Patriots preseason: What to watch for in Week 1 versus Lions

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 23: Head coach Matt Patricia of the Detroit Lions hugs Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots after a 26-10 win over his former team at Ford Field on September 23, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 23: Head coach Matt Patricia of the Detroit Lions hugs Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots after a 26-10 win over his former team at Ford Field on September 23, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

The New England Patriots will take the field tonight versus the Detroit Lions for their first official NFL game since winning the Super Bowl last February.

Tonight at approximately 7:30 pm EST, the reigning Super Bowl champions will take the field as a team for their first official competition against another NFL team since defeating the Los Angeles Rams by a score of 13-3 last February.

A lot has changed since that remarkable night when the Patriots earned their record-tying sixth Vince Lombardi trophy.

Last season’s unofficial defensive coordinator Brian Flores is now the head coach for the division-rival Miami Dolphins. Replacing Flores is Bill Belichick himself, who is set to pull double-duties as head coach and defensive coordinator for the first time in years.

The defense itself lost sack-master Trey Flowers, but added veteran defensive end Michael Bennett and rookie pass-rusher Chase Winovich out of the University of Michigan. Otherwise, the linebacker and secondary rosters remain much the same as they did six months ago… if anything, New England looks even stronger in both areas with more youth infused into the back-end of those depth charts.

Offensively is where most of the pressing questions lie heading into the new 2019 season. Rare as it is to find question marks on a Patriots team from this millennium that is captained by brilliant coordinator Josh McDaniels and the ageless wonder Tom Brady at quarterback, that’s exactly the situation at hand on offense as things currently stand for this franchise.

The smart money says the Patriots will be just fine this year as they navigate the turbulence of some unexpected personnel losses on that side of the ball; after all, Brady still looks sharper than ever, even at the age of 42 now. His favorite target, Julian Edelman, looks poised to miss the entire preseason while nursing a broken finger, but his status for the Pats’ season opener is apparently not in doubt.

Everywhere else on this offense is where legitimate concerns abound, and that’s what savvy New England fans should be paying the most attention to tonight in Week 1 of the preseason against the Detroit Lions.

First and foremost, the Patriots need to solidify their plan at the left tackle position. After running back, the two greatest strengths on this roster offensively are Brady and the line of bodies that stand guard in front of him. While Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Joe Thuney, and Marcus Cannon look entrenched at four of the five spots along that line, the fifth and arguably most important spot is still a matter of mystery.

If all goes according to plan, last year’s first-round draft pick, Isaiah Wynn, will step into (and step up to) the left tackle void left behind by Nate Solder and then Trent Brown. Wynn missed all of last year after sustaining an Achilles injury in the preseason; he’s slowly worked his way back into taking meaningful snaps during training camp and then in joint practices with the Lions this week. How he holds up against Detroit’s pass rush tonight and then over the rest of the preseason is probably the biggest storyline to monitor as the Patriots move closer to their regular season opener on September 8.

If Wynn struggles, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Belichick shuffle around his linemen in an effort to find a more cohesive unit that can keep pressure away from his aging quarterback. Dan Skipper has turned some heads at camp, and Hjalte Froholdt is another option at guard if the Pats decide to kick Thuney out to the left tackle spot to protect Brady’s blindside.

New England also needs to figure out who’s starting at wide receiver. Edelman is obviously a lock whenever he returns. This year’s first-round draft pick, N’Keal Harry, started out strong in OTAs and minicamp but has seen his performance wane a bit since training camp begun. Belichick didn’t burn a first-round pick on a skill position player to see that player ride the pine this year, so the hope and expectation is that Harry can get back on track before September rolls around and assume a starting role on the outside of the formation.

Opposite him – ideally – would be Josh Gordon. Gordon recently filed for reinstatement into the NFL after being indefinitely suspended from the league last December for a diluted drug sample. If and when commissioner Roger Goodell decides to reinstate Gordon will obviously have major bearing on the Patriots’ receiver depth chart – and perhaps on the team’s effectiveness on offense overall this year.

Beyond those three players, anything is possible at receiver. Demaryius Thomas and Cameron Meredith are both established starting-caliber players who will begin the season on the PUP list – even one making a successful return at some point could provide a boon to the Patriots’ pass-catching department immediately. Jakobi Meyers, an undrafted free agent, has also had an exceptional camp thus far and could be in line for significant work if he keeps up his recent momentum.

Unless Rob Gronkowski decides to un-retire and come walking back through the locker room doors at Gillette one day like a returning hero, the Patriots will need to figure out their tight end position as well. Benjamin Watson and Matt LaCosse look like the two favorites to receive starring roles throughout the regular season, though Watson will miss the first four weeks while he serves a suspension. LaCosse, in particular, is a player to circle on the screen tonight against Detroit.

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To a lesser extent, the Patriots’ depth chart at quarterback also bears some surveillance this week and throughout the remainder of August.

Rookie draft pick Jarrett Stidham has come on of late in camp practices and could challenge Brian Hoyer for the No. 2 spot behind Brady. The safe thinking is that the Patriots will keep both players on the final roster as insurance should anything happen to TB12 – with Stidham more of an upside development project (and possible heir?) and Hoyer serving as the more proven, knowledgeable veteran. Still, it should be interesting to see how both compete to lock up their roster spots and positioning behind Brady as the preseason rolls on.