While Patriots regulars aren't expected to play much, if at all, tonight, Bill Belichick will be the first to tell you the preseason finale still matters. It's an opportunity to evaluate players in game situations - players who could begin the season on the 53-man roster, players destined for the practice squad, or players who won't make either but could be considered for a spot on one or the other down the line.
Before the Giants and Patriots kick off, let's take a look at the group of players who could be on the precipice of the active roster and might help their chances with strong performances in their last shot at exhibition action.
As talented as this roster is, there are not 53 locks. These five players could make Belichick and his staff think long and hard before making final cuts on Saturday.
The second-year running back impressed enough last season to spend large chunks of the regular season on the active roster. His diverse background as a running back and a receiver in college makes him an intriguing prospect, and his play this preseason has impressed the man who matters most. "He's a guy that was a little bit of a specialty player in college, played in the backfield, played in the slot, was moved around some," Belichick said recently. "So we're just trying to give him as much of an opportunity as we feel like he's earned." Foster is a pass-catching running back now in Belichick's offense, and he provides some value as a kick-returner as well. The Patriots are loaded at running back, but with Julian Edelman out for the season, the Patriots could be interested in keeping an extra offensive skill position player in the fold - particularly if they feel that player is still improving after a college career that used him as a jack of all trades and a master of none.
If the Patriots want to keep another pass-catcher in the locker room with Edelman out, O'Shaughnessy would be my choice. Not because his skill set in any way replicates Edelman's. That wouldn't be his role. His skill set might best complement the rest of the Patriots roster, though. Remember, the Patriots kept four tight ends to begin last season. That number eventually shrunk to two, but the point is there is value in having a third tight end if he's trusted by Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick. Is O'Shaughnessy, who has kick-coverage experience, there yet? Unclear. He hasn't done himself many favors in recent weeks, dropping a pass against the Lions and fumbling one against the Texans. But with a good performance Thursday he could erase some of those bad memories and end up on the active roster.
How much does special teams depth matter to the Patriots? How much does having a backup for strong safety Patrick Chung matter to the Patriots? The answer to those questions could be coming this weekend. If Richards makes the team, it won't be due to his up-and-down performance this summer. It would be because of his special teams experience, because of the makeup of the Patriots roster, where true strong safeties are hard to come by, and because of whatever goodwill he's built up during his time in New England. Despite being a former second-rounder with two years under his belt, a strong night against the Giants could help him ensure he has a spot on Belichick's roster for a third consecutive season.
During spring workouts and the early portion of training camp, Moore was making a play a day. Pass-breakups, picks, you name it. Since then, he's been much quieter as a defender but the Patriots have used him as one of their top two gunners with Matthew Slater out for long stretches. While it seems as though he's improved -- he had little special teams experience coming to New England, Belichick said, and he was blocked easily early on in his kicking-game work under special teams coordinator Joe Judge -- it's unclear if the Patriots like him enough in the kicking game to keep him around. Last year an undrafted, undersized corner got all kinds of work on special teams and ended up making the roster when many expected he wouldn't: Jonathan Jones.
Slater isn't the only special-teams regular who has missed significant portions of practice time this summer. Nate Ebner, Shea McClellin and Brandon King also fall into that category. That may mean that even despite the recent addition of Marquis Flowers, there's still room for another special-teams addition. Bates could qualify. The 23-year-old Maine product spent much of last season on the Patriots practice squad, and he's seen reps with some of the team's top kicking units during training camp and preseason games. If he stands out with a big play or two on special teams, maybe the Patriots find a spot for him on the roster.