By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Preseason football is never optimal TV content. But there are always useful things for NFL fans to take from these games before the regular season hits. In the case of Friday’s dress rehearsal between the Patriots and Panthers, it’s the best indicator possible of how each team could look in September.
Of course, neither the Panthers nor the Patriots are likely to have full squads on Friday. Not even with the starters. Tom Brady should play two-plus quarters along with most of the first team, but Rob Gronkowski should always be considered “Questionable” for these contests. Running backs Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel, and right tackle Marcus Cannon, are expected to sit out with various injuries.
On defense, it’s unclear whether they’ll have Trey Flowers on Friday. But most of the other starters should be out there for the first half, save for perhaps captains like Dont’a Hightower or Devin McCourty. So though Friday won’t be a perfect representation of how the team will perform next month, the game is still worth your attention.
So with that in mind, here’s a quick look at five things to watch for on Friday – mostly in the first half.
— Who’s playing tackle? Isaiah Wynn’s apparent season-ending injury (still no official announcement) is already putting the Patriots’ offensive line depth to the test. The rookie had potential to play either tackle spot, with the physical tools to play guard. Second-year lineman Cole Croston or free-agent tackle Matt Tobin will likely seize Wynn’s open roster spot, but Ulrick John is also in the mix. Protection for Brady on the edges will be something to monitor.
— Brady and the new guys: Nobody’s worried about the chemistry with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, or James White. But what about Phillip Dorsett? Cordarrelle Patterson? Riley McCarron? Brady and his newer receivers have yet to prove they can add more dependable connections to the offense. If Gronk and Hollister are both out, Brady will have some chances to target Dwayne Allen and Will Tye. Although the main weapons will likely see the majority of the targets again, it would be good to see Brady make more plays with the guys who are lower on the depth chart.
— How does Stephon Gilmore look? The cornerback looked sloppy and unprepared in the first preseason game against the Redskins. But along with the rest of the defense, he looked much better last week against the Eagles. He looks to improve greatly upon the loss to the Panthers, perhaps Gilmore’s worst game of 2017. He certainly improved from there and looks like a different player this summer; Friday night is a good opportunity to redeem himself and gain momentum if he has a nice first half in Charlotte.
— What about the defensive front? While the Patriots got some intermittent pressure on Cam Newton in last season’s loss, it wasn’t nearly enough. But there’s reason to believe that they’ll look much better on Friday. The pass rush looks like it’s ready to take a big step forward, and Danny Shelton should give them a noticeable improvement against the run. Speaking of running…
— How do they defend the running backs? One issue on defense that the Patriots have yet to prove they can solve this season is how they defend running backs in the passing game. Hightower’s return should certainly help, but can they rely on rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley to cover consistently? What happens if the Panthers split Christian McCaffrey out wide? The second-year back should provide a nice litmus test for the Patriots’ ability to cover pass-catching backs, who are becoming more and more of a weapon in today’s NFL.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.