The Patriots will wrap up the preseason in their customary summer finale with the New York Giants at 6 pm ET on Sunday.
After two competitive days of joint practices with the Giants, Patriots quarterbacks Cam Newton and Mac Jones will put a bow on their cases to be the Pats’ starter on Sunday night.
Newton missed the first three days of practice this week but was the first QB in the huddle in his return to practice on Thursday, leading the starting offense on an eight-play TD drive.
Jones’s impressive practice against the Giants on Wednesday did lead to some slight movement towards the rookie quarterback, though, when the first-round pick took the second series with the starting offense in Thursday’s scrimmage.
For context, Jones didn’t get to work with the starting offense in the same capacity in joint practices with the Eagles. Instead, Newton took most of those reps.
Ultimately, it feels like the Patriots will start Newton in the opener against the Miami Dolphins (Sept. 12). The veteran quarterback is playing well enough this summer to keep his job in the short term, and Cam’s improvements allow the Pats to take their time with Mac.
Although one preseason game won’t completely change the equation, the competition feels closer than ever, and it’s one last opportunity for both quarterbacks to prove their worth.
All eyes will be on New England’s quarterbacks in the preseason finale, but there are a slew of questions that remain elsewhere on the roster that will need an answer by cutdown day.
The Pats need to trim their roster from 80 players to 53 players by Tuesday at 4 pm ET.
Here are ten non-quarterback competition roster questions worth monitoring in Sunday’s preseason finale against the Giants:
1. Will CB Stephon Gilmore Open the Season on the PUP list?
The most pressing non-QB-related question for the Patriots is Stephon Gilmore’s status for the opener. My understanding is that Gilmore’s “hold in” would effectively end if the team gives him a monetary incentive to return to the field. Gilmore is rehabbing from offseason quad surgery. But his on-field absence is as much about money as it is the injury. If Gilmore doesn’t return for Week 1, the Patriots have a hole at outside corner opposite J.C. Jackson. The former All-Pro is the final piece to the defensive puzzle, and the reality is that it’s now longer odds that Gilmore will play in the season opener. In fact, our money is on Gilmore missing multiple games to start the season.
2. Do the Patriots Have Enough Depth at Outside Corner?
The Patriots need top cornerback Stephon Gilmore back in their secondary in a big way. Although Gilmore can solve most of their problems, the Pats have questionable in-house options behind the former All-Pro and J.C. Jackson. Even with Gilmore, New England needs to replace 401 snaps that Jason McCourty played at outside corner in 2020. Third-year CB Joejuan Williams is a replacement-level player, while newcomer Jalen Mills’s strong suit is playing inside, not outside. Behind those two, it’s recently added corner Shaun Wade and a couple of practice squad guys (Michael Jackson, D’Angelo Ross, Dee Virgin). Whether it’s Williams, Mills, or Wade, one of those three defensive backs will get significant time on the outside for the Patriots this season. Does the team trust them to stay afloat? It’s the teams’ biggest question mark outside of quarterback.
3. Will WR N’Keal Harry Be Healthy for Week 1?
There are many angles to the Harry situation. First, his AC joint sprain was described to CLNS as a 2-4 week injury. Harry’s camp seems to feel that he should be ready to go for the opener with rest and treatment. However, his injury status puts a potential trade on hold, while the three-week injured reserve is an option. For Harry to return this season, he has to make the initial 53-man roster before going on IR. But they could place him on IR after roster cutdowns and bring another receiver back that they waived, such as early-camp standout Kristian Wilkerson. If Harry is ready to go by Week 1, which is the hope, then his strong camp could either land him a game-day role with the Pats or escalate a trade. His spot on a deep 53 affects several roster hopefuls.
4. What is Chase Winovich’s Role and Future in New England?
Chase Winovich is a good football player, as Belichick himself says all the time. The 2019 third-round pick makes a noticeable impact in the pass rush and fits what the Patriots do in their pressure schemes. However, he’s not going to see playing time as an early-down player with the additions this offseason, meaning his role will be very situational. Plus, second-year edge rusher Josh Uche passed him on the depth chart this summer. With the Matt Judon signing and Kyle Van Noy’s return, and Uche’s emergence, Winovich’s role would probably resemble his rookie season in terms of playing time as a situational pass rusher (28.9% of the snaps). After missing half of camp with an injury, Wino hasn’t gotten the opportunity to prove he is stouter in the run game after putting on weight this offseason. He has one last dress rehearsal to ensure a spot on the 2021 roster, or Winovich could get the Sony Michel treatment.
5. Has RB Rhamondre Stevenson Avoided the Rookie Redshirt?
In a discussion with running backs coach Ivan Fears earlier this week, the long-time Pats’ assistant emphasized that the team doesn’t put running backs in just to carry the ball. There are other details to the position that a rookie like Stevenson needs to learn before getting on the field. Fears’ answer suggested that Stevenson was headed towards a rookie redshirt, like many first-year RBs in the past with the Pats, but then the team traded Sony Michel. After they dealt Michel, Stevenson began taking reps after Damien Harris as the second-stringer in the lead back role. Maybe Fears was trying to slow down the Stevenson hype? That’s an old-school tactic by a veteran coach. We know Stevenson can run the ball; he currently leads all ball carriers with 140 yards after contact in the preseason. But as Fears said, there is more to the position than just carrying the football effectively.
6. Who Will be the Patriots’ Kicker for the 2021 Season?
Rookie kicker Quinn Nordin started the summer hot, extremely hot, and his cannon leg wowed everyone in attendance. But Nordin’s inconsistent accuracy came into play late in camp while veteran Nick Folk returned from injury. Folk hasn’t looked particularly sharp either. Still, his NFL experience and rock-solid performance last season likely allows him to keep his job, especially since Nordin fell back down to earth. The other question is will Nordin make it to the Patriots’ practice squad? He’s worth keeping around as a developmental project.
7. Will the Patriots Keep Three Quarterbacks, Veteran Brian Hoyer?
As the summer has progressed, Hoyer’s meaningful reps have disappeared. That’s not surprising with a veteran QB that is still relatively new to the system and a rookie in the fold, but keeping a third quarterback who has no game-day value takes a roster spot away from a player who could have a role on Sunday’s. For instance, wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson or another big-body on the defensive line. Hoyer’s value to the Patriots is as a de facto QB coach and scout team quarterback. He knows the system as well as anyone in the organization outside of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and allows Jones to focus on the Pats’ offense instead of running the scout team, assuming Newton is the starter. Plus, COVID remains a factor. If the unvaccinated Newton were to miss a game due to COVID protocols, they’d need another arm. Still, it’s not unprecedented for the Patriots to go with a rookie quarterback as the top backup. Belichick did it three times during the Brady era, and at the very least, Jones is ready to back up Newton. The COVID angle is probably too important to release Hoyer.
8. Will Gunner Olszewski Play More Wide Receiver in His Third Season?
Olszewski wasn’t at the first closed practice of the summer on Friday, so if it’s a long-term issue, that changes things dramatically. Although his hands are still shaky, Gunner started to turn things on as a receiver late in the summer. He blew by Giants starting corner James Bradberry on a go-ball in Thursday practice and is creating more consistent separation with his quickness out of the slot. We see legitimate progress with Olszewski as a pass-catcher, and there’s an opportunity there as the fourth receiver with Harry out. But it’s going to be hard to play him in a game if he can’t catch the ball. Gunner is probably another year of development away from contributing at wide receiver.
9. Did Yodny Cajuste Do Enough to Make the Roster? Sleepers on the O-Line?
In my last 53-man roster projection, we only had seven offensive linemen making the team. That number feels too low, but nobody was standing out enough to earn a spot. Well, third-year tackle Yodny Cajuste made a late-summer push. Cajuste’s athleticism in his pass sets and climbing to the second level pops on tape. He occasionally will false-step coming out of his stance in pass pro, but that’s fixable, and he’s a high-upside prospect that is worth hanging onto as a developmental player. As for a sleeper on the O-Line, don’t ignore veteran Alex Redmond. Redmond is a hard-nosed run blocker who loves to finish his blocks and has played a lot of football in his career. He’d provide some depth on the interior of the offensive line.
10. Will the Patriots Carry Six Interior Defensive Linemen on the 53?
A sneaky numbers game worth monitoring is on the interior of the defensive line. There are five roster locks: Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise, Henry Anderson, and rookie Christian Barmore. The Patriots will base out of a 3-4 front and use their linebackers on the line of scrimmage. Is there a need for a sixth big body, and has anyone played well enough to move the needle in that direction? The feeling here is that veteran Carl Davis will be a difficult cut if things don’t go his way. Davis is a system fit who is having a good summer. He has two-gapping ability due to his size and play strength combined with decent explosiveness to penetrate into the backfield. It’ll come down to where the Patriots want to carry their depth for Davis, but he’ll be on an NFL roster.