EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was almost easier to keep track of who was playing for the Patriots in their preseason finale Wednesday night against the Giants than it was to keep track of who wasn’t playing.
Only nine players weren’t with the team, a list highlighted by Wes Welker, Patrick Chung, and Stevan Ridley, and all other players were in uniform.
But having players like Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork dressed was simply a ruse: once the game kicked off, it was Ryan Mallett who started at quarterback, and the only projected offensive starter who was on the field with him was right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
It was the Patriots’ third exhibition game in 10 days, and the starters sat out the first one, against the Eagles, as well. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the crammed schedule was a factor.
“Obviously playing this many games that close together, that played a role,” he said. “Whoever is out there, it’s an opportunity for them and it’s an opportunity for us to evaluate them.”
Vollmer took his first game-situation snaps of the season. He was on the field for about 10 plays before he was yanked mid-possession. The fourth-year lineman has been nursing a back injury. He was in uniform for the first time against the Buccaneers last Friday, but did not play.
“I think that’s the way to do it,” Vollmer said of being eased back into things. “Obviously I missed a lot of camp, so I [got] some game-time experience and it was good for me that I got it.”
On defense, cornerback Ras-I Dowling, defensive back Tavon Wilson, and linebacker Bobby Carpenter, all of whom figure to play a role this season, started.
Carpenter’s snaps may have come mostly because the team doesn’t have too many other options at strongside linebacker with rookie Dont’a Hightower sitting out.
After clearly being unimpressed with his team’s performance in its “dress rehearsal” game in Tampa Bay last Friday night, it seemed possible that Belichick would play his starters for at least a quarter, as he did last season’s exhibition finale after New England was soundly beaten by the Lions the week before.
The Giants did play many of their starters, particularly on offense. Eli Manning played through the first quarter. However, defensive standouts Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Michael Boley did not dress.
Undrafted running back Brandon Bolden is one of many Patriots on the roster bubble. After 75 yards from scrimmage, including a team-high 59 rushing yards (on 15 attempts) and three catches for 16 more yards, Bolden spoke of trying to maximize his opportunities.
“I feel like I left it all out on the field,” said the Ole Miss product. “I have no clue [if he’ll make the team], but to be honest, I’m really not worried about it. I left that thought a long time ago. I tried to do the best I could.”
Another undrafted rookie, defensive lineman Justin Francis, is in the same situation.
“I’m just going to go to the knee and give thanks,” Francis said when asked how he’ll deal with the next 48 or so hours. “I’ve come a long way; God’s blessed me. It’s up to the coaches and it’s in God’s hands.”
Francis was credited with five tackles, two of them for loss.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft had some comments earlier in the week about the team signing Aaron Hernandez to a contract extension, and on Wednesday night, team president Jonathan Kraft added a little more context during his appearance on the 98.5 The Sports Hub pregame show.
“Aaron, when he joined us two years ago, came in, and from Day One he impressed everyone with his intellect for the game of football and passion for the game of football,” Kraft said. “He’s so versatile, and I think that speaks to his football intellect.
“You can have him run routes inside, have him run outside, and if you look at his blocking since he came into the league, he’s really improved. He’s someone that really fits the system.
“He’s from New England . . . and he enjoys being part of the Patriots and our family.”
When Hernandez was drafted, there were a lot of off-field concerns, which caused him to slide to the fourth round. Kraft was asked if Hernandez’s maturation played a role in signing him to a contract with a maximum value of $41.1 million.
“He came in as a 20-year-old at a position where physical development is so key; his body has developed,” Kraft said. “We drafted Rob [Gronkowski] in that draft, too, and I think people were surprised when we drafted Aaron when we did, but we were pleasantly surprised that Aaron was still there.’’
Kraft was also asked about the prospect of the regular season starting with replacement officials. All 32 teams received a memo from Ray Anderson, NFL vice president of football operations, telling them to prepare for just that prospect.
“It basically told the clubs that the league is going to start the season with the officials that have worked the preseason on the field, and currently the state of negotiations with past officials is nothing is happening,” Kraft said.
“Beyond that, it’s hard to comment much because negotiations are taking place, when there are negotiations, between the league and the Referees Association. The league is empowered to do what’s in the best interest of the league.
“Hopefully at some point, [a deal] gets done. If it doesn’t, we’re going to start with replacement officials.’’
After the game, which was not well-officiated — on one punt, referee Donald King called offsetting penalties, before then saying both penalties were on the Giants and even then may not have carried out the penalty properly — Belichick was far more succinct when asked his thoughts on replacement officials.
“Yeah, I’m not going to comment on that,” he said.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.