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New England Patriots

Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (1) huddles with his teammates before a game against the Washington Football Team at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Belichick and the Patriots are just about ready to wrap up their first experience with the three-game preseason. While in the past most key players didn’t play in the now-eliminated fourth preseason game, it was a valuable chance for an extended look as some depth players on the roster bubble.

Most of the Patriots’ starters are expected to play Sunday night, but those opportunities to evaluate the backups are important as well, with a handful of roles still seemingly up for grabs. Here’s who to watch when the Patriots take the field in New York Sunday night…

  • Quarterbacks

    Putting the depth position battles aside for a second, the quarterbacks are obviously worth watching Sunday night. The Patriots have acted all week – and really throughout camp – like Cam Newton will be the Week 1 starter. That means Sunday is the last chance for Mac Jones to play at least somewhat competitive reps for at least a few weeks.

    Will the Patriots prioritize getting Jones reps while they can? Or favor Newton, to help get him ready for the regular season? Will Newton’s absence earlier this week factor into the decision? It’s also possible the team could chose to sit Brian Hoyer, to maximize Jones’ reps later in the game, albeit against lesser competition.

  • Who steps up as the depth wide receiver?

    N’Keal Harry seemingly showed enough before his injury to earn the fourth receiver spot in the Patriots’ depth chart. However, it’s unknown if he’ll be ready for Week 1, meaning the Patriots may need a short-term fill-in in that role?

    The obvious choice is Gunner Olszewski. While stylistically a different player, he’s likely to make the roster anyway as the team’s punt returner, and can do enough to help rotate out the top receivers when they need a breather. However, Olszewski had an up-and-down week against the Giants, closing with a bad drop on Thursday. His roster spot likely isn’t in danger, but it may have been enough to open the door for another player to make the team at the position.

    If anybody is going to push Olszewski, it’d likely be Kristian Wilkerson. Wilkerson hasn’t quite rebounded to where he was at the start of camp, but he did have a solid week in joint practices. If he shows enough on Sunday, the Patriots could consider putting N’Keal Harry on short-term IR to allow him to get fully healthy, then bringing Wilkerson back on the roster.

  • Depth Offensive linemen

    Heading into the final preseason game, seven linemen feel as though they are ‘locks’ for the roster. That includes the five starters, plus backup IOL Ted Karras and tackle Justin Herron.

    Seven may seem like a lot, but it’s really the bare minimum number of players a team can carry on the offensive line. Belichick has spoken about the importance of offensive line depth in the past, and it seems unlikely he’d enter the season that thin. There’s likely one or two more spots on the roster earmarked for offensive linemen that have yet to be obviously claimed.

    Third-year tackle Yodny Cajuste is seemingly a front-runner for one of those spots. After a slow start to camp he’s come on strong since joint practices with the Eagles, including seeing some starting left tackle reps this week. One more solid performance Sunday night should completely punch his ticket.

    Things are a little less clear on the interior. James Ferentz probably has the advantage right now given his history in the system, but as a true center who can fill in at guard, he may be too redundant to Karras. If so, Alex Redmond could have a chance to make the team as a true guard.

  • Harvey Langi

    Heading into training camp, inside linebacker was considered one of the deepest positions on the Patriots roster. However, that depth has failed to truly materialize behind Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley.

    After a promising start, Raekwon McMillan tore his ACL in the first week of camp. Meanwhile, Terez Hall remains on PUP. That leaves Harvey Langi to earn the third middle linebacker spot.

    Langi has had his ups-and-downs this summer, but given his experience in the system and special teams ability, he could land on the roster if the numbers work – he’s competing for an ‘at-large’ roster spot. A strong performance Sunday would help make his case. If not, look for the Patriots to go light at linebacker to start, then either sign somebody after placing a player on IR or add a veteran to the practice squad.

  • Shaun Wade

    Realistically Shaun Wade may not even play Sunday night, having been acquired by the team just three days ago in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. On top of that, he was wearing a red non-contact jersey during his lone practice with the team on Friday.

    If he does play, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots use him. Wade was an intriguing fit for the Patriots in this year’s draft as a big, physical corner with some positional versatility. He’s played his best in the slot, but this team needs depth on the outside, especially with Stephon Gilmore out. Everything about his situation is a relative unknown, so keep an eye out for if/when/where he plays against the Giants.