By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots have their third preseason game coming on Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers. It's traditionally the night you get to see most (if not all) of the expected starters in all three phases for at least a quarter.
Others may or may not start on Thursday, but still have a chance to start when real real football starts in September. Despite the fact that It's The Preseason™ and the outcome of Thursday's "dress rehearsal" means nothing to the Patriots' prospects for 2019, there are still a handful of players with something to gain.
Below are five names to watch for on Thursday night. Some are roster locks, while others could be in danger of becoming surprise cuts. The latter players have an opportunity to prove they can still earn starting snaps, let alone stick around. The supposed roster locks, meanwhile, can show they're ready to carve out larger roles than they've had.
WR Phillip Dorsett
For weeks, Dorsett looked like a near-lock to make the team amid injuries and uncertainty at receiver. The sudden returns of Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon have changed things. After Julian Edelman and rookies N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, Dorsett is competing with Thomas, Gordon, Braxton Berrios, and Maurice Harris for two, maybe three roster spots.
Dorsett lacks the size and offensive pedigree of both Thomas and Gordon. But he has a big advantage over the other two in terms of his experience in the Patriots offense and established trust with Tom Brady. Suddenly swimming in a deeper pool than expected at his position - one where the Pats clearly want to skew bigger and more physical - Dorsett needs to prove his best qualities are important enough to keep over the upside of other options.
Gordon starting the season on the non-football injury list would simplify this competition a little bit. But if he's healthy he's in, and if Thomas were not, the Patriots probably would've cut him by now. Dorsett looks to be in a spot where he needs to show that he belongs over one of those two. And if he does survive final cuts, he'd have the experience to potentially be a starter himself.
RB Sony Michel
Michel is the likely starter when the Patriots come out running the football, despite the emergence of rookie Damien Harris in last Saturday's preseason game against the Titans. But Michel also has a chance to take a big step forward in the passing game, giving himself the potential to be a three-down threat out of the backfield. If Brady plays on Thursday, a completion or two to Michel would go a long way toward making the Patriots more productive and unpredictable on offense.
The second-year pro out of Georgia doesn't sound particularly worried about his role as a pass-catcher, noting it as just another facet of improving his overall game. However, it's also important that he looks comfortable and doesn't think too much in passing situations, which he never demonstrated as a rookie after missing most of the offseason's workouts.
"As a football player you want to be comfortable just playing," Michel said on Tuesday. "You really don’t focus on [any particular] aspect of the game, you just focus on being the best athlete you can."
LT Isaiah Wynn
Wynn is still the projected starter at left tackle, so this mostly isn't about his job security. But Wynn did look the part against the Titans, and Thursday could be his first chance to start alongside the others entrenched along the O-line.
The sophomore lineman said earlier this month that he's focused on "being able to be fluid in everything that I do, learn from the guys in front of me, and continue to come out here every day and get better." His steadily increasing reps would indicate that he's accomplishing the last part. A solid performance on Thursday would go a long way toward convincing Bill Belichick he doesn't need to make any kind of insurance move for another tackle.
TE Lance Kendricks
Tight end is the most unresolved positional group on the team. Especially for the first four weeks of the season when Ben Watson sits out. Kendricks appears to have played himself close to the top of the remaining depth chart, but he's by no means assured a spot.
Kendricks may be embroiled in a battle with second-year pro Ryan Izzo out of Florida State for a role as an in-line blocker. Going with Izzo would cost Belichick half as much as the veteran Kendricks (up to $525,000 in real-money savings). So Kendricks likely needs to prove markedly better than Izzo on Thursday night to comfortably earn a spot on the team.
DT Danny Shelton
Shelton spent longer than a lot of other free agents on the open market, and utilized that time to shed some weight and prepare to fight harder than he ever has for a roster spot. The former first-round pick got a classic "prove-it deal" with the Patriots and now looks like a leading candidate to start in the middle of the defensive line. They're showing more looks with three down linemen this summer, and Shelton has an opportunity to unseat veteran Mike Pennel and third-year pro Adam Butler as the primary nose tackle. He's making the most of it so far.
"A phone call from Bill [Belichick] is something that I was excited for," Shelton said Tuesday. "I was training my butt off all offseason to wait for an opportunity, and Bill’s opportunity was the best opportunity."
S Duron Harmon
It's been something of a strange summer for the seventh-year pro and veteran Patriots leader. He's without a doubt one of the most respected locker room presences on the team, but that alone may not keep him in the fold in 2019. He's been pushed hard for starting reps by both Terrence Brooks and Obi Melifonwu.
Harmon could possibly prove that he still has the polish to keep his roster spot over the bigger and more athletic Melifonwu, who still looks raw and appears to be having the same struggles to find a fit that he had in Oakland. But Harmon's playing time against Tennessee indicated that the Pats are taking a long, hard look at him. Of all the former starters from 2018, Harmon appears closest to fighting for a job.
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 protected].