By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Yes, it's still the preseason. But if you're going to get fully invested in a preseason game, this is the one.
We've hit Week 3 of the season before the season, which is annually dubbed a "dress rehearsal" for the games that actually count. That means we'll see a lot of Tom Brady and New England's other first-teamers Friday night (except for Rob Gronkowski, who normally doesn't play in the preseason) when the Patriots take on the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. It will also likely be the last we see of the starters until Sept. 9.
While we already know what to expect out of Brady, even at the age of 41, there's still a lot we don't know about the guys who will be catching passes from him. Friday night should give us a better idea of who will round out the bottom of the wide receiver group, which remains one of the biggest issues on either side of the ball.
And though the New England defense figures to be worlds better than it looked the last time we saw them take the field in a meaningful game (a very, very meaningful game), there are certainly a lot of question marks surrounding that side of the ball as well. Here's what we'll be watching for when the Patriots take the field for the closest thing we'll get to real football the regular season kicks off.
Running back James White was Tom Brady's favorite target last week against the Eagles, and that should be the case during Julian Edelman's four-game vacation to start the season. But everywhere else (non-Gronkowski department) remains a mystery on the New England offense.
Edelman has looked good as he comes back from a lost season, but it's time again to prepare for life without Brady's security blanket. Chris Hogan will be Brady's No. 1 receiver to start the season, at least in title. He looked much better last week than he did in Week 1, so things should be OK on that front. It will be more intriguing to see Phillips Dorsett, especially if he lines up on the outside. He had just one reception on three targets last week against the Eagles, numbers that should increase Friday night. It will also be interesting to see if Cordarrelle Patterson can build off an impressive showing in the passing game last week, when he hauled in four receptions for 71 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown from Brian Hoyer in the third quarter. It was initially believed that Patterson would see most of his playing time on special teams, but that could change with another solid showing as a receiver on Friday night.
The most uncertainty comes at the bottom of the receiver depth chart, where several players are battling for what will likely be one roster spot. Eric Decker hasn't done much of anything since the Patriots brought him in three weeks ago, aside from drop the football, and he'll need to do something against the Panthers if he wants any shot at making the Week 1 roster. Decker only received $75,000 in guaranteed money from the Patriots when he signed, so the team would have no problems cutting the nine-year veteran if he hasn't caught on by next week.
After Decker, young receivers Devin Lucien, Riley McCarron, Braxton Berrios and Paul Turner are fighting for their roster lives. McCarron has gotten some run with the first-team offense and can return punts, and Lucien had a solid showing in Game 1 of the preseason (four receptions, 71 yards). That may give that duo the inside track among the group at the moment, but none of those players can afford a step back Friday night.
And if Gronk gets another preseason tilt off, it will be interesting to see if Jacob Hollister gets some more work with the first-team offense Friday night. (UPDATE: Hollister will not play Friday night, per reports.) He's turned heads throughout training camp and could find himself in a much bigger role once the regular season kicks off.
Young Linebackers, Meet Christian McCaffrey
Ja'Whaun Bentley has given New England's linebacking group an injection of youth that they've desperately needed, but they're about to encounter a difficult task in Charlotte. The group is probably going to struggle Friday night, tasked with containing Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers' duel-threat running back. Going against the explosive second-year back will be a great preseason test for a group that heads into the regular season with such promise.
McCaffrey made a bad Dolphins defense look absolutely terrible last week, torching them for 92 yards on five carries and 28 addition yards on four catches. He picked up most of those rushing yards on a 71-yard touchdown scamper, speeding by most of the Miami defense on his way to the end zone. Bentley will have his hands full if he's told to keep McCaffrey in check on Friday night.
It's also a big game for fellow rookie linebacker Christian Sam, who had an opportunistic interception and seven tackles last week against the Eagles. He's still on the roster bubble, so a strong showing will go a long way toward him making the team.
Defense Vs. A Mobile QB
In addition to McCaffrey, the New England D will have their hands full against Cam Newton. Mobile quarterback have given the Patriots' defense a lot of issues over the last couple of seasons, so this will be another solid test before games start to count, especially with DeShaun Watson and the Houston Texans up first on the regular season schedule.
The preseason Patriots have done a great job applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks, recording 11 sacks in their two preseason games. And that's without unleashing the defensive force that is Trey Flowers. They'll have to keep that pressure going Friday night while also making sure Newon doesn't have the space to run wild.
We got a quick glimpse of New England's defensive starters last week against Philly (minus Flowers), and they didn't disappoint. Newcomer Adrian Clayborn had a strip-sack on Nick Foles, which Bentley returned for a touchdown. The seven-year veteran was disruptive during his time in the game, and the Eagles offense couldn't do anything. Derek Rivers is also looking strong after missing all of his rookie season, recording a sack last week.
In all, the Patriots recorded eight sacks and 11 quarterback hits last week. If they can keep that going against the Panthers, it could mean big things for Brian Flores' defense when the regular season arrives.
Rounding The Corners
Stephon Gilmore is cemented in as the No. 1 corner, and it looks like Eric Rowe will be lining up on the other side as their starting No. 2.
After that, it's all just a guessing game. Rookie Duke Dawson appears to have the inside track as New England's slot corner, but injuries have kept him from locking down that job. As a second-round pick, Dawson's roster spot isn't really in jeopardy. But after that, the competition is still boiling with as many as seven players battling for two roster spots.
Veteran Jason McCourty is still not a lock to make the roster, and he's fighting alongside Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz and rookies Keion Crossen and J.C. Jackson. Crossen didn't do himself any favors with a poor performance last week against the Eagles, and McCourty wasn't too impressive during his time on the field either. But the veteran will be given every chance Bill Belichick can afford to give him, with the two Jones' also hanging on. Jackson has been the most impressive of the group, but he'll need to continue his strong play Friday night if he wants to make the roster.
Tune in to Patriots-Panthers Friday night on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Coverage begins at 7pm with Patriots All Access following by kickoff at 7:30pm, and after the game tune in to Patriots 5th Quarter for full reaction and analysis of Preseason game No. 3!
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