor looks resurgent.

As last year's receiver darling Kendrick Bourne tries to dig his way out of the doghouse, one of his fellow 2021 free-agent signings stays on the rise.

Agholor, who had a strong week of joint practices against Carolina, was once again there for Jones when the Patriots faced 3rd-and-5 on the team's third offensive drive.

A few plays later, the speedster got a step on Keith Taylor Jr. -- something Agholor did to just about every Panthers -- and caught a perfect throw from Jones on his big play.

The Patriots' commitment to moving him around formations and giving him snaps in the slot -- like on the third-down catch -- appear to be doing wonders for the veteran receiver.

Rather than thinking of Agholor as trade bait, maybe it's time to start considering him a weapon.

Pass rush makes its mark against Panthers.

Everyone knows how dangerous the likes of Matthew Judon and Christian Barmore are along the Patriots' defensive front. But as the end of last season showed, those two alone can't carry the team's pass rush by themselves.

Perhaps they won't need to this time around.

Deatrich Wise Jr., who was ejected from Wednesday's joint practice, fed off of pressure from Judon and Barmore to earn a sack, coming from the defensive end spot he's been playing frequently of late.

On the next play, Josh Uche smoked 2022 sixth-overall pick Ikem Ekwonu for a sack, with Wise (now rushing from inside) and Judon again pushing the pocket.

But it wasn't just the starters getting it done.

Anfernee Jennings, who had been getting starter snaps with the defense over the past week, had a fourth-quarter sack, as did 2021 second-round edge rusher Ronnie Perkins and undrafted rookie DeMarcus Mitchell.

Sixth-round pick Sam Roberts also came through with a tackle for loss after a big preseason debut last Thursday.

Though heavy focus rests on the Patriots' cornerback and linebacker groups, improved play from the defensive front might be even more vital to the team's success. Three days worth of performances against the Panthers -- two joint practices and one game -- suggest they might be tougher up front than we thought.

Lil'Jordan Humphrey states his case.

Between Kendrick Bourne’s absence/struggles and Tyquan Thornton’s new injury, the team’s wide receiver depth is getting an early test. And no backup did more to bump up their stock on Friday than Humphrey.

The big wide out caught three chunk throws from Bailey Zappe out of a tight end-like alignment — two on seam routes and one on a deep dig — holding onto all of them through contact.

He showed impressive wiggle to pick up additional yards on a short bubble screen off of an RPO.

Then, Humphrey made a special teams play that might endear him even more to the coaching staff in the fourth quarter, sprinting down to save a Jake Bailey punt from rolling into the end zone and allowing Brenden Schooler to down it inside the five.

The former undrafted free agent was a star of last Thursday’s preseason game as well and continues to make plays in practice. If you had to pick between one of Humphrey, Kristian Wilkerson, and Tre Nixon for a final receiver spot, Humphrey might have the edge now.