The preseason winds down with a matchup against the Giants on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, and after that the team’s roster will take shape. By Saturday at 4 p.m., cuts will be made. Trades are inevitable as well. The Pats will be busy tinkering with the roster throughout the weekend. And by Monday, they’ll be in regular-season mode, just six days away from a Sunday night showdown with the Steelers.
Before we get there, though, let’s take a look at the important storylines entering Thursday’s preseason finale:
The fourth preseason game gives us a strong indication of the players who are locks to make the team.
The rule of thumb: If a player is sitting, there’s a very good chance his spot is safe.
Last year, for example, 34 players did not participate despite being dressed for the fourth preseason game. Of those players, only three — running backs Mike Gillislee and Brandon Bolden and punter Corey Bojorquez — failed to make the initial 53-man roster. The team was doing a favor for Gillislee by sitting him and allowing him to hit waivers with a clean bill of health. The Pats seemed to be hiding Bojorquez in the hopes of sneaking him onto the practice squad.
Two years ago, a similar situation played out. The two healthy players who dressed for the game, did not play and did not make the 53-man roster were cornerback Justin Coleman (traded to Seattle) and Bolden (re-signed with the Patriots days later after the team made some necessary roster moves).
So keep an eye on the sideline Thursday night. Healthy players on the bubble include linebacker Calvin Munson, tight end Ryan Izzo, offensive lineman James Ferentz and cornerback Duke Dawson.
If those guys are in a spectating role, they’re likely sticking around Foxboro for the regular season.
In regards to projecting the initial 53-man roster, this isn’t nearly as important as tracking the players who sit.
But there can be some notable and unexpected developments in the preseason finale.
Last summer, it was surprising to see Jason McCourty, a 10-year veteran, on the field alongside a bunch of undrafted rookies and back-of-the-roster players in the fourth exhibition game. McCourty’s inclusion seemed to indicate that he was on the bubble.
“I really don’t concern myself with what goes on, especially this being year 10,” McCourty said afterward. “I’ve probably exceeded every expectation I had for myself, going into my rookie year of what my NFL career would be. So whatever happens here, happens. You put it in God’s hands. You play your best. However it goes down, it goes down.”
Of course, McCourty ended up making the squad, taking over a starting role, and delivering arguably the biggest play of Super Bowl LIII when he spotted Brandin Cooks wide open in the end zone and sprinted 19 yards to break up the pass.
Safe to say McCourty is getting the night off this time against the Giants.
But how about some of his secondary mates? Safeties Duron Harmon and Terrence Brooks have played in all three preseason games thus far. It wouldn’t be stunning to see them out there versus the Giants. Both are projected to make the 53-man roster.
Under normal circumstances, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas would never see the field in a preseason finale.
But the Pats may want to get a look at both players before the regular season begins.
Thomas is approximately eight months removed from an Achilles tear. As he explained earlier this week, he’ll inevitably face an adjustment period.
“I don’t have problems my with Achilles,” Thomas said. “It’s just reacting. I haven’t been in front of defensive guys or just going play by play in eight months. I haven’t had on pads or helmets in a while.”
The chance to see Thomas in a full-speed, full-contact setting might be beneficial for the Patriots, especially if they’re not 100 percent sold on keeping him.
As for Gordon, the Pats know what he can do. He was prolific a year ago, averaging 18 yards per reception. By midseason, he was arguably the team’s best receiver. But he’s been out of practice just as long as Thomas has (Thomas’ injury occurred in Week 16 of last season, as did Gordon’s suspension).
The Pats must weight the positives of getting Gordon re-acclimated to live action against the negative of risking injury
Can a roster spot be won in the preseason finale?
Truth is, most of the decisions are already made. But there are likely a couple of spots that will come down to the final few days.
If cornerback Duke Dawson still has work to do, this game could be viewed as a significant factor.
Same goes for back-of-the-53 candidates like defensive tackle David Parry (who could benefit from the early release of Mike Pennel) and offensive tackles Dan Skipper and Cole Croston (battling for a backup spot).
With so much uncertainty at the tight end position, perhaps a player like Stephen Anderson, who has been limited throughout the preseason, can make a strong impression in the finale.
We’ll also keep an eye on rookie wide receiver Gunner Olszewski. He faces long odds to make the team because of the depth at the position, but he’s a tremendous athlete who possesses some upside at receiver and offers immediate value as a return specialist.
Jarrett Stidham has far exceeded outside expectations this preseason, demonstrating a combination of deep-ball accuracy, mobility, and command that makes him a legitimate candidate to swipe the No. 2 job from Brian Hoyer.
Stidham, who relieved Tom Brady in the second quarter of last Thursday’s win over Carolina and went the rest of the way, should see a ton of work on Thursday night.
Bill Belichick gets one more opportunity to evaluate Stidham before making a call on the backup quarterback situation. The outcome likely depends on a few factors beyond the obvious — the gap between Hoyer and Stidham.
First, can the Patriots get anything worthwhile in a Hoyer trade? A fifth-round pick might do the trick.
Additionally, is there a pressing need to keep only two quarterbacks instead of three?
If the Pats aren’t in love with any of the players competing for the 53rd spot on the roster, they may opt to play it safe and carry three quarterbacks.