There’s still plenty of under-the-radar Patriots to watch in the preseason opener
The New England Patriots play their first preseason game of 2022 on Thursday night against the New York Giants. And amid turnover and uncertainty at multiple positions, they’re poised to get key contributions from some players who flew under the radar in the off-season.
Don’t expect many rookies to appear on this list, because rookies, by their very nature, are squarely on the radar. You may already be watching for wide receiver Tyquan Thornton and cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Jack Jones, who figure to see some snaps on Thursday night, among others in the 2022 draft class.
However, don’t expect to see 2022 first-round pick Cole Strange. According to Mike Reiss and Dan Graziano of ESPN, the Patriots are expected to rest quarterback Mac Jones and “most” of their starters on Thursday night. But even still, there are some unheralded players on the roster who, based on training camp, look like relatively important pieces to the puzzle.
Before we go over the players we’ve got our peepers peeled for (h/t Zolak & Bertrand), here’s a quick rundown of who we’re not expecting to see on the field Thursday night…
— QB Mac Jones
— WRs Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker
— RBs Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson
— TEs Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith
— OLs David Andrews, Trent Brown, Mike Onwenu, Cole Strange, Isaiah Wynn
— DLs Henry Anderson, Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy
— LBs Ja’Whaun Bentley, Matthew Judon, Raekwon McMillan
— DBs Kyle Dugger, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Jalen Mills, Terrance Mitchell, Adrian Phillips
Other players on offense and defense are somewhere in the middle of “starter” and “bubble.” But just to be safe, we’ll also omit RB Ty Montgomery, TE Devin Asiasi, LB Mack Wilson, and CB Malcolm Butler from the list of players to watch.
On special teams, it’s unlikely we’ll see Matthew Slater or Justin Bethel. They also have backups at kicker (Tristan Vizcaino) and punter (Jake Julien), so it’s possible we don’t see Nick Folk or Jake Bailey, either.
Jul 29, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) calls a play during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
At quarterback, expect plenty of Brian Hoyer, who always tends to show up in the preseason. Hoyer deserves credit for always operating as if he’s competing for the starting job, an approach that can help younger players on the offense develop and build confidence. Rookie Bailey Zappe should see some time as well, particularly in the second half.
So! Let’s get to the good stuff. Here’s a list of under-the-radar Patriots to watch for in Thursday’s preseason opener.
RB Pierre Strong Jr.
Jun 8, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots running back Pierre Strong Jr (54) during the New England Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
We weren’t planning on including any rookies on this list, but in light of James White’s retirement, the Patriots now need to identify a long-term replacement. Strong could be that guy.
In the short-term, it looks like Ty Montgomery is in the lead to be the Pats’ third-down back. He’s gotten plenty of looks with the starters as both a receiver and runner. But he’s not necessarily the answer beyond this season.
That’s where Strong, whom the Patriots drafted in the fourth round out of South Dakota State, could come in. He’s had a late start to training camp due to injuries, but he figures to see some time in the preseason as the Pats try to get him up to speed. How much (or how little) Strong plays should indicate how close (or far behind) he is.
Strong did catch 50 passes in 36 college games, so while he may not be prolific, his skill set should translate well to a potential pass-catching role in the Pats’ backfield. He may cede snaps to fellow rookie Kevin Harris or even Montgomery, but it would be surprising if he didn’t see the field.
WR Tre Nixon
May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Tre Nixon carries the ball at the team’s OTA at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
A 2021 seventh-round pick, Nixon is physically gifted, with decent speed and quickness. He was a low draft pick because he hasn’t had consistent hands and his route-running needed refinement. But Nixon looks like he’s taken a step in the right direction in those departments so far in camp. He’s also a special teams contributor.
Nixon may remain a candidate to end up on the practice squad, but if he has a good preseason, there’s a chance he gains attention on waivers. If he makes the team, he could be part of the reason Nelson Agholor gets pushed out.
DL LaBryan Ray
TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA – OCTOBER 23: LaBryan Ray #18 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reaches for Hendon Hooker #5 of the Tennessee Volunteers in the first half at Bryant Denny Stadium on October 23, 2021 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (Photo by Marvin Gentry/Getty Images)
Another Alabama kid. Drafting out of that school seems to be working out for the Patriots recently. But Ray wasn’t drafted, he signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent.
A five-star recruit out of high school, Ray played five years at Alabama and compiled 76 total tackles and 6.5 sacks in 38 games. He did the majority of his damage in the 2018 season, when he made 2.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, and 39 total tackles in 13 games. A serious leg injury slowed him down from 2019 on, which certainly hurt his draft stock.
But Ray is making the most of his opportunities at training camp, flashing explosiveness as a pass-rusher in team drills. He looks like the strongest candidate to continue the Patriots’ streak of naming at least one undrafted rookie to the 53-man roster. Ray could at least be the net Adam Butler, which would be big, because the defensive line lacks pass-rushing upside outside of Christian Barmore.
LB Anfernee Jennings
Anfernee Jennings speaks to the media following a Patriots training camp practice. (Alex Barth/98.5 The Sports Hub)
Largely written off due to injuries and a lack of playing time, Jennings is not only still kicking around on the Patriots’ roster, but could become a regular on early downs at outside linebacker.
Originally drafted in the third round of the 2020 draft, Jennings quietly played 14 games and 292 defensive snaps as a rookie, in what was effectively a rebuilding year for the Patriots at linebacker. He spent his entire sophomore season on injured reserve. But Head Coach Bill Belichick recently credited Jennings with being healthy and available in the 2022 off-season, which appears to have paid dividends.
Jennings turned heads in last Friday’s in-stadium practice when he suited up with the starters, serving as the direct replacement for starter Matthew Judon. If he can stay on the field, he has a chance to contribute meaningful snaps as an edge-setter against the run, which is an area where the Pats have struggled to find consistency in recent years.
DB Joshuah Bledsoe
May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots safety Joshuah Bledsoe (24) walks to the practice field for the team’s OTA at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots have a crowded depth chart at safety, with Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, and Adrian Phillips seemingly locked in as the top-3 options in their “Big Nickel” defense. And don’t forget about free-agent addition Jabrill Peppers, who recently returned from injury.
But Bledsoe has made great use of his opportunities, getting occasional starter reps in team drills and making a few pass breakups while roaming the back of the end zone or the deep part of the field. McCourty is essentially year-to-year at this point and the Patriots are going to need a replacement in his role at some point, and Bledsoe has the potential to develop into that guy.
The Patriots may still be able to waive Bledsoe and stash him on the practice squad for 2022. But he’s had a solid camp, and he’s a player worth knowing about whenever the Patriots look toward the future at safety.
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. You can also email him at email@example.com.
Zolak: What I'm watching in preseason opener Thursday
Gillette Stadium following the Patriots in-stadium training camp practice. (Alex Barth/98.5 The Sports Hub)
Here’s a look at what Zolak & Bertrand host and Patriots radio play-by-play man Scott Zolak is looking for in the preseason opener on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium…
Are Belichick and Daboll On Same Page?
As Bill Belichick said this week absolutely zero game-planning goes into these type of games but he does have a history with Giants Head Coach Brian Daboll. I’m sure they will speak before the game and take care of each other. When I say take care of each other, I mean the ones will go against the ones, twos will go against the twos and so on.
Expect Mac Jones To Play
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver Nelson Agholor during Patriots training camp at the Gillette Stadium practice field on July 27, 2022. (Syndication: Providence Journal)
I do expect Mac Jones to play at least a series. I think everybody does get out there and play in this game based on the way the offense has looked, all the prior eleven practices. I think it’s imperative you get out there in a live game situation, move the football, get at least an eight or ten play drive, try to put some points on the board and get feeling good about yourself offensively.
UPDATE: ESPN’s Mike Reiss is reporting Mac Jones and most of the starters will NOT play in Thursday’s game against the Giants.
QB Mac Jones and most Patriots starters aren't expected to play in tonight's preseason opener, sources tell me and @DanGrazianoESPN.
Joint practices against the Panthers next week, then the Raiders the following week.
Jul 29, 2022; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) directs his team as running back Saquon Barkley (26) watches during training camp at Quest Diagnostics Training Facility.
Defensively, you want guys get out there, stay up off the ground, move around and cover receivers. I talked to Mike Giardi of the NFL Network and he tells me the Giants have made some plays in camp. They’re not a good roster, but they do have some good offensive talent. They have some experience with Daniel Jones as the quarterback and with this Patriots front and all the new guys in there.
Devante Parker and Kendrick Bourne
Jul 29, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver DeVante Parker (1) walks onto the field during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
A couple guys that I’m looking forward to watching here, obviously, Devante Parker, the new guy. I want to see Kendrick Bourne, who a lot of people feel like struggled, to see if he could get something going.
Jul 29, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith (81) catches the ball during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots need a productive Jonnu Smith in 2022. They’ve got to get production out of that second tight end position.
CB Opposite Jalen Mills
Jul 30, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills (2) walks to the practice field at the Patriots training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Defensively I’m looking forward to the corner matchups. Who’s opposite Jalen Mills when he’s in there with those first safeties, meaning Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Devin McCourty.
Raekwon McMillan and Josh Uche
Jul 28, 2021; Foxborough, MA, United States; New England Patriots linebacker Raekwon McMillan (46) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 30, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55) walks to the practice field at the Patriots training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
It’s going to be fun to see McMillan and Uche in some live game reps. It will be interesting to see how the two Linebackers are deployed in the quicker defense.