The Patriots will close out their preseason slate of games on Friday night when they take on the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Kick-off is slated for 8:15 p.m. EST.
It remains to be seen if Mac Jones and several other featured players on both sides of the ball will take to the field on Friday.
But even if numerous first-team regulars stick to the sidelines, there should be plenty to keep tabs on, especially as other players try to state their case for spots on New England’s 53-man roster.
Here are seven things to watch for on Friday night in Nashville.
1. Will Mac Jones play?
After Friday’s matchup, the Patriots will not see additional snaps against opposing players until the Eagles arrive in Foxborough for New England’s season opener on Sept. 10.
As such, Friday would seem like another ideal opportunity for Mac Jones and some of New England’s expected starters on offense to get a few more reps, given that he only led three total drives last Saturday against the Packers.
But when factoring in the hard hits that Jones took in those snaps at Lambeau Field, the Patriots might opt to put their QB1 in bubble wrap until the start of regular-season action.
ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported on Thursday morning that the Patriots are giving “strong consideration” to holding Jones out from Friday’s preseason finale given the state of New England’s offensive line.
After New England found the end zone on its first drive of the evening against the Packers, Jones’s next two sequences under center ended with the QB getting trucked into the turf by Green Bay linebacker Kingsley Enagbare.
Both right tackle Sidy Sow and backup left tackle Andrew Stueber were beat clean by Enagbare en route to a few punishing hits against Jones.
As noted by NESN.com’s Zack Cox, Jones and New England’s first-team offense took 41 snaps in 11-on-11 drills during Wednesday’s final preseason practice, a heavy workload that could signal some time off on Friday night.
During that practice, New England’s defense logged at least six “sacks” against Jones during his pass attempts.
With a 17-game slate ahead of them, the Patriots might already be satisfied with what they’ve seen from Jones, especially when weighed against the risk of injury on Friday night.
Even though Jones and several starters could earn a rest day at Nissan Stadium, Ezekiel Elliott could potentially see some snaps in the early going as he tries to shake off the rust of an extended layoff this preseason.
2. How will the offensive line fare?
Of course, someone will still need to take snaps under center on Friday night for the Patriots.
And whether it’s Bailey Zappe, Malik Cunningham, or Trace McSorley, New England’s patchwork offensive line desperately needs a strong performance to end this preseason on a high note.
New England’s porous pass protection has been the team’s most pressing issue throughout the summer, leading to a painful night for Jones in Green Bay and a stagnant offensive showing against the Texans (164 total net yards) in the team’s preseason opener.
Mike Onwenu’s return to practice on Wednesday will give New England a serious lift, although it’s unlikely that the starting right guard will get the green light for Friday’s game.
Younger players like Sow should continue to get looks at right tackle on Friday. But if veteran tackle Riley Reiff puts together another strong performance at right guard (he gave up zero pressures vs. Green Bay), it could open the door for him to stay at guard and shift Onwenu over to tackle.
3. Will rookie defenders take the field?
Even if Jones and several of New England’s top offensive weapons sit out on Friday, the Patriots should be able to carve out heavy reps on the defensive side of the ball for some of their promising rookies.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the team’s top defensive youngsters in Christian Gonzalez, Keion White and Marte Mapu will take any snaps, given their various run-ins with the injury big.
New England’s first-round pick in Gonzalez has been a constant as one of the team’s starting boundary corners since the start of minicamp. But the 21-year-old corner landed awkwardly during Wednesday’s practice and left the team session early. Even if it’s a minor ailment, New England will likely play it safe with Gonzalez and keep him off the field Friday.
With veteran Jonathan Jones already out due to injury, both Jack Jones and Marcus Jones could see plenty of snaps on the outside against Tennessee, with younger defensive backs like Shaun Wade, Ameer Speed, and Rodney Randle Jr. earning looks behind them.
Keion White was one of the bright spots during New England’s preseason opener thanks to a relentless pass rush, but sat out last Saturday’s game after tweaking something during joint practices against Green Bay.
Third-round pick Marte Mapu has been one of the more intriguing players on New England’s defense thanks to his versatility, but he has yet to play a snap in preseason action while recovering from offseason surgery.
4. Can Malik Cunningham build some momentum back at QB?
After catching plenty of headlines with an electrifying performance under center during New England’s preseason opener against Houston, Cunningham has quieted down a bit as the Patriots continue to try and find a role for him.
He didn’t take any snaps at quarterback last Saturday against the Packers, although it’s unclear if New England originally planned to give him any during the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
Saturday’s game was suspended with 10:29 left in the fourth quarter due to the head injury sustained by rookie corner Isaiah Bolden, who remains in concussion protocol.
Cunningham’s stint as a wide receiver hasn’t offered the same impressive early returns, with the rookie failing to reel in a catch against Green Bay despite being targeted five times by Zappe. The former Louisville star has spent most of snaps during practice this week at wideout.
There likely isn’t any room on this roster if New England wants to keep Cunningham just at wide receiver. But if New England thinks the athletic QB can serve as a versatile asset in multiple packages and schemes, he’s likely worth keeping around. Getting a few more reps at QB on Friday should solidify that decision.
5. Can Kayshon Boutte keep building?
The Patriots, once admonished for not sealing the deal on a contract with DeAndre Hopkins, suddenly have a good problem on their hands.
At this stage of the preseason, New England is staring at the very real possibility of carrying six receivers on its roster.
Currently, DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Kendrick Bourne have the first three spots locked up as established vets, while rookie Demario Douglas seems like a safe bet to pencil in as the team’s fourth wideout after an impressive training camp.
After a rough minicamp and slow start in training camp, Boutte — once a five-star recruit at LSU — was once considered an early roster-cut candidate.
But give credit where it’s due.
The 21-year-old receiver has seen his stock soar over the last few weeks, taking advantage of the added reps that have sprouted up due to injuries with both Douglas and Tyquan Thornton.
After turning on the afterburners during a 42-yard touchdown on Saturday against Green Bay, Boutte snagged all nine of his targets during his final two practices at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Another solid performance on Friday could see Boutte even leapfrog an injured Thornton on the depth chart.
6. Will someone win the kicker competition?
After booting a pair of balls a combined 120 yards on Saturday against Green Bay, rookie punter Bryce Baringer has put himself in prime position to take the team’s starting special-teams gig against veteran Corliss Waitman.
But fellow rookie Chad Ryland is still in the midst of a spirited battle for the kicker position against incumbent veteran Nick Folk.
Ryland offers a higher ceiling thanks to his kicking strength, but he has been prone to bouts of inconsistency this summer. Tuesday’s practice was one to forget for the rookie, who went wide left on three kicks from around 40 yards.
Considering that New England traded up to snag the Maryland kicker in the fourth round of the 2023 NFL Draft, it’s unlikely that the Patriots would move on from Ryland if he continues to post up-and-down returns.
But that does open the door for the Patriots to potentially carry both Ryland and Folk on the 53-man roster going into September, relinquishing a roster spot that could be used elsewhere as a result.
7. Who can escape from the roster bubble?
With roster cuts on the horizon, now is the time for multiple players on the bubble to prove that they have what it takes to stick around for regular-season action.
As Mike Gesicki continues to work his way back from a mild dislocated shoulder, look for both Matt Sokol and Anthony Firkser to try and make their case for a spot as New England’s third tight end. Sokol currently holds the inside edge as a blocking option further down on the depth chart.
Second-year pro Sam Roberts has flashed a few times already during preseason action, but he also has other defensive linemen like Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Christian Barmore, Keion White, Deatrich Wise, Carl Davis and Daniel Ekuale ahead of him on the roster. Roberts’s two costly penalties against the Packers won’t help his case.
Sign up for Patriots updates🏈
Get breaking news and analysis delivered to your inbox during football season.