PATS REPORTER

Perry: Six key matchups to watch in Patriots' preseason opener

PATS REPORTER

There's only so much to glean from preseason action. But gleaning there will be.

Let's pinpoint a handful of the best matchups that'll be featured at Gillette Stadium on Thursday when the New England Patriots kick off the preseason with the Washington Football Team.

Mac Jones vs. Washington's first-team defense

Exactly how much of this will we see? Not much, in all likelihood. Defensive end Montez Sweat has already been ruled out. Fellow pass-rusher Chase Young isn't expected to play much. Top free-agent signee on the defensive side, corner William Jackson III, has been banged up and won't play long -- if at all.

But the safety group in Washington is deep, JP Finlay told us on the Next Pats Podcast. Maybe they can toy with the eyes of a rookie passer.

Next Pats Podcast: Looking for future Patriots? Bruce Feldman breaks down this year's Freaks list | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

The interior of the Football Team's defensive line is also loaded with starting-caliber players. That'll be a real test for Jones whenever he gets on the field. How well does he move when pressured up the gut? Can he navigate the forest of arms he'll see at the line of scrimmage to find open throwing lanes?

 

He's reacted well to pressure thus far through camp, but there's been no threat of him taking a real hit. Now there is. There's little to be learned about Jones if he dices up third-stringers, but early in his pro preseason debut there could be a handful of snaps that present him with good learning opportunities.

Chase Young vs. Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn

Even if it's only for one or two series, this will be appointment viewing. When healthy, the Patriots have a formidable pair of starting tackles. Both Wynn and Brown have been excellent in training camp.

Curran: What to key on in Patriots' preseason opener

But now the pads are on and the football is live. And Young is one of the most devastating young defenders in the NFL. Again, he may only see a couple of pass-rushing reps, but whenever he does, you'll need your eyes glued to the tackle on his side of the field.

Josh Uche vs. Sam Cosmi

Two athletic specimens. Two Prototypical Patriots. One actual Patriot. One... Football Teamer? Uche has done impressive work on the left side of the Patriots defense thus far through training camp. He's had moments where his speed and flexibility have appeared incredibly difficult to contain. But, again, the situations aren't live in practice.

Could the tackles Uche is seeing do a better job of riding him out of the backfield when he turns on the jets? Does Uche have the power to threaten with a bull rush?

Against Cosmi, a second-round pick out of Texas back in the spring, Uche will see a large man with strong movement skills who's expected to start at right tackle in his first season as a pro. Should be a fun matchup. 

Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne vs. Kendall Fuller, Benjamin St. Juste

There could be a battle brewing for the No. 2 receiver role on the Patriots. Nelson Agholor is being paid like a No. 1. He's locked into a key role. Then...?

Jakobi Meyers has had a very strong camp and looks like the team's top interior option. But Kendrick Bourne has impressed as well. He may be more of an outside-the-numbers player -- he's worked the short-to-intermediate area well coming from the boundary -- but he has some alignment versatility. If the Patriots roll with two tight ends as often as we think they will this season, that leaves room for just a couple of regulars at wideout.

Curran: Meyers reflects on Tom Brady's tough love

We're a long way off from determining who the No. 2 will be, but if Meyers and Bourne get reps against Fuller -- who graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 14 cornerback with at least 875 snaps last season -- and one stands out, that would be noteworthy in a battle that could last weeks.

St. Juste is a rookie out of Minnesota with exceptional quickness and abnormal length. He seems built in a lab to handle bigger slots, which is what Meyers and Bourne would be if used on the interior. 

J.C. Jackson vs. Terry McLaurin

This is another matchup that may not last long, but it'll be worth paying attention to for as long as it lasts.

 

McLaurin is a true No. 1 receiving talent. Jackson has been extremely productive working opposite Stephon Gilmore. And he's been sticky in coverage throughout camp. But how will he fare against one of the game's best young wideouts?

Even if it's only a target or two, it'd be nice to get a feel for this matchup as Gilmore continues to be unavailable and Jackson heads into a contract year. In all likelihood, the question that will linger over Jackson's head for the entirety of the season, in all likelihood, is whether he's No. 1 or a No. 2.

Watching Joejuan Williams, Jalen Mills and Michael Jackson get a crack at rookie speedster Dyami Brown out of North Carolina would also be intriguing.

Kyle Dugger vs. Logan Thomas

Thomas signed a three-year, $24 million deal this offseason to function as the Football Team's top tight end -- a far cry from the backup quarterback gigs he'd held across the league not too long ago.

He's an athletic marvel, which is what makes him such a good matchup for Dugger. Will Dugger be the choice for the best tight ends the Patriots will see in 2021? He was at times as a rookie, taking over for Joejuan Williams in that role after Williams was flagged for a few penalties in the first month of the season.

Perry: How Dugger can be a game-changer for Pats in Year 2

Big things are expected of Dugger, so it'll be interesting to see how he fares against a solid-but-not-dominant tight end as his second season begins.