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What To Watch For When Patriots Host Eagles In Preseason Game No. 2

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Inevitably, some people out there will attempt to bill Thursday night's preseason meeting between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles as some sort of Super Bowl rematch, as if it's somehow a preseason game that will carry a little extra importance to the involved parties.

That is, of course, complete nonsense.

What takes place Thursday night will assuredly be standard fare for mid-August football games. Nothing from Februrary will play a factor, and few of the participants in that historic Super Bowl will even be on the field much for this one. It will be a preseason game and a preseason game only.

That being said, there will be plenty of value to be found on the field on Thursday night in Foxboro. Teams are starting to turn a critical corner of the summer, as they try to see in game action what they have on their roster. With real football games creeping ever so close, players are running out of time to prove their worth and their fit with their teams. And with Thursday night's game being one of the two most valuable preseason games, there ought to be plenty to keep an eye on as the SUPER BOWL REMATCH takes place at Gillette.

Brady's Targets

Eric Decker
Eric Decker (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

QB1 says he's planning on playing on Thursday night, which will mark his first live game action since ... Feb. 4, when he faced the Eagles. He fared pretty well that night from a personal standpoint, but on Thursday, the actual opponent and opposing players won't matter much. Really, what will be most interesting to see from Brady is which players he will target during what will likely be limited action early in the game.

As has been well-publicized many times over, the Patriots' receiving corps is not exactly robust at the moment. Julian Edelman is working his way back from a torn ACL and will miss Weeks 1-4 due to suspension, which leaves Chris Hogan as the de facto No. 1 receiver for Week 1. Phillip Dorsett is the presumed next receiver in line, but he had an injury scare this week and it's unclear what his playing status might be. Eric Decker is part of the mix but is still in the process of gaining comfort in the offense.

After that, it's really anyone's guess. While Rob Gronkowski will obviously be Brady's favorite target to start the year, and while the running backs will see their fair share of passes thrown their way, the fact is that the Patriots absolutely need more contributors on the outside. Thursday presumably offers an opportunity for the likes of Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, Devin Lucien, Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios. Britt's unlikely to play in this one, but you can bet those other guys will be eager to show they can run the right routes and get open if they're given the opportunity to take some snaps with Brady under center. You can throw tight end Jacob Hollister into that mix, too.

Obviously, right now there are a lot of people questioning what this receiving group can ultimately be. But this is a sport and a league where opportunity is everything. Thursday night offers at the very least a brief window for some players to prove themselves.

There's A Lot Going On With The Cornerbacks

Eric Rowe
Eric Rowe (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Right now, here's what we (think we) know about the cornerback position: Stephon Gilmore is the No. 1. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

The other starting spot was supposed to be Jason McCourty's, or so we thought. Then he didn't play at all last week, after a somewhat odd pattern of usage (and non-usage) throughout the spring and summer. This week, Bill Belichick was asked if it was an injury that kept McCourty off the field against Washington. Belichick of course didn't answer ... and then gave McCourty starting reps at corner an hour later on the practice field.

Eric Rowe has gotten plenty of starter's reps, too, and second-round pick Duke Dawson looks like the top choice thus far as the slot corner.

Meanwhile, undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson has been making a name for himself, as he picked off a Brady pass this week (during the practice that ended with a frustrated Brady punting the ball into the gray sky). Rookies Keion Crossen and A.J. Moore, too, should get some playing time in this one. Ryan Lewis, despite his snafu last week on a teammate's fumble return, remains in the mix. Same with Jonathan Jones. And we can't forget about Cyrus Jones, who's looking to earn a roster spot after being drafted in the second round in 2016.

Obviously, there's not enough room for everybody, so these preseason games offer some real, competitive snaps for all of them to show what they can do. Particularly of interest will be McCourty. The acquisition of the identical twin brother of longtime defensive captain Devin McCourty was a fairly significant offseason storyline, but it's quickly morphed into speculation about the cornerback being a "surprise cut." Perhaps we all ought to wait to see the 31-year-old actually play in a preseason game before we jump to any conclusions.

One thing about this week that will have some correlation with the Super Bowl is this: Malcolm Butler won't be playing in this game, either.

A Wynn On The Line

Isaiah Wynn
New England Patriots rookie offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Patriots opened their preseason last week, but nobody was able to see their top two draft picks -- Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel -- in a game setting. That will remain true for Michel this week, as he deals with knee issues, but it may be time for Wynn to get some real reps against a real NFL opponent.

When they drafted him out of Georgia with the 23rd overall pick, it was unclear exactly what position the Patriots envisioned Wynn playing. He had played guard and tackle in college, and given the draft capital used to acquire him, it was presumed he'd continue at left tackle in the NFL. But that spot has thus far been occupied by human dump truck Trent Brown, and the 10-foot-tall four-year veteran appears to have that position locked down.

But Marcus Cannon's extended training camp absence has opened a door for Wynn to work at right tackle, which is where he may play on Thursday night. It's more important that Wynn just play, period, than it is to fret about where he might fit at this point in time. Seeing how the 23rd overall pick -- and the sixth offensive lineman drafted -- performs in an NFL game environment will be the bigger factor in this one.

Special Teams

Riley McCarron
Riley McCarron (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Oh, sure, you may roll your eyes whenever the importance of special teams is discussed in any fashion, but there will be indeed be plenty to watch in all three phases of the game this week.

We've yet to see Cordarrelle Patterson get a chance to return a kick under the new rules. When/if he does, it figures to have the potential for a rare moment of true excitement in a preseason game.

We're rather uncertain about who will draw primary punt returning responsibilities when the regular season begins. It seems as though everyone except the groundskeeper has gotten a chance to at least catch punts in practice, but in the preseason opener last week, there was not a ton of action. One Washington punt went out of bounds, and three resulted in fair catches. Braxton Berrios did return one punt for 14 yards ... but it didn't count, due to a holding penalty. Seeing some actual returns this week may shed some new light on the punt return situation.

And then there is, of course, the main event: the punter battle!

OK, it may not be on the top of everyone's watch list this summer, but it will still be interesting to see if Corey Bojorquez finally gets to kick in a game. You've no doubt heard by now that this 21-year-old has a real special sort of left foot, but that's merely urban legend until the masses can see it in action. Last week, veteran Ryan Allen made all of the punts, and he had a very good performance. The punting bar -- which people are always talking about at their local watering holes -- has been set, and it's up to Bojorquez to prove he is up to the task.

Bonus Items

Ja'Whaun Bentley
Ja'Whaun Bentley (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

It'll be interesting to monitor how Ja'Whaun Bentley follows up what was a very positive first taste of live NFL action. ... Running back Ralph Webb was the talk of the town after last week's game, and he'll likely get a chance for some more carries in this one. Rex Burkhead has been missing from practice for some time, and Jeremy Hill was absent from Tuesday's practice. ... Given all of the reports about Eric Decker's dropped passes, it will be notable if he makes a drop in a game setting. ... Much was made heading into last week about the new rules about leading with the helmet, but it somehow didn't come up at all during the game. Almost assuredly, some befuddling flags will be flying this week. Get yourself ready for that. ... We, as a nation, tend to be quarterback-obsessed, so we'll watch closely to see if Danny Etling can improve upon his 2-for-5 performance from his debut. ... Julian Edelman suited up last week and got plenty of playing time, but he didn't make a catch. He'll definitely want to change that this week, especially with No. 12 in the game. ... As always, everyone involved just wants to emerge from these games with their health intact. That remains priorities No. 1, 2, and 3 after the Patriots had the good fortune of avoiding injury last week.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

Tune in to Patriots-Eagles on WBZ-TV -- the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Patriots GameDay, and stay tuned for Patriots 5th Quarter after the game!

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