By Brent Schwartz, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — With the Patriots' first preseason game coming Thursday night against the Jaguars, it's the first clear sign that the 2017 season is drawing near.
Of course, we'll have to wait to Sept. 7 when the Patriots host the Chiefs in the 2017 season opener to get our first regular season action. The star players that Patriots fans are eager to see probably won't play much, if at all. As usual, players who are lower on the depth chart will have their chance to shine.
These are some of the lesser-known players worth watching for against the Jags:
WR Austin Carr
Last year's Big Ten receiver of the year has gotten off to a good start at Patriots training camp, but Carr still has a tough road ahead to make the 53-man roster.
Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Danny Amendola are all ahead of him on the wide receiver depth chart, and Devin Lucien has had a run of good practices as of late.
Carr is a cerebral football player, and potential slot receiver - a position the Patriots traditionally covet. But with so many receivers on the depth chart, it's tough to envision Carr on the 53-man roster come September. If the Patriots put him on the practice squad he'll have to clear waivers, and other teams that are thin at wide receiver (Jets, etc.) will be in line to pluck him from New England.
DE Deatrich Wise
Despite being the second pass-rusher drafted by the Patriots in May, Deatrich Wise Jr. has been the most impressive draft pick in camp thus far.
The fourth-round pick has spent a lot of time with the starters, and with the retirement of Rob Ninkovich there is an opening for some defensive snaps. At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, Wise is a big body with length that can help defend both the run and the pass. With Kony Ealy struggling as of late, there's a chance Wise may be a starter at defensive end opposite Trey Flowers on opening night. Wise will play early and often in the preseason, and his play will determine his order on the depth chart come September.
LB Harvey Langi
Like his teammate Wise, Langi has impressed in camp and had ample time with the starters thus far.
The undrafted rookie is another to keep an eye on in terms of not only making the team, but receiving defensive snaps in the regular season, thanks to Ninkovich's farewell. Langi's versatility mirrors Ninkovich, as he can line up at different positions along the defensive front-seven. Langi, along with Wise, will get a ton of snaps in the preseason in hopes that the Patriots may find out that they can contribute mightily during the regular season.
Langi is battling Jonathan Freeny, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, and Kyle Van Noy for playing time.
DE Derek Rivers
Even with Ninkovich gone and Ealy struggling, Rivers had not yet stood out as the Patriots' top draft pick in camp until this week's joint practices with the Jaguars.
Like Wise and Langi, Rivers has spent some time with the starters recently as Bill Belichick figures out his front-seven. He has some work to do with Dont'a Hightower on the PUP list and the aforementioned Ninkovich and Ealy news.
The 6-foot-4 Rivers has good burst, according to his NFL.com draft profile, and will be a player to keep an eye on throughout the preseason.
DE Geneo Grissom
While many of the most interesting players to watch are rookies, Grissom is entering his third season with the Patriots. But he will ostensibly be on the bubble when it comes time to cut the roster down to 53.
Grissom, a third-round pick in 2015, was waived and signed to the practice squad during the final cuts last season after being used mostly on special teams as a rookie. However, he was promoted back to the 53-man roster on Oct. 15, 2016, and he remained on the roster for the remainder of the season.
Now, Grissom is battling it out on the second-team defense in various roles, as he's reportedly even been lining up at linebacker. He could be another player trying out to replace Rob Ninkovich.
Grissom's best bet is to make the team as a versatile backup with special teams value.
WR Devin Lucien
Like Grissom, Lucien was a member of the Patriots last year, and went to the practice squad after not making the final cuts of the preseason. However, Lucien stayed on the practice squad for the remainder of the 2016 season.
Lucien, a seventh-round pick by the Patriots in 2016, is battling (with Austin Carr) to possibly make the roster, but both of their chances at making the 53-man roster are relatively slim. Lucien has been impressive in camp, but will likely be a player the Patriots attempt to put back on their practice squad. Like Carr, a team like the Jets may be interested in prying Lucien away from the Patriots for their 53-man roster.
S Jordan Richards
Richards, a second-round pick by the Patriots in 2015, has been mostly a disappointment thus far besides his special teams contributions. Richards has played some in sub-packages over the past few seasons (usually on third-and-long) but hasn't been able to contribute as much as a second-round pick normally would in year two.
After Duron Harmon re-signed, Richards now finds himself on the bubble. Harmon is the Patriots third safety, who is primarily used in sub packages over Richards. With Nate Ebner being one of the NFL's best special teams players, Richards may be indispensable. When you factor in cornerback Jonathan Jones' special teams skills, and the fact that he's had a pretty good camp, Richards has reason to worry.
Still, with special teams value, there may be a fit. Richards is someone who should be monitored closely, in terms of how he plays on defense this preseason.
DT Adam Butler
Now, for the most anonymous of the players listed here, Butler, an undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, has miraculously worked his way up to getting reps with the first-team defense at defensive tackle, according to NESN's Doug Kyed.
Butler, listed at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, is smaller than what the Patriots normally prefer for their defensive tackles (think Alan Branch, 350 pounds) but his scrappy nature could be of value to the Patriots. They may like a smaller change-of-pace guy after Branch, Malcom Brown, and Vincent Valentine for certain packages.
It's still likely that Butler will be on the outside looking in come time for roster cuts, but he may be a sleeper in terms of making the 53-man roster due to his elevated play in camp.
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