We finally were treated to competitive football Thursday night as the New England Patriots took on the Washington Football Team for their preseason opener.
It's still early, but the exhibition provided a sneak peek at the frontrunners for roster spots and the players who may find themselves on the bubble. Here's an updated look at our 53-man roster projection ahead of next week's preseason matchup vs. the Philadelphia Eagles.
Quarterback (2): Cam Newton, Mac Jones
It's a very real possibility that Mac Jones ends up starting for the Patriots when the regular season begins. I've long believed that if that happens, it wouldn't make much sense for Cam Newton to remain on the roster. But through a few weeks of camp -- where Newton has appeared to go out of his way to help Jones, providing advice or a shoulder to lean on after a rough stretch of practice -- I'm wondering if the two might be able to co-exist even if Jones is the No. 1.
Might create some difficult moments when Jones, in that scenario, inevitably struggles in the regular season. But if Newton is truly willing to accept the No. 2 gig and provide an occasional change of pace in certain situations, then maybe it could work. Maybe.
Running back (5): Damien Harris, James White, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden
On Thursday, Damien Harris looked to have all the burst you'd expect him to have after an impressive, when healthy, 2020 season. He's the No. 1. And he probably should be so long as he's healthy. Injuries are, to a degree, inevitable at this spot. So there's an argument to keep Sony Michel around just in case. But as developmental options -- and potential special-teams contributors -- it may make more sense to keep Rhamondre Stevenson and JJ Taylor (not to mention an occasional sprinkling of special-teams ace Brandon Bolden offensively) as Harris' backups.
There might just be too much depth and versatility here to try to carve out space for Michel. If the Patriots can work a trade to find a new home for their 2018 first-rounder, that might make the most sense for all parties involved.
Wide receiver (5): Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Matthew Slater
Kristian Wilkerson has impressed in training camp practices. He's had a role on special teams -- he was on the first kickoff and kick return units for the Patriots Thursday. That might not be enough to nab him a roster spot, though.
N'Keal Harry, who has no special teams role at the moment, would be dealt in this scenario despite what's been an impressive camp. He hasn't done so much to bump Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne or Jakobi Meyers out of the top three here. In a two-tight-end offense, and without a role in the kicking game, it's hard to envision his fit.
Tight end (4): Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi, Jakob Johnson
Same old, same old here. Devin Asiasi missed time on the COVID reserve list, but he's back now and slowly being worked back into the mix. If the team needed to play tomorrow, it'd likely be Matt LaCosse in Asiasi's spot, but there's still some upside with Asiasi that's worth trying to develop.
Jakob Johnson gets a spot here as well because as much as the tight ends will be heavily featured, Josh McDaniels still loves him some 21 personnel.
Offensive line (8): Isaiah Wynn, Mike Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Trent Brown, Justin Herron, James Ferentz, Ted Karras
Last time we put one of these together, Korey Cunningham was in as the eighth lineman. Here, he's replaced by a familiar face: James Ferentz. Ferentz has the ability to play center or guard. And though he's a known commodity, he helps give the Patriots some depth on the interior.
Ted Karras has been a little banged up in camp, and the other interior linemen on the roster have been unimpressive. Justin Herron would be the swing tackle, and if the Patriots needed further depth there, they could kick Michael Onwenu outside and replace him with either one of their interior backups. There's some good flexibility here in this octet.
Specialists (3): Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona, Quinn Nordin
It may be time for a transition at kicker. There's never been a question about whether or not Quinn Nordin has a bigger leg than Nick Folk. The question has been accuracy. But over the course of the last week, with three different opportunities to kick inside Gillette Stadium, he's made just about everything coming off his right foot.
Folk is 36 and has missed the last several practices. He isn't the long-term solution. If the Patriots feel there's promise there with Nordin, and there certainly seems to be, it wouldn't be a bad idea to make that switch.
Defensive line (6): Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise, Henry Anderson, Carl Davis
This is a large group of large men. Too many? Maybe. But the top-five all feel like locks, and Carl Davis has played well enough of late that he just may be deserving of a sixth spot.
Helping Davis is that Barmore (interior pass-rush menace) and Wise (still more edge player than space-eater) could end up having unique, situation-specific roles. That doesn't give the Patriots too much wiggle room in case of injury to one of their interior earth-movers. Davis won't surpass Lawrence Guy or Davon Godchaux in the defensive line rotation, but if there's an injury, the 320-pound Davis would be a valuable reserve piece.
Outside linebacker (5): Matt Judon, Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins, Kyle Van Noy, Brandon King
Couple changes here. Kyle Van Noy bumped from inside linebackers (where we've seen him practice quite a bit) to outside (where he started on Thursday). Meanwhile, Chase Winovich has been left off as he continues to miss practice. Unclear whether or not he'll remain on the physically unable to perform list to start the season. But with the depth the team has at his position, it might make sense to keep him off the 53-man to start the year and bring him in as reinforcements if/when injuries hit.
Brandon King is an addition here after he showed up on three first-team core special teams units Thursday. He hasn't played since 2018, but he seems to be moving well in his one-on-one sessions with Matthew Slater in practice. If the team believes he can regain his role as a core special-teamer, he's got a shot.
Inside linebacker (3): Dont'a Hightower, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Anfernee Jennings
The Patriots aren't guaranteed to keep a second-year player just because they drafted him in the third round. (They let go of second-year corner Duke Dawson back in 2019 after he was taken in the second round the year prior.) But Anfernee Jennings, theoretically, will at some point provide the Patriots some on-the-line and off-the-line versatility.
He's missed some time this summer, but if he's healthy enough to show anything in the preseason -- particularly anything that might lead another club to grab him off waivers if released -- Bill Belichick might deem it best to keep him around. Dont'a Hightower and Ja'Whaun Bentley look like locked-in starters here. Feels too early to have him split the program.
Cornerback (7): Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Justin Bethel, Joejuan Williams, Dee Virgin
This is a group that may look deeper than it is defensively. Justin Bethel, Joejuan Williams and Dee Virgin are all included here because they all could have significant roles on special teams. All three were on three first-team core kicking-game units Thursday. (There's a caveat with Virgin, though, who was on the first kick-return unit against Washington; New England's first kick-return opportunity didn't come until the end of the first half so Belichick likely didn't have his top options out there.)
Might be asking a lot of any of those three to be big-time defensive contributors. There there's Jalen Mills, who has had a hard time coming up with positive plays to this point in the summer. And Stephon Gilmore remains unavailable. Plenty of kicking-game options here, which Belichick can appreciate. But there are obviously some key question marks here as well.
Safety (5): Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Myles Bryant, Cody Davis
This may end up one of the team's best position groups, though it's a bit thin behind their top-three. Myles Bryant is a corner-turned-safety who appeared to be dealing with something physically late in Thursday's game. Cody Davis is another core specialist who likely won't be a factor defensively.
Late in their matchup with the Football Team, the Patriots had Malik Gant -- who signed with the Patriots as an undrafted rookie in 2019 -- playing significant snaps despite just being re-signed a few days ago.