The Patriots will kick off their 2018 season against the Houston Texans Sunday.
Here’s what to watch for:
Who will step up as a pass catcher?
The Patriots’ wide receiver depth chart officially features five available receivers: returning starter Chris Hogan, newly signed Chad Hansen, kick-returner Cordarelle Patterson, speed demon Phillip Dorsett, and special teamer Matthew Slater. Practice squad member Riley McCarron was also added to the 53-man roster Thursday, according to ESPN.
Among the group, Hogan will likely receive the bulk of the receptions. The 30-year-old made 34 catches for 439 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season. Dorsett, a dangerous deep threat with the same 40-yard dash time as former Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks, is likely the second-best option at receiver. Given Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension, Dorsett could step into an expanded role — perhaps in the slot — after logging 194 yards on 12 catches last season.
Patterson is expected to be a useful kick returner for the Patriots, but the 27-year-old also flashed his abilities as a traditional receiver during the preseason. Hansen is the least experienced of the group and will probably require some time to learn the Patriots’ playbook, having just been signed by the team earlier in September.
With limited options at receiver, the Patriots will likely turn to pass catchers at other positions. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back James White are two obvious choices for quarterback Tom Brady to target. Of Brady’s 19 receptions during his preseason debut, 15 went to Edelman, Hogan, or White. (Gronkowski did not play.)
Will anyone from the 2018 draft class have an impact?
New England made nine draft picks in 2018, but at least five will not be available for Sunday’s game against the Texans. Offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn will miss the entire upcoming season due to a torn left Achilles; wide receiver Braxton Berrios, tight end Ryan Izzo, and linebacker Christian Sam have all been placed to injured reserve; and backup quarterback Danny Etling is a member of the practice squad.
ESPN reported Thursday evening cornerback Duke Dawson has also been placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Dawson did not participate in practice Thursday after being limited Wednesday.
Of the remaining picks, running back Sony Michel likely has the most promise. Michel, however, is still recovering from a minor procedure to drain fluid from his knee. The 23-year-old was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday, though Ian Rapoport reported in early August he should be fine by the start of the regular season. Michel rushed for 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns his senior year at Georgia.
Linebacker Ja’whaun Bentley and defensive back Keion Crossen round out the Patriots’ 2018 draft class. Bentley. Bentley, who was a full participant in practice Thursday after being limited due to illness Wednesday, could potentially challenge Elandon Roberts for the starting job. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in preseason, Bentley logged five tackles, broke up a pass in the end zone to force fourth and goal, and returned a fumble 54 yards for a touchdown.
Will Tom Brady be wearing his new helmet?
After sporting his new helmet, the Riddell Precision Fit SpeedFlex, throughout much of the preseason, Brady was spotted wearing his old helmet, the Riddell VSR-4 during Tuesday’s practice. The swap was short-lived, as his new helmet was back on Wednesday. Which option Brady elects to wear on Sunday likely reflects his level of comfort. He had previously told reporters there are just a “few little tweaks” he’d like to make to the newer helmet — namely, to its facemask.
“You’ve seen something a certain way for a long period of time, so I like as much vision as possible with the peripheral vision,” he said. “It’s all important — it all matters — so, yeah, just making sure it’s kind of similar to what the experience has always been. Like I said, there are still some tweaks to go, and I’m working it out.”
Brady is one of several NFL players who have to change their helmets by the start of the 2019-20 season after 10 styles were banned by the league for performing poorly in laboratory research testing for impact severity. Players may continue to wear the banned styles during the upcoming season, so — even though he’s already begun experimenting with an approved style — Brady does not necessarily have to maintain the switch in Week 1.
Will Alex Guerrero be on the sideline?
Brady hung up on WEEI’s Kirk Callahan when he was asked whether his trainer, Alex Guerrero, was on the sideline for the Patriots’ preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, but given Guerrero’s presence on the team plane to North Carolina, it’s possible coach Bill Belichick may have tempered his controversially stringent restrictions on Guerrero’s access.
Last December, Belichick reportedly stripped Guerrero of several privileges, including a seat on the team plane and sideline credentials on game day. A modification to those restrictions could indicate some sort of compromise in favor of Brady. During the epilogue of his docu-series, “Tom vs. Time,” Brady revealed “a lot of parts about football weren’t enjoyable” the past few seasons.
“Some of it was my approach, and I think, you know, any time you’re with people for a long period of time, relationships ebb and flow,” Brady said.
Brady’s “approach” is likely referring to his work with Guerrero and the TB12 method they developed together. As of last December, Brady was reportedly the only player permitted to visit Guerrero in his office at Gillette Stadium. All other players seeking treatment reportedly had to set up appointments at the TB12 Sports Therapy Center that Brady and Guerrero opened in September 2013.