New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Jul 26, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas (60) makes a catch during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots kick off the 2023 preseason schedule on Thursday night against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. We don’t expect any projected starters to play, but the game will feature plenty of players that have a good chance to make the team and see plenty of playing time during the season.

Here are 10 players to watch in the preseason opener…

WR Demario Douglas

Jul 27, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas (60) does a running drill during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas runs a drill during 2023 training camp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

Douglas has had an impressive summer. And it shouldn’t be discounted that he’s been practicing against his own teammates, and often against backups. He’s been trouble for every cornerback he’s matched up against in 1-on-1’s and recently earned more reps and side work with the starting offense.

Those are all great signs for the rookie sixth-round pick out of Liberty University. His burst after the catch has been eye-popping, and he’s faked defenders out with his route-running and double-moves.

Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas (60) runs after making a catch at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas runs after making a catch at 2023 minicamp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

Douglas may yet have a ways to go in terms of learning the playbook and building trust with quarterback Mac Jones and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. But there have been small signs that he’s made progress. He appears to have at least caught up to Tyquan Thornton and created an open competition for the fourth spot in the wide receiver pecking order.

“I just see [it as] I’m getting an opportunity,” Douglas said after practice on Tuesday. “Working with either quarterback, whoever I go with, as long as I get an opportunity, I try to maximize every time I’m in, 1’s, 2’s or 3’s.”

Douglas has made more of his opportunities than any other rookie so far. Despite his progress, he’s still expected to play in the Patriots’ preseason opener. It will be intriguing to see how he looks against an actual opponent in more of a real game setting.

  • WR Kayshon Boutte

    New England Patriots wide receiver Kayshon Boutte (58) makes a catch during 2023 training camp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    New England Patriots wide receiver Kayshon Boutte (58) makes a catch during 2023 training camp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    As exciting as Douglas’ summer has been, fellow rookie Boutte isn’t far behind. After missing time early in camp and getting off to a slow start, Boutte surged starting in the second week, and recently made one of the best catches of the summer during a red zone drills.

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  • It’s hard to believe that Boutte would rank any higher than fifth in the wide receiver hierarchy for the Patriots, at the moment. But he did not fall to the sixth round for a lack of talent. He’ll have every opportunity to earn playing time, as long as he’s making plays and staying on the field. It still feels unlikely that he plays a ton in the regular season, though, so make sure to get a look at him in the preseason.

    QB Bailey Zappe

    Jul 27, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe during 2023 training camp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    It’s possible Zappe doesn’t play much on Thursday night, maybe even not at all. But he should play. Despite a strong practice earlier in camp that sparked misguided discussions of a “competition” at quarterback, Zappe has still clearly been worse than Mac Jones overall, and still has plenty to work on, ie. batted passes at the line of scrimmage.

    So, it’ll be good for Zappe to get some reps in a regular game against an opposing defense. And if he has any hope of making this a real, actual competition with Jones, he’ll need to look really good in the preseason. Certainly worth watching for Patriots fans.

  • RB Pierre Strong Jr.

    Jul 27, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Pierre Strong Jr. (35) makes a leaping catch during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots running back Pierre Strong Jr. makes a leaping catch during 2023 training camp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    With Rhamondre Stevenson unlikely to play Thursday night, expect to see plenty of the other three running backs on the roster. But between Kevin Harris, Pierre Strong Jr., and J.J. Taylor, it’s Strong that looks like the best candidate to make an impact in the passing game.

    Strong has occasionally repped with Jones and the 1’s in passing game coordination drills, and his skill set best translates to a role as a passing down back. Stevenson remains the leading candidate to catch the most passes out of the backfield, but Strong is a player to watch in that area.

  • TE Matt Sokol

    Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Matt Sokol (87) makes a catch while doing a footwork drill at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots tight end Matt Sokol makes a catch while running a drill at 2023 minicamp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    You might want to get a good look at Sokol, because he looks like the leader to become the third tight end on the roster. That, or the first guy at the position to come up off the practice squad. He’s repped a lot with the 1’s as an in-line blocker and seen time with both the 1’s and 2’s as a receiver.

    Anthony Firkser seems to be right behind Sokol in the race on the tight end depth chart, so it’ll be interesting to see how each of them performs in the preseason.

  • CB Christian Gonzalez

    Jul 27, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Christian Gonzalez (50) sprints during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots cornerback Christian Gonzalez (50) sprints during 2023 training camp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    Gonzalez has almost made us forget that he’s a rookie, because he’s looked the part of a good starting cornerback since day 1 of camp, and he has the potential to be better than that. His size, speed, and smoothness makes his coverage look effortless, and the coverage has often been excellent.

    He’ll be fun to watch in the preseason, and likely throughout the regular season as well, because at this point it would be surprising if he didn’t play right away.

  • S Joshuah Bledsoe

    Safety Joshuah Bledsoe of the New England Patriots practices during 2023 mandatory minicamp in Foxboro. (Matt Dolloff/98.5 The Sports Hub)

    Safety Joshuah Bledsoe of the New England Patriots practices during 2023 mandatory minicamp in Foxboro. (Matt Dolloff/98.5 The Sports Hub)

    The Patriots have a deep, crowded depth chart at safety. That might mean that Bledsoe, a third-year pro who has only been active for three NFL games, could be in jeopardy for his roster spot. But the team does seem to like him, and he and Jabrill Peppers are the only true safeties signed beyond 2023.

    So, Bledsoe remains a name worth knowing and watching. He’ll get time to shine in the preseason.

  • CB Isaiah Bolden

    Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Isaiah Bolden (63) pulls a sled at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots defensive back Isaiah Bolden pulls a sled at 2023 minicamp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    Bolden, a seventh-round pick out of Jackson State, may still have an uphill climb to make the 53-man roster. But he’s shown enough in camp that he’ll be a prime candidate for the practice squad, and he’s even seen some reps with the 2’s on defense and lined up against DeVante Parker in team drills.

    If you asked me to predict one player that might become a victim of hype due to how he looks in the preseason, it’s Bolden. But his usage on defense as a big, long outside cornerback has been intriguing.

  • K Chad Ryland

    Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots place kicker Chad Ryland (62) warms up at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots kicker Chad Ryland warms up during 2023 minicamp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    Both rookie kicking specialists should be on full display for the Patriots on Thursday night. Ryland has seen plenty of work in team field goal drills, even deep situational stuff like running on the field to set up a last-second kick.

    Ryland has plenty of leg, but still has a little something to prove in terms of accuracy and consistency. But either way, he’s on track to supplant Nick Folk as the kicker. So we’ll be watching him closely.

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    Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. Check out all of Matt’s content here.

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