Football is back. Well, preseason football anyway, as the Washington Redskins are in town to play the Patriots at Gillette Stadium Thursday night. It’s the first of four exhibition games leading up to the season opener on Sept. 9 against the Houston Texans.
Ahead of kickoff, here is a look at who is hurt, who is available, who has been playing well, who hasn’t looked good this week, and a couple of key position battles to watch:
■ In at least one aspect, the Patriots appear to be trending in the right direction as defensive backs Nate Ebner, Jonathan Jones, and Cyrus Jones were removed from the physically unable to perform list earlier this week and were in full pads for the first time all summer, although they were limited participants and would not be expected to play Thursday. As of Wednesday, no Patriots are on the PUP list.
■ Offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, running back Sony Michel, and linebacker Harvey Langi were not spotted at practice Tuesday or Wednesday. All three would appear to be out for Thursday. Michel, a first-round pick in April, had a procedure on his knee and could miss most of the preseason.
■ Guard Brian Schwenke left Tuesday’s practice early and worked on the conditioning field Wednesday, along with veteran defensive end Trey Flowers, who split time between both fields. Both could also be out for the preseason opener.
■ Running back Jeremy Hill has not had a good week in practice. On Tuesday, he had the ball ripped out of his hands by defensive end Keionta Davis after he eased up at the end of a run. That move resulted in a penalty lap for the former Bengal. He would have another fumble in Wednesday’s practice. Not a good look as he tries to find a spot in a crowded backfield. If he gets playing time tonight, he may need to atone this week’s mistakes.
■ Both Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer have looked sharp in practice, but rookie Danny Etling had a bit of a rough stretch on Tuesday against the starting defense, getting picked off by Dont’a Hightower and nearly picked off by Stephon Gilmore.
Still, the Patriots know what they have in Brady and Hoyer, so expect to see Etling get a lot of snaps Thursday as the teams tries to figure out if he is worthy of a roster spot, even if it’s on the practice squad.
■ Joining Etling in the backfield could be fellow rookie Ralph Webb, a running back who went undrafted out of Vanderbilt. He is the Commodores all-time leading rusher with 4,173 rushing yards, 931 carries, 32 rushing touchdowns, 35 total touchdowns and 16 games of at least 100 rushing yards. He saw plenty of action in Tuesday’s practice, perhaps an indication of how much playing time he could see Thursday.
■ A pair of second-year defensive players, defensive end Deatrich Wise and safety Damarius Travis, have performed well in camp. Patriots fans are well-acquainted with Wise, the fourth-round draft pick in 2017 who tallied 26 tackles and five sacks in an impressive rookie season. Travis also spent last season with the Patriots, albeit on the practice squad. If he is to crack the roster, he’ll likely have to unseat a veteran such as Jordan Richards.
■ Linebacker is a position to watch since the battle is wide open. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are locks and likely will not see a lot of playing time, if any Thursday night. Marquis Flowers was signed to a two-year contract after performing well (32 tackles, 3.5 sacks) last season. Ja’Whaun Bentley, Nicholas Grigsby, Christian Sam, and Elandon Roberts will be competing for the remaining spots.
■ At cornerback, the race is on to find a replacement for Malcolm Butler. Stephon Gilmore has the other corner locked down. Veteran Eric Rowe will certainly get a look, although he has struggled at times this season. Younger players like Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen, and Ryan Lewis should all see some time Thursday night either in the defensive backfield, special teams, or both.
■ And the rookies finally got their real numbers. Here they are: OL Isaiah Wynn, No. 76; RB Sony Michel, No. 29; CB Duke Dawson, No. 42; LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, No. 51; LB Christian Sam, No. 44; WR Braxton Berrios, No. 14; QB Danny Etling, No. 5; CB Keion Crossen, No. 35; TE Ryan Izzo, No. 85.