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What To Watch For: All Eyes Will Be On Mac Jones When Patriots Kick Off Preseason

BOSTON (CBS) -- We're less than a month away from seeing some meaningful football each and every weekend. But really, it will all be meaningful football for the New England Patriots from here on out.

The preseason was merely a formality for a long time around these parts. While there were certainly positional battles and jobs to be won or lost on the depth chart, we usually had a solid grasp on the majority of the roster -- especially at the most important position on the field.

But with that seven-time Super Bowl winner in Tampa Bay, that is no longer the case. We were robbed of the great Cam Newton vs. Jarrett Stidham vs. Brian Hoyer quarterback battle in 2020, but now we'll be treated to the Newton vs. Mac Jones tussle over the shortened three-game preseason slate. And with one fewer game and a lot less snaps to go around this year, every one of them will matter for the Patriots.

That brings us to Thursday night, when the football team from New England will welcome the football team from Washington (named, of course, the Washington Football Team) to Gillette Stadium. It will give us our first in-person look at the new Patriots (or at least a handful of them), and give fans a chance to return to Gillette for the first time since the 2019 postseason.

How much the regulars on both sides will play remains unknown, though Ron Rivera has said that his starters will play Thursday night. Given all the roster turnover in New England, most Patriots players could use a few snaps just to get into the flow of things. But with a pair of joint practices ahead of their final two exhibition games, we may not get as much of a look at the hometown team as we want on Thursday.

But it's Patriots football, so we'll still be watching. And here is what we'll be keeping our peepers on when the Patriots preseason kicks off.

Mac Day

Mac Jones
Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones during training camp. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

Finally, we'll all get our first glimpse of Mac Jones playing quarterback in a Patriots uniform. We've seen enough 11 vs. 11 stats, now it's time to see the real thing.

Or something close to resembling the real thing. Washington touts an extremely talented defensive group, but who knows how much we'll see them in preseason game No. 1. But we'll get to see how Jones manages the offense, commands the line of scrimmage, and reads a defense that is not his own. He'll also have defenders flying at him and actually trying to tackle him.

The rookie has impressed during camp, with more good days than bad, and he's shown the ability to handle a lot of the workload, receiving more reps than Newton on several occasions.

Read into that what you will, but Bill Belichick has constantly said that Newton is his starting quarterback. He'll probably keep preaching that to the day he makes the switch. So for now, soak in Mac Days when you get them.

Taking Stock Of N'Keal Harry

N'Keal Harry
N'Keal Harry (Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

If anyone needed a strong summer, it was N'Keal Harry. He's been a huge bust since the Patriots drafted him in the first round in 2019, and in July, his agent demand a trade in hopes of his client finding a better opportunity. That stance seems to have softened a bit thanks to a strong training camp from Harry, but the receiver is still fighting for his job.

Harry has said that he feels more agile and faster than his first two NFL seasons, and he's made several impressive catches in 1-on-1 drills. But he's yet to show that same flair in 11 vs. 11 play, so he'll have to really shine under the lights of preseason football.

Harry needs to show his ability to get some separation against defenders, otherwise other receiver hopefuls like Kristian Wilkerson may be able to gain some separation from him in the battle of the depth chart.

The Hard-Hitting Safety

Kyle Dugger
Kyle Dugger (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

We'd love to see how things shake out at corner in Stephon Gilmore's absence, but chances are we won't get many hints on Thursday night. So we'll instead set our sights on the man stepping into Patrick Chung's old role as the heat-seeking missile of the defense -- Kyle Dugger.

He appeared in 14 games as a rookie last season, including seven starts. He was obviously a little green on the football field, coming into the league out of Division II, but Dugger was turning heads by season's end -- and nearly taking a few of them off. Now he'll have an even bigger role in the secondary with Chung enjoying the retired life.

As a likely Week 1 starter, Dugger may not play too much Thursday night. But maybe we'll be treated to one of those bone-rattling hits during his time on the field.

Bubble Guys

JJ Taylor
Patriots running back J.J. Taylor turns after a catch during training camp. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There is still a lot of time to win (or lose) a roster spot. But now is the time for the bubble guys to shine in their bid to win a spot.

At receiver, there is the aforementioned Harry, Wilkerson and veteran Marvin Hall battling for what will likely boil down to one spot. Diminutive running back J.J. Taylor is also trying to make the team for the second straight year, but he's got an uphill battle with Damien Harris, Sony Michel and James White all ahead of him, not to mention fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson making impressive moves in camp. At tight end, Devin Asiasi and Matt LaCosse are fighting for a spot behind Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.

On defense, the linebacking corps has become somewhat crowded, so even someone like 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings is playing for a job. And 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams is going to have to leapfrog a handful of people in the secondary to secure his spot.

We've also got kicker Quinn Nordin to keep an eye on. Nick Folk has been nails for the Patriots for the better part of two seasons, but we'd like to see the undrafted rookie get a chance to split the uprights during the preseason.

Tune in to Thursday night's Patriots-Washington preseason game on WBZ-TV -- the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and after the game get full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter. The game can also be streamed on in the Boston area!

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