The Patriots face the Giants at 7 p.m. Thursday in their final game of the preseason. While the New England starters are not expected to see much of the field, the matchup at MetLife Stadium will provide some last-minute insights for coach Bill Belichick and his staff when they trim the roster.
Here are five bubble players to watch during the game:
Devin McCourty has been a mainstay in the middle of the Patriots secondary for years. The two-time Pro Bowl safety’s place on the depth chart is secure. The same cannot be said for his twin brother Jason’s spot in the cornerback ranks. However, the Patriots’ decision to try Jason at safety indicates they would like to keep him around in some capacity.
Jason played cornerback for much of the first half against the Panthers last week. Then, on Carolina’s final drive before the break, he switched to safety for the first time in his nine-year NFL career. The 31-year-old continued in that role with the second-stringers in the second half, communicating well and making a tackle near the goal line.
In a conference call Saturday, Belichick noted McCourty’s experience and understanding of the game, but did not shed any light on whether McCourty would continue in his new capacity.
“We’ll see how that process unfolds going forward, how much more we play him in those spots,” he said. “Again, a lot of the playing players in different positions in the second and third week of preseason — even fourth week of preseason — just relates to building depth on our roster when we only have 46 players on the active game list in the regular season.”
For his part, McCourty is happy to show off his versatility.
“I don’t really know what their plan is moving forward but for me it was something that was asked of me and I took it as a great opportunity to be able to go out there and kind of show myself what I could do at the position, and anybody that was watching,” McCourty said.
If the twin experiment does end in Foxborough, Jason should catch on with a new team. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would seem to be prime contenders for his services, considering their secondary ranked dead last in yards allowed per play and per game last season.
Tom Brady has to pass the ball to someone, right? The Patriots receiving corps is down to three surefire players — Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson — now that Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, and Eric Decker have departed. (Julian Edelman, of course, will miss the first four games. Danny Amendola is in Miami. Troy Brown is in studio.)
No. 12 acknowledged certain things “haven’t worked out the way we would have hoped” as the revolving door spun, but added his job is to make it work with whoever he has at his disposal.
The door is open for Riley McCarron to earn a place on the 53-man roster. The receiver took snaps with the first-team offense against the Panthers, catching four of his five targets for 49 yards. He has also been back to return punts on multiple occasions, which could signal Belichick is including him in his regular-season plans over Braxton Berrios, Devin Lucien, and Paul Turner.
However, the Patriots could also march into the 2018-19 season with just three receivers — plus special teams ace Matthew Slater — or pursue another wideout in the trade market or on the waiver wire.
McCarron should get plenty of opportunities to prove himself on Thursday night. If he wants to stick around long enough to become a regular-season target for Brady, he’ll need to reel in the passes thrown his way by Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling against the Giants.
Vincent Valentine was a Super Bowl champion as a rookie in 2016, then relegated to injured reserve last season. The 24-year-old has plenty of experience to lean on as he returns from that knee injury and finds himself locked in a battle for a roster spot.
Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Adrian Clayborn, and Derek Rivers have their places on the defensive line just about locked down. That leaves four players in the mix for what will most likely be three spots: Adam Butler, Malcolm Brown, Keionta Davis, and Valentine.
Brown is in the final year of his deal and could be a valuable trade chip if the Patriots are willing to part with him. If they do, Valentine’s chances of making the team will look a lot brighter. His prospects aren’t quite as sunny if Brown stays in town.
Valentine, who checks in at 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, operates primarily as a run-stopper on the interior. Though he’s been working to shed that specialist tag, he is still best utilized in first-down and goal-line situations. He could lose out to another player who spent the 2017 season on the sidelines: Davis.
Davis dealt with a bulging disk in his neck last year, but before that he was a pass-rushing force for Tennessee-Chattanooga. Belichick may elect to go with that disruptive presence as he builds a defense for Brian Flores to work with.
For his part, Valentine is just enjoying the bond in the locker room.
“We’re young, we’re happy,” Valentine said of his linemates, per the Boston Globe. “We have good chemistry together. It’s just great being with those guys, learning from those guys.”
If he can’t separate himself from the pack in Thursday’s game and finds himself on the outside looking in Saturday, Valentine still has practice squad eligibility.
Danny Etling, a rookie quarterback out of LSU, is the ninth quarterback the Patriots have drafted during the Tom Brady era.
He did not play in the third preseason game, which does not bode well for his final roster aspirations. However, the seventh-round pick could be in the running for one of the 10 slots on the practice squad.
Thus far this preseason, Etling has thrown six passes for two completions. Thursday’s matchup, with only Hoyer splitting reps, should serve up more opportunities to showcase his talents. The rookie might even get the chance to start against New York. As Mark Daniels points out in the Providence Journal, the Patriots have handed the reins to a third-string quarterback in the past: Jacoby Brissett (2017), Ryan Lindley (2015), and Tim Tebow (2013).
To lock down one of the precious practice squad spots — and run the scout team when the regular-season kicks off — Etling will need to show more against the Giants than he did against the Redskins (2 for 5, 21 yards) or Eagles (0 for 1, one sack). The Patriots might also be hoping he doesn’t show too much and tempt another team to put in a waiver claim.
Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill have been neck and neck all summer.
Hill burst out of the gates with a strong performance against Washington, averaging 4.6 yards per carry while Gillislee was held to 43 yards on 14 carries. Gillislee closed the gap again against the Panthers, breaking free for a 15-yard gain on his first carry before bouncing outside for a short-yardage touchdown later in the game.
However, the total stats still don’t lean in his favor. Gillislee, who’s been handed the most reps of any Patriot running back, has 100 yards on 33 carries. Hill has 107 yards on 26 rushing attempts. The precariousness of his position doesn’t seem to be lost on Gillislee.
“Every preseason, I feel like it’s a little harder for the running backs,” Gillislee said, per the Boston Herald’s Kevin Duffy. “But I’m doing all I can to make the team or whatever it is, whether it’s here or going [elsewhere].”
He noted this preseason is the healthiest he’s been in a long time, a stark contrast to last training camp when he struggled to stay on the field. Thursday should offer one last opportunity to prove himself in front of the Patriots coaches, but it might not be entirely necessary.
Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel are both dealing with lingering injuries, which could mean the competition between Hill and Gillislee ends with both players on the 53-man roster. In that case, Belichick would likely elect not to send either out to face the Giants for an extended period. If the Patriots decide Hill would suffice while the others mend, they could look to trade Gillislee or simply cut him without incurring a salary-cap penalty.
Either way, the running back understands the dynamics at play.
“I leave that up to God, pretty much,” Gillislee said. “It’s my sixth year in the NFL. It’s a business at the end of the day. But I’ve put a lot of work in and hopefully I get another shot.”