Five Patriots who could help themselves earn roster spot vs. Panthers
Let's get this out of the way first: The majority of your attention will be focused on Patriots quarterbacks Friday night. Nothing wrong with that.
Before the game you'll wonder, will Tom Brady start? And will he be upset if he doesn't? Then your thoughts will shift to Jimmy Garoppolo, and how he might handle playing on the road against a good defense -- something he'll have to do Week 1. Next you'll think to yourself, please, please, please can we get another shot of the two of them interacting on the sidelines?
There will be plenty more at stake when the Patriots and Panthers match up, though. Battles for roster spots will continue. Depth charts at certain positions may be shuffled. Unknowns could emerge.
That's what this piece is for. The other stuff.
Here are five Patriots players to watch who could strengthen their cases for roster spots with solid performances Friday. . .
TERRANCE KNIGHTON, DT
I included Knighton on my latest 53-man roster projection, and I think he's still a safe bet to make the team -- especially considering the Patriots just suspended defensive tackle Alan Branch for a week. Knighton appeared to have a difficult stretch against the Bears in preseason game No. 2, but he performed well when healthy last season, and the Patriots like to use a rotation on the interior of their front so Knighton's presence on the roster would carry value. Still, a good performance on Friday could go a long way in securing his spot. Also, watch out for penetrating defensive tackle Anthony Johnson. He's a much different type of player than Knighton, but his story is a fascinating one, and so is his skill set. If he can double-up with a good game after he flashed against the Bears, he'll be in the conversation for the final roster.
CLAY HARBOR, TE
The Patriots handed Harbor $400,000 in guarantees when they signed him this offseason, but he's had trouble standing out since. An injury kept him on the physically unable to perform list when camp practices began, and he still may be in catch-up mode. Second-year tight end AJ Derby has stood out through camp and into the preseason, and his performance may force the Patriots into a tough decision. Keep Harbor, the versatile veteran, who when healthy could play a variety of roles? Or keep Derby, who has shown tantalizing promise? If Harbor plays well Friday, the team may try to figure out a way to keep both.
DJ FOSTER, RB
The news that Dion Lewis will not be ready to start the season left a void on the Patriots roster as James White is their lone healthy "sub back." Brandon Bolden can fill that role on an emergency basis, but it doesn't seem like a job for which he'll be competing full-time. Enter Foster, an undrafted rookie who played receiver in his final collegiate season at Arizona State. With the Patriots, he showed good quickness and burst during the spring, but he dealt with a nagging hamstring injury that kept him off the field for a time. Foster has not been able to practice much in camp due to injury, but he returned to practice this week and could get a chance to suit up in Carolina. Foster doesn't seem to be a threat to White's role, but if he plays well enough, the Patriots may be willing to add him to the 53-man roster. Running back may be the team's thinnest position at the moment.
JUSTIN COLEMAN, CB
For the second consecutive year, the Patriots don't have much in the way of depth at the corner position. Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan look like the top two, then there's second-round pick Cyrus Jones, who may be the front-runner for the No. 3 spot. It's unclear how many jobs at corner will be up for grabs when the final roster is turned in on Sep. 3, but Coleman seems to be the next man up on the depth chart after those three, and he could push Jones for the No. 3 role. Coleman impressed the team last year as an undrafted free agent, and his athleticism gives him significant upside. He's competing with other quick players like second-year man Darryl Roberts and undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones. But despite having more experience than those players, Coleman recently expressed an attitude that Patriots coach Bill Belichick would probably appreciate: He's just hoping he'll be able to make the team. A strong performance Friday -- perhaps against Panthers receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess -- might help him lock up a spot.
TED KARRAS, OL
There's been some shakeup on the Patriots offensive line lately, as you may have heard. Bryan Stork has been traded. Sebastian Vollmer likely won't be healthy enough to start the season. Shaq Mason is dealing with a reported hand injury. Jonathan Cooper hasn't played since the first weekend of camp because of a foot issue. And Tre' Jackson remains on PUP. What better way to help allay Belichick of Dante Scarnecchia's concerns up front than by holding onto a player who could potentially fill multiple roles if called upon. Karras has played center, guard and even some tackle in camp this summer, and he's flashed an aggressive playing style that fans in New England will likely appreciate if they catch a glimpse. The sixth-rounder out of Illinois initially seemed to be destined for the Patriots practice squad if things went well for him this offseason. Now he looks like he could be one of the team's primary backups on the interior. If he performs well against Carolina's front, it might be difficult to expose Karras on waivers. He wouldn't be there for long, I suspect.