All right, Patriots fans, this is the night you’ve been waiting for since, well, Jan. 19, I guess.
Football is back.
Yeah, Thursday’s preseason game against Washington doesn’t count for much – unless you’re one of the guys fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster or practice squad – but it’s sure nice to see the New England Patriots in action again. The Patriots, who have played in the last three AFC championship games, should be a contender again.
But there are many questions to be answered. And as I slip onto my couch at 7:30 p.m., here are some things I’m going to notice.
1. How good is James White?
The rookie running back from Wisconsin, selected in the fourth round, has made a pretty good impression in training camp, so good that some in the media have suggested he might be pushing starter Stevan Ridley for playing time.
Even Tom Brady has been won over. After a recent practice he said of White, “He’s got a real maturity for someone who’s just getting out of college. He’s made a lot of really great plays out here.”
Bill Belichick, speaking on SiriusXM radio, lauded White’s versatility and said, “I think he has the ability to compete on all three downs, in both the running game and the passing game.”
Heady stuff. We know Belichick liked him before the draft because he fumbled only twice in 754 career touches for the Badgers. He finished fourth all-time in rushing (4,015 yards) and third all-time in rushing touchdowns (45) at Wisconsin despite sharing the load with a guy named Montee Ball (you know, of the Broncos. And going back even further, he shared the backfield with Cincinnati Bengals back Giovanni Bernard in high school).
With both Ridley and Shane Vereen in contract years, the Patriots may have drafted their back of the future.
2. Who’s going to play beside Devin McCourty at safety?
Second-year player Duron Harmon from Rutgers is listed as the starter but will he still be there come Sept. 7 in Miami?
He had a decent rookie season, has had a decent offseason and, as he told this guy on the first day of training camp, is sponging information off newly signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
But is that enough for Harmon to remain the starter? He’s got veteran Patrick Chung, back for his second go-round with the Pats after a year in Philly, and third-year pro Tavon Wilson looking to unseat him.
These games will go a long way in determining who’ll be the fourth starter in the secondary.
3. Will any of the young guys earn a starting spot on the offensive line?
As it stands, the starters on the offensive line are the same five that started last year: tackle Nate Solder, guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, guard Dan Connolly and tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
But the offensive line struggled mightily last year, both in running situations and pass protection. Brady was sacked 40 times, the most since he took over from Drew Bledsoe in 2001. That’s why the Patriots invested three draft picks on offensive linemen.
That would be center Bryan Stork (fourth round), guard Jon Halapio (sixth) and tackle Cameron Fleming (fourth). They’re all big, mean, smart and talented. Stork, who has missed practice lately because of injuries, was the winner of the Rimington Award, given to college football’s best center.
Can any of them make a push for a starting spot? Or how about fourth-year pro Marcus Cannon, a valuable reserve who can play both tackle and guard, and second-year pro Josh Kline?
This game will give a good indication of where the starters stand. I know they’re only going to be in for a short time, maybe a couple of series tops. But Washington can apply some good pressure with guys like Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.
4. What does the future hold for Ryan Mallett?
We’ve seen very little of the former Arkansas star since the Patriots drafted him in the third round in 2011. Being Brady’s backup doesn’t lend itself to many snaps. He’s thrown only four passes in three years.
But there are obviously people who believe in Mallett. His name swirled in trade rumors during the NFL draft.
He’s in the final year of his contract and the Patriots drafted a quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, in the second round. Is his future here? Or is he the next Matt Cassel?
Mike Mayock, an NFL Network analyst, watched the Patriots practice against Washington on Monday and came away thinking Mallett has a future, saying, “I saw a legitimate NFL starting quarterback today backing up Tom Brady.”
Maybe. This much is known. Mallett, who worked out with Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona in the offseason, is going to get a lot of snaps Thursday and probably next week. This is his chance to shine and at least show other NFL execs that he still has the first-round talent everyone says he possessed in college.
5. What undrafted free agent will make the biggest impression?
The Patriots have a bunch of them on the training-camp roster – 18, including former University of Maine wide receiver Derrick Johnson – and always tend to keep a couple around come the start of the regular season.
These are the games where they are really going to have to make an impression. They have to show a willingness to compete on special teams as well as knowing their primary positions inside and out.
Tight end Justin Jones, all 6-foot-8 of him, will likely play a lot because of injuries to other tight ends. The folks in Foxborough seem to love his potential.
Johnson? The odds are long against him, but a good showing against Washington and one next week against Philadelphia will help.