Perry: Five names to watch during Patriots preseason opener originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Of course you'll be watching Cole Strange and Tyquan Thornton if and when they're on the field Thursday night. It's your first chance to see Bill Belichick's top two draft picks compete against a team that's not their own.
Can Strange hold his own in the trenches if the power-punching starters on the Giants defensive line see some playing time? Can Thornton take the top off a defense? Or will he flash the route-running and contested-catch skills we've seen from him to this point in camp?
But there's a chance that neither is out there long. Indications from earlier this week were that Mac Jones would not take the field at all, though a late shift in approach from Bill Belichick is always possible.
So who should you have your eyes on as the preseason opener at Gillette Stadium wears on? We've got you covered...
Patriots fans have wondered all offseason who'd be playing linebacker for them this season. The answer looks like some combination of Ja'Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson. It's Bentley and McMillan who've consistently been the first on the field. Why watch McMillan when the lights are on this week, though? Because it sounds as though Saquon Barkley could play a bit.
Even if it's just for a series or two, if Barkley runs a route, and if there's a linebacker on him, odds are it'll be McMillan. Can he run with the freakishly-talented-but-oft-injured back? Belichick needs some speed at the second level and while Wilson looks like the fastest of the three names mentioned above, it's McMilan who looks like he has the bigger role at the moment.
Here's a relatively big name who could actually see real playing time. He appears to be behind Jalen Mills on the depth chart, and for the majority of camp it's been Terrance Mitchell who's been the No. 2 on the outside. But we've also seen rookie Jack Jones get real reps on the boundary as well as top slot option Jonathan Jones.
Where does that leave Butler, who has been competitive in tight quarters in the red zone but has been beaten down the field by DeVante Parker multiple times throughout camp? Does his long speed pop up as an issue against the Giants? Is he not the starter candidate the Patriots thought he would be when they signed him this offseason? Hasn't looked like they trust him in that regard after a year away from the NFL. Not yet, at least.
This is a suggestion based purely on the fact that we want you to enjoy yourselves on your Thursday night. Jones is entertaining to watch, and there should be opportunities for him to pop when another team comes to town. I'd anticipate we'd see him as a punt returner where his electric change-of-direction skills will jump off the screen.
But he's also gotten run with the top defensive group in the slot and been competitive with receivers who have six inches on him. He's sticky in coverage and looks like he's primed for a real role early in his career. This is your first chance to watch him in a live setting. Could be fun.
If there was an in-house award for comeback player of the year, Jennings would be the prohibitive favorite at the moment. He missed all of last season but has come back for his third year and looks better than he ever did as a third-round rookie back in 2020. The 'Bama product has been a menace off the edge and he's been deployed as an interior rusher in obvious passing situations.
Belichick could use some depth on the outside after Matt Judon. Deatrich Wise and Henry Anderson look like early-down options, and Josh Uche has had some splash plays. But if the Patriots want someone who has the size (and now apparently the athleticism) to produce in a variety of roles, it may be Jennings. Curious to see how he looks against a new team.
You knew we weren't getting out of here without mentioning an undrafted player that the vast majority of the country doesn't know. Ray has consistently come up with splash plays as a rusher, and he's even taken down mighty Trent Brown in a one-on-one period -- not something many Patriots defenders can say this training camp. A former five-star recruit, Ray is another Alabama guy looking to earn a real role.
Other undrafted rookies who could pop in this one? Brenden Schooler as a core special-teamer and edge defender DaMarcus Mitchell, who has also seen quite a bit of work in the kicking game.