7 things to watch in Saturday’s Patriots-Packers preseason game


We’re not sure if Mac Jones and the starters will play, but an intriguing rookie appears likely to make his debut.

Mac Jones could see his first game action of the 2023 season on Saturday. Morry Gash/AP Photo

The Patriots will hit the middle point of their preseason schedule on Saturday when they take on the Packers at Lambeau Field.

After a relatively uninteresting preseason opener against the Texans last week, the Patriots had a pair of joint practices with the Packers on Wednesday and Thursday as they ramp up for the regular season.

Here are seven things to watch for in New England’s second exhibition game.

Will Mac Jones and the starters play? If so, for how long?

The biggest focus on the Patriots entering the 2023 season is how the offense looks under new coordinator Bill O’Brien and if Jones can bounce back in Year 3.

We didn’t get a chance to have a sampling of that in the preseason opener last week. Jones and the vast majority of the Patriots’ starters on both sides of the ball didn’t play against the Texans, paving the way for Bailey Zappe and the second-teamers to play for at least a half.

That was a similar approach to what the Patriots took last season, though. After resting in the preseason opener, Jones and the majority of the Patriots’ starters played the first few drives in the second preseason game after a week of joint practices with the Panthers.

Bill Belichick didn’t really say what the plan would be for Saturday.

“We’ll talk about that as a staff. It’s one of the things we’re going to talk about this morning, kind of where everybody is here,” Belichick told reporters Friday. “We’ll take stock of the team’s physical condition after a couple practices, availability and things like that and then make those decisions a little bit later on here today and prepare for tomorrow.”

This is only the third year of the three-game exhibition schedule, so teams are still likely trying to chart which way is the best way to prepare for the regular season in the preseason. For additional context, Jones and the Patriots’ starters played over a quarter in their final preseason game last year.

What’s Malik Cunningham’s role?

No player’s stock surged higher following the preseason opener than the undrafted rookie quarterback’s at least from an excitement standpoint.

Cunningham led the Patriots on a touchdown drive in the only series he played at quarterback. The Louisville product completed 3-of-4 passes for 19 yards and added 34 yards on the ground, with the final nine coming on a touchdown run.

While it isn’t necessarily surprising to see someone who played quarterback for five seasons in college play quarterback in the NFL, it was a little bit of a surprise considering Cunningham’s role with the team at that point. He almost exclusively played wide receiver during offseason practices and in training camp before the final couple of practices prior to the preseason opener.

Cunningham continued to play both quarterback and receiver during the Patriots’ joint practices with the Packers this week. He also reportedly took snaps from David Andrews during one of the team’s solo sessions earlier in the week and even threw passes to Ezekiel Elliott on the running back’s first day with the team.

It’ll be interesting to see if Cunningham plays both positions again Saturday. And it’ll be even more intriguing to see who he plays with on offense if he gets reps at quarterback again as he challenges for a backup spot on the depth chart, too.

Will Ezekiel Elliott play at all?

It might be a bit far-fetched that the new Patriots running back will play Saturday, but his participation in practice this week at least left the door open a little bit for it to happen.

Elliott worked in solo drills at Wednesday’s practice before seeing some snaps during competitive team drills on Thursday. So, it isn’t as if it’d be entirely foreign for Elliott if he took the field. Couple that with Pierre Strong Jr. and Ty Montgomery missing practice time and the Patriots might need Elliott to at least shoulder some of the burden out of the backfield Saturday.

When asked about Elliott’s physical condition on Friday, Belichick gave an answer that made it sound like it’d be unlikely that he plays.

“He’s only been here two days,” Belichick said. “We haven’t really been able to practice with him, so not so much teamwork. But, he’s done things. He worked out with the strength staff on Wednesday. So, it’s coming along. He’s definitely not there yet, but we’re getting there.”

There are plenty of examples of players playing in games less than a week after signing with their new teams during the regular season. But it could be best for the Patriots to rest Elliott considering some of the other injuries they’ve already had in the backfield.

How will the Patriots’ secondary perform?

With Jonathan Jones still out, the Patriots’ secondary reportedly had an up-and-down showing during joint practices with the Packers this week.

Rookie corner Christian Gonzalez got beat by Packers second-receiver Christian Watson on a deep throw that led to a touchdown toward the end of Wednesday’s practice, which wasn’t the best showing for the Patriots on both sides of the ball according to multiple reports. Jordan Love also made some more solid completions against Gonzalez, Marcus Jones, and the like.

In the second day, the secondary reportedly stepped up with Kyle Dugger among those making plays.

Saturday will serve as a solid test to see where the young group stands without their leader in Jonathan Jones. Love is looking to at least calm some nerves in Green Bay as he succeeds Rodgers with a few solid, young receiver and tight end options.

Does Marte Mapu make his debut?

The much-hyped third-round pick appears likely to see his first NFL game action Saturday.

Mapu ditched the non-contact jersey in practice this week as he was still rehabbing from a pec injury he suffered in February. The safety/linebacker hybrid was a standout in non-contact drills during offseason practices and in the first few weeks of training camp, adding some intrigue to an already interesting Patriots rookie class.

The Sacramento State product was relatively unknown leading up to the draft, but his 6-foot-3 frame and athleticism led NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah to call him his favorite prospect of the draft.

Will any receivers stand out?

If Mac Jones and the Patriots’ starting unit play on Saturday, it could help provide an early answer to the question of if the quarterback has enough receiver help or not.

DeVante Parker wowed those in attendance at the Patriots’ joint practices with the Packers this week, reportedly making a 40-plus-yard grab on a deep route for a touchdown on top of other standout plays he made during the week.

JuJu Smith-Schuster has yet to play in a game for the Patriots. Could he prove to be an upgrade over Jakobi Meyers on Saturday? How about Kendrick Bourne, who also reportedly had a solid showing Thursday? Can Saturday be the start of a bounce-back season for him?

Sixth-round rookie Demario Douglas could also see his first good chunk of snaps in an NFL game on Saturday after making a cameo on offense last week. Douglas has appeared to continue his momentum from early in training camp, making a touchdown grab in red zone drills against the Packers. Kayshon Boutte has also reportedly stood out recently, too.

A pair of players who either won’t or might not enter the equation on Saturday are Mike Gesicki and Tyquan Thornton. The tight end is dealing with a shoulder injury he suffered at the start of the week while the second-year receiver left Thursday’s practice after getting hurt on a diving reception.

What will the offensive line look like?

The Patriots appeared to at least have some semblance of a starting offensive line during their joint practices with the Packers this week.

Trent Brown was a full participant at practice this week, an indication he could play if the Patriots decide to trot out the starters. But both starting guards (Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu) are still out and questions remain at right tackle.

Conor McDermott, who has played at right tackle for most of camp, missed Thursday’s practice. That could mean Sidy Sow starts at right tackle on Saturday as the fourth-round rookie converting from guard has been playing the position more at practice.

Riley Reiff, who was thought to be the likely candidate to start at right tackle at one point during the offseason, got playing time at right guard this week with rookie Antonio Mafi playing left guard.

Originally posted 2023-08-19 17:06:00.