For those who want to get their first look at the Patriots’ starters, the first preseason game usually isn’t must-see TV beyond a series or two. In fact, there’s always the chance that barely any starters take the field at all. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be reasons to tune in, beyond the mere fact that it’s something resembling real football.
Finally, mercifully, the Patriots get to play in game action for the first time since Super Bowl LII when they face the Washington Redskins on Thursday at Gillette Stadium. It’ll come after what’s been a curiously light training camp so far. Bill Belichick’s explanation is that the team doesn’t need to ramp up the intensity as much as last season, when they held two joint practices. It could also be a matter of going easy on a team that’s played more football than any in the league over the past four seasons, playing in three Super Bowls. Belichick saw what happened in 2005, after all.
Still, it sounds like Tom Brady won’t be playing for the Patriots in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Washington Redskins. Both Mike Reiss and Jeff Howe are reporting that he’s unlikely to get any snaps, barring a last-minute surprise. Perhaps most of the other starters will be hanging out with him on the sidelines.
However, there are still some intriguing players to keep an eye on. Ardent preseason watchers remember 2014, when Malcolm Butler flashed his potential that came to stunning fruition in Super Bowl XLIX. The odds are long, but you never know; there could be another future Super Bowl hero among the players on the field Thursday night.
That being said, here’s a quick look at six players to watch in Thursday’s preseason debut:
TE Jacob Hollister, No. 47: The second-year tight end out of Wyoming has been making plays since minicamp, and has caught his fair share of passes from Brady. If he can be a viable No. 2 receiving option at that position, he’d represent a massive upgrade over what Dwayne Allen gave the team in 2017, which was virtually nothing. Look for him to get some targets on Thursday. (UPDATE: Hollister caught two passes on as many targets for seven yards.)
WR Riley McCarron, No. 17: It’s still too early to tell, but McCarron appears to have a slight lead over other receivers fighting for a spot at the bottom of the depth chart. The 5-foot-9 slot receiver, who has drawn comparisons to Wes Welker, is getting plenty of reps as a punt returner and has occasionally been mixed in with the starting offense in team drills during training camp. Thursday will be McCarron’s first chance to take a step forward in his quest to beat out other young receivers for a spot on the 53-man roster. (UPDATE: McCarron didn’t catch either of his targets, but got plenty of snaps as a kick & punt returner.)
WR Braxton Berrios, No. 14: The rookie sixth-round pick out of Miami still has a long way to go to becoming a top weapon for the Patriots – if he ever does. But he appears to be locked in a competition for a roster spot with McCarron. “Honey-Nut Berrios” is also a possibility to field some punts on Thursday, and get plenty of snaps on offense. (UPDATE: Berrios caught one target for three yards, and also got a lot of reps as a returner.)
OT Isaiah Wynn, No. 76: The Patriots’ top pick in the 2018 draft class is sure to get a good chunk of playing time on Thursday, considering his status so far in camp. He’s pretty much exclusively lined up at left tackle with the second unit, behind incumbent starter Trent Brown. But the athletic, versatile Wynn could be as fun to watch as it gets for an offensive lineman, and he has as good a chance of any young talent on the team to be a strong contributor over the next four years. (UPDATE: Surprisingly, Wynn didn’t play a single snap. Trent Brown started at left tackle, with Matt Tobin coming in afterward. Could simply mean Belichick wanted to give Tobin an extra look.)
CB Duke Dawson, No. 42: Of all the rookies, Dawson appears to have the best chance to start and/or play the majority of the snaps in year one. He’s gotten a lot of reps as the No. 1 slot corner in team drills. The second-round pick out of Florida could bring an immediate upgrade at that spot. (UPDATE: Dawson didn’t play until late in the second quarter. Jomal Wiltz got the first crack at slot corner, with Keion Crossen getting snaps in that spot as well. It could be a similar situation to Wynn’s, in that Belichick wanted a long look at his bubble players as opposed to his high-end rookies.)
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, No. 51: The fifth-round pick, drafted with a selection that came over in the Trent Brown trade, described himself as a “thumper” in his first meeting with reporters. He may never pan out as more than a run-stopping inside linebacker, but the run defense was a bit of an issue down the stretch last season without Dont’a Hightower, culminating in 164 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in the Super Bowl. Even if Bentley can just occasionally spell Hightower on rushing downs, he could be a valuable pick right away. (UPDATE: Bentley was one of the best players on the field for the Patriots on Thursday. Even if his reps are coming against backups, he looked fast and versatile in his own right regardless of who was out there.)
There are plenty of other players to keep an eye on, but the above names are the most likely to have a healthy workload on Thursday. It’s also worth seeing what RB Jeremy Hill, DE Derek Rivers, CB Ryan Lewis, and CB Keion Crossen have in store.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.