By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For the first time since James White tumbled across the goal line in Houston, the New England Patriots will don their game jerseys and suit up for some football.
No, the stakes won’t be quite as high when they take the field Thursday night against the Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. But for a region that’s always starving for football, the preseason opener is sure to be a welcome sight.
When it comes to what we might actually see in that game, well, it’s always hard to forecast. Bill Belichick never makes it easy to predict his next move, so whether we see a lot of the star players or none of the star players is hard to gauge at this juncture.
However, we can confidently state the we know some of what to expect. And with that in mind, here’s What To Watch For as the defending Super Bowl champions take the field for the first time in the 2017 preseason.
The rookie who’s stood out the most through training camp has undoubtedly been Deatrich Wise Jr.. The fourth-round pick out of Arkansas has turned a number of heads over the past few weeks, generating reason to believe the 6-foot-5, 271-pound defensive lineman could be an impact player as a rookie.
While neither a strong showing or an invisible performance on Thursday night will have the most profound effect on the arc of Wise’s rookie season, he is certainly somebody worth watching. If he stands out, it will call to mind the impressive preseason debut of Chandler Jones five summers ago.
Brady-To-Cooks … Maybe?
There’s not much pretense when it comes to the preseason: many fans are there because they have to be there. If you want season tickets for the regular season, you have to buy the two preseason games. And preseason games, well, they’re not exactly regular-season games. Everybody knows that.
But if there’s something that just might tickle the fancy of the tens of thousands of people who will be in attendance (plus the many more watching from home), it would be the sight of Tom Brady lobbing a bomb or two to his shiny new receiving threat, Brandin Cooks.
Will Brady play at all? Maybe. (Jeff Howe says no, but things could always change. Maybe the other quarterbacks end up cutting their hands with scissors during pregame.) He played in the preseason opener in 2015, albeit only long enough to throw four passes, and he played in the preseason opener in 2013, going 7-for-8 for 65 yards and a touchdown. So it’s possible.
And there’s reason for Brady to get some live reps with Cooks in Gillette Stadium. They’ve displayed plenty of chemistry on the practice fields, but under the lights in a game situation, the pressures are a bit different. It wouldn’t hurt to give it a whirl for at least a few plays.
In a quirk of scheduling and happenstance, Cooks actually made a dazzling play on the first snap of the Patriots’ preseason opener last year, though he made it for the opposition. Cooks toasted Malcolm Butler for a 37-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage in last year’s Patriots preseason win over the Saints. The home crowd wouldn’t mind seeing that same result this time around.
Seems like a long shot, and maybe it’s not pursuant to the Patriots’ long-term interests to add any risk of injury to important offensive players. But if it happens, it could be glorious.
Let’s See The Backups
While everyone wants to see TB12, there is actually more intrigue in watching JG10 and JB7 under center. (No, neither of those nicknames flow quite right.)
Jimmy Garoppolo, by all accounts, has had a rough camp. And Jacoby Brissett hasn’t taken noticeable steps forward at the start of year two.
But all of that, of course, took place during practice. And ultimately, stats don’t really matter in practice. Technically they don’t really matter in the preseason either, but, well, you know, at this point in time, it’s what we’ve got.
On that note, if Garoppolo goes out and goes 13-for-15 for 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns, it won’t mean that every team will come beating down the door to trade three first-round picks for him. Yet if he shows some obvious struggles against a mediocre Jaguars pass defense, he’ll continue to raise eyebrows this summer.
As for Brissett, more than the plays he makes or doesn’t make, it’ll be interesting to see what plays are called in the huddle when he’s in there. Obviously as a rookie last year, the offense he ran in his live action was simplified quite a bit. It’ll be worth watching to see how diverse the play calls are and what kind of command he has at the line and in the pocket.
Year 2 For Cyrus Jones
The rookie campaign of Cyrus Jones went about as poorly as possible. Jones himself admitted that much, and he vowed to tackle the first-year struggles head-on by dedicating himself in the offseason to starting anew in 2017. He’ll even be donning a new jersey number — No. 41 — after handing over his No. 24 to Stephon Gilmore.
It shouldn’t be an overly complicated process for Jones, who will need to begin his career restart by simply fielding kicks and punts. It’s an area in which he excelled in college at Alabama, so now it’s just a matter of putting aside whatever NFL jitters threw him off his game last year.
He really had some dynamic returns in college, and if he can put forth anything like that this preseason, it could add even more to the Patriots’ potency. On the flip side, if he shows any hesitancy or mishandles any kicks or punts, the outlook won’t be too shiny for the second-year pro.
This is always the most important thing in any preseason game. You want to stay healthy. A preseason injury is just a brutal thing for all involved.
One that stands out as extraordinarily cruel was Dane Fletcher’s in 2012. He ran down the field covering a punt against the Saints in the first quarter of the first preseason game, and he suffered a knee injury. It ended his season.
Making matters worse, the punt – which came on a fourth-and-1 – didn’t even count, as the Saints had jumped offsides. So the Patriots picked up a first down on the penalty. So he suffered a season-ending injury on a play that didn’t even count in a game that didn’t even count. That’s a double whammy.
Obviously, you don’t want that to happen to anyone, and so when you watch some of these players who are scrapping to make a roster, they know that they’ll have to tiptoe on the fine line between doing what’s necessary to make the team and doing what’s necessary to stay physically intact. It’s not very easy.