For the first time in two years, preseason football is back!
No, it might not be the real thing, but there are several things to keep an eye on when the Washington Football Team takes the field at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night against the New England Patriots.
With the NFL trimming the preseason slate from four games to three, multiple starters on both teams will see action on Thursday. Washington boss Ron Rivera has not ruled any players out, while Bill Belichick said he plans to play his starters as well. The two coaches have a ton of respect for one another, as Belichick specifically said he enjoys playing Rivera-led teams in the preseason.
For Washington's side, NBC Sports Washington's Pete Hailey identified three players that Burgundy and Gold fans should specifically keep an eye on.
But, what about on the home team's sideline? Here are three players/storylines to keep an eye on from the Patriots' sideline when they take on Washington...
From Rex Grossman and John Beck, to Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, to the three-way battle between Case Keenum, Colt McCoy and Dwayne Haskins, fans of the Washington Football Team have witnessed a good deal of quarterback competitions or controversies in the last decade.
This is uncharted territory in New England, though.
For the first time in over 20 years, the Patriots have a true quarterback battle on their hands between veteran Cam Newton and first-round rookie Mac Jones. Newton, for now, holds the upper hand. Belichick has publicly said Newton is the starter and has experience working in the system, too.
Yet, when you take a quarterback 15th overall, it's only a matter of time before he sees the field. Jones has put together a few impressive days of camp, per multiple New England reporters in attendance. If the rookie shines against Washington, the battle for the starting gig will truly start to heat up in Foxborough.
It's unclear how many snaps both Newton and Jones will play on Thursday. Should Washington play its defensive starters, though, both passers will be tested by one of the NFL's best defenses.
"They have a lot of good players. They're an explosive team on offense. They added a lot of explosive players," Belichick said on Tuesday. "And, they have one of the top defenses in the league, as they were in Carolina. So, it'll be a good opportunity for us. It'll give us a chance here to start on our preparation."
Wide receiver N'Keal Harry is one of the players worth watching closely on Thursday night, considering what's transpired with him this offseason.
In June, the 2019 first-round pick formally requested a trade from New England via his agent. The Patriots didn't honor his request. Harry walked back on his word towards the beginning of camp, saying he'd be fine to remain with the Patriots moving forward. He talked to Belichick about his situation, too.
"N'Keal and I have talked about it," Belichick told reporters on August 2. "We had a good conversation. We have a good relationship, so I'm not going to get into all that."
Since then, Harry has been one of the biggest pleasant surprises for the Patriots in camp. Yet, he's not a sure-fire lock to make the roster, especially considering the Patriots' plan to keep an abundance of tight ends.
How Harry performs in the preseason will likely influence New England's decision on how to proceed with him. Of course, the team could still move him in a trade, and a solid preseason performance could up his value, too. If Harry is able to translate his strong training camp onto the field during the preseason, the third-year wideout should be in good shape.
COVID opt outs return
Last year, the Patriots had an NFL-high eight players opt out of the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns. One year later, only a few of those players remain with the club.
Of those opt-outs that are back is linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who made the Pro Bowl in 2019, the last season he played. Hightower is back this fall and once again the leader of a New England defense that took a step back last season. It'll be interesting to see how Hightower performs on Thursday, even if he only plays a little bit.
Tight end Matt Lacosse, who also opted out of the 2020 season, has seen an uptick in playing time over recent days following an injury to presumed started Hunter Henry. He's expected to see his first action since 2019 on Thursday against Washington as well.
Running back Brandon Bolden is the lone other opt-out from the 2020 season that remains on New England's roster. However, in a crowded running back room, it could be difficult for him to make the final active roster.