Five things to watch during Patriots-Lions: Brady, Cooks chemistry test
DETROIT -- The "all-important" third preseason game isn't going to tell us very much about Patriots schemes, or how Bill Belichick plans to use players in certain situations during the regular season.
The third preseason game is, however, the closest thing to a regular-season game that Patriots starters will get before Week 1 so there's plenty that will be worth watching.
1. BRADY, COOKS CHEMISTRY TEST
When I asked Tom Brady earlier this week what he hopes to get accomplished in what will all likelihood be his final preseason snaps of the summer, he said all he wants to do is get a feel for the rhythm of the game -- especially with some of his newer teammates around him. To get more work with Brandin Cooks could be crucial in terms of making sure their connection is right for September. Will they be on the same page in terms of how routes should be run? Will their timing be right? Cooks caught just one pass from Brady last week in Houston. Perhaps his target share will increase Friday night against the Lions. He's looked great in practices, but having success in a game situation could do a great deal in terms of letting Brady know where they stand.
2. HOW LONG IS LONG ENOUGH?
About how many snaps should it take to get a feel for the rhythm of the game? Unclear. But Brady will have to get his feet under him as quickly as possible because Belichick probably won't be checking in with him after every drive. "Got the rhythm now, Tom? OK to get Jimmy in there?" Don't see it. I think somewhere in the range of four-to-five series should be plenty for Brady, Cooks, Rob Gronkowski and the rest to feel like they got in some competitive work against an unfamiliar defense in order to prepare themselves for when the games actually matter. Brady might want to play longer, but at some point the coaching staff will weigh the risk versus the reward and decide to get the best players off the field. Feels like that may come sometime in the second quarter.
3. NOTABLE RETURNS?
Patriots warmups may be as intriguing on Friday as they will be all season. Because there are no injury reports in the presesaon, there's some uncertainty surrounding players who are (or were recently) dealing with injuries, and the warmup will give us the full picture of who's in uniform and who isn't. Don't expect Dont'a Hightower (pictured at left) to be out there, but will Mike Gillislee, who said this week he was a full go after missing weeks of practice, be suited up? Getting his timing down with Brady and the Patriots offensive line during a game situation could be crucial. Is Trey Flowers, who was held out of last week's game despite being in good health, going to see any time? What about Rex Burkhead and Malcolm Mitchell? Both players were not spotted at practice this week. Mitchell isn't expected to play, but will Burkhead?
4. SOLIDIFYING SPOTS
Plenty can happen between now and the lone cutdown day of the preseason, when teams will have to lop off almost 40 players each in order to get to 53. But the third preseason game may be the last best chance for certain individuals to solidify their claims for roster spots. Kony Ealy (the subject of surprising trade rumors) is a player who could use a start-to-finish strong performance. He flashed last week -- both in practices with the Texans and the game -- but those flashes were accompanied by lapses in technique. If he plays deep into the second half, he should have plenty of opportunities to look good against inferior talent in the trenches. Other non-rookies, like Geneo Grissom (if healthy enough to play), James O'Shaugnessy, DJ Foster, Justin Coleman, Jonathan Freeny, Elandon Roberts, Jordan Richards, Jacoby Brissett and Cyrus Jones (pictured) could also benefit from positive showings at Ford Field.
5. ROOKIE BUBBLE WATCH
For some of New England's youngest players, they may have an outside chance at making the roster, but their best bet at sticking could by earning a spot on the Patriots practice squad. Corners Kenny Moore and DJ Killings, linebacker Harvey Langi (pictured), defensive linemen Adam Butler and Josh Augusta, tackle Conor McDermott, tight end Jacob Hollister and receiver Austin Carr should all see plenty of chances to help themselves against the Lions. Langi has seen time with the starters and was included in our most recent 53-man projection.