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Gaffney's Ones to Watch in Patriots vs. Texans Preseason Matchup

Happy 'Finding out the Patriots' Rookies Numbers' Day to all who celebrate. As a bonus, there's a game happening later tonight at Gillette Stadium, with the Houston Texans coming to town. Bill Belichick has stated that we'll likely see guys with the least experience getting a bulk of the snaps in this one, which for the preseason opener, feels appropriate. Probably not going to see Mac Jones, and maybe not Bailey Zappe either. It's been reported down in Foxbrough that Malik Cunningham has been getting some QB reps recently, on top of some special teams and wideout reps throughout the summer. Do we see the prolific runner out of Lousiville under center at some point tonight?

On the other side, this Houston Texans squad has a ton of exciting young talent as quiet as it's kept. C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson are instant headline-grabbers, but there are some other exciting young players under the watch of rookie head coach DeMeco Ryans and coordinators Bobby Slowik and Matt Burke. So here are five more key cogs to the Texans puzzle I'm looking out for later tonight, as well as some down-the-batting order guys for the Pats.

Houston Texans

No. 7 C.J. Stroud - Quarterback

We won't have to wait long to see the No. 2 overall pick get his feet wet. DeMeco Ryans hopes to see Stroud do all the small things later tonight; command of the offense, poise, and things of that nature. What Patriots fans should be looking out for with him though, is his accuracy, which goes beyond getting completions. Stroud's calling card at Ohio State was putting the ball in the near-perfect spot at an insanely high clip. Assuming Stroud progresses as a passer under pressure through the year, Houston indeed has 'The Guy.'

No. 8 John Metchie III - Wide Reciever

Tons of feel-good stories in the NFL this year, and Metchie is near or at the top of that list. After an ACL tear in his final year at Alabama, the man they call 'The Crane' had a bout with Leukemia and missed his entire rookie season. The good news is he put cancer in the Steiner Recliner and is as good as ever. The one-time favorite target of Mac Jones and Bryce Young at Alabama has great hands, great footwork, and route-running ability. He could have been a late first-rounder had he not had that ACL tear. In all honesty, Metchie would have also been an awesome Patriot in a different lifetime. Might not be for long, but you'll probably see No. 8 out there tonight.

No. 13 Tank Dell - Wide Reciever

Another Houston wideout to look out for didn't have to move much to get to his NFL home. U. of Houston's Tank Dell is about the same size as former teammate/current Patriots' corner Marcus Jones and is every bit as fast. Not a big natural catch radius with that in mind, but he has great hands and can lineup all over the place, including in the offensive backfield. Probably says a lot about him that Stroud put in the word to Nick Caserio to pick him up in the draft. You'll most likely see more of him than Metchie if I had to guess.

No. 39 Henry To'oTo'o - Linebacker

This Texans defense started this draft with only one Alabama player (Linebacker Christian Harris) and came out with three. We'll get to Willy Anderson in due time, but first, we have to talk about Henry To'oTo'o (Pronounced TOH-oh-TOH-oh). The word out of Texans' camp is that he is making a real push to get the starting MIKE role (middle linebacker) for Ryans's defense. All you have to do is look up his name on Twitter and check the quotes and videos of To'oTo'o's teammates and coaches talking about him. They think very highly of the 22-year-old Sacramento native. Assuming he's carrying the green dot on defense, I'm interested to see how the communication and operation on defense looks with To'oTo'o on the field.

No. 51 Will Anderson - EDGE

For my money, there wasn't a better player in this year's draft than Will Anderson. Texans' GM/Patriots Legend Nick Caserio appeared to agree with me. He gave up a king's ransom to jump from pick 12 to 3 and secure the best pass rusher out of Alabama since the late great Derrick Thomas. Houston was a tremendous landing spot for Anderson because he's going up against Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard every day in practice. Getting the opportunity to go up against one of the five best-left tackles in the game in Tunsil this early will only make him that much better, and he is enough of a monster as it is. Howard is no slouch himself either.

What you should be looking for with Anderson is the burst off the line and the sheer power he has to overpower whoever is in front of him. Like Patriots' edge rusher Matt Judon, he's also pretty effective on stunts working back and up the middle of the offensive line. It wouldn't shock me if they get him going on one or two of those before they pull him for the night.

New England Patriots

* - Rookie Numbers Updated as of Noon EST

No. 80 Kayshon Boutte - Wide Reciever

Boutte did not start off the offseason program hot but has recently come on very strong over the last week or so. He's most likely getting a massive opportunity and workload tonight, and if he wants to lock himself onto this roster, he has to make the most of it. Worth noting that Trace McSorley went to Boutte early and often during last week's in-stadium practice, and given that he may start tonight, that bodes well for the LSU product. Interested to see if Bill O'Brien tries to get him working in the middle of the field. Boutte did a great job in college finding soft spots in zone, plus some monster YAC potential if he has some space to work with.

No. 81 Demario Douglass - Wide Reciever

The best sign for Douglass is if he doesn't play in this game. That would tell me this coaching staff is more than comfortable with where he's at. Given that he's been a notable factor in these practices, I wouldn't rule that out, or at the very least, only getting a limited workload. Douglass has been getting starter reps more frequently as we get closer to the regular season, and he catches everything. Keep that first sentence in mind should you not see the Liberty product much, but I had a sneaky suspicion that this could happen with Douglass for a while now.

No. 9 Bryce Baringer - Punter

The only real concern that Baringer had coming out of Michigan State was hangtime, and oh boy has that been a non-issue this summer. He has some absolute monster power in his right leg, and we'll probably see that on display in just a matter of hours. On a side note, I hope he sticks with No. 99. I've always sneaky liked specialists with numbers in the 80s and 90s in college.

No. 51 Ronnie Perkins - EDGE

Don't believe the plan for Ronnie Perkins was to have zero (0) meaningful snaps under his belt entering year three in the league when the Patriots drafted him 96th overall. Hard to say that pick aged well, given some of the guys who went soon after. Namely Quinn Meinerz of the Broncos and, more notably, Amon-Ra St. Brown of the Lions. In fairness to the Patriots, the Perkins pick was considered to be good value at the time, things just haven't worked out from a health standpoint which is just one of those things.

With that out of the way, Perkins will need some good outings to get onto this team after an ankle injury last August cost him the season. He's not an athletic freak by any stretch, but Perkins lived in the backfield at Oklahoma. Over his last 16 games as a Sooner, Perkins picked up 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. From a fundamental standpoint, Perkins makes up for his lack of athleticism and then some. Going back and watching a couple of games in 2020, he had some great burst and bend off the line and paired that with great handwork to make things happen. Should he show what he can do in these three preseason games, Belichick probably gives him a chance on the practice squad at the absolute worst.

No. 63 Chasen Hines - Interior Offensive Lineman

The offensive line depth has been a massive issue for the Patriots all summer inside and out. No Michael Onwenu for the time being means opportunity for others, including LSU's Chasen Hines. Greg Bedard on his most recent appearance on Felger&Mazz listed him as one of his three standouts as of late, albeit an out-there one. Seeing as he has experience at both guard spots at the collegiate level, he makes a ton of logical sense to get that backup IOL spot on the 53-man unit. He's on the outside looking since the Patriots drafted three IOL in the draft, but he should have a chance to show what he can do tonight.

No. 66 Kodey Russey - Interior Offensive Lineman

For all the same reasons as Hines, Kodey Russey makes a lot of sense as a backup IOL option but sits on the outside looking in all the same. He looked good in spots last preseason, including this spectacular block against the Panthers down below, but got cut before living on the practice squad in 2022. He's another guy who should have plenty of opportunity to state his case on why he should make this team.

No. 7 Isaiah Bolden - Cornerback

About a week ago, when Jack Jones got kicked out of practice, the fighting pride of Jackson State, Isaiah Bolden, got the opportunity to receive first-team reps. He's taking his lumps for sure, but it's nice to see the late-round pick getting this chance. What Bolden brings to the table is high-end athletic traits, size, versatility, and physicality. Deion Sanders was able to lure him away from Florida State to Jackson State in what Bolden called "a once-in-a-lifetime chance." Granted, he only got the chance to get notable reps last year, but you see the upside with Bolden, as does Sanders.

As Prime Time mentioned, Bolden is an electric return man as well. In 2021, he racked up 591 kickoff return yards on just 16 tries with two touchdowns. You'll probably get the chance to see him do a bit of that these next three weeks, so be on the lookout. I think he has a real chance to make this team.

On a side note, it was a shame that Bolden was the only HBCU player to get drafted this year. There were a couple of guys on that very same Jackson State team that could have joined him. Those are linebacker Aubrey Miller, who's having a solid camp with the Dolphins as a UDFA, and wideout Dallas Daniels, who was waived as a UDFA by the Broncos in May. You can find NFL-level talent at every level of college football, D2, D3, and HBCUs, doesn't matter. There's always NFL-level talent out there. Look at some HBCU alums like Terron Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Shaq Leonard, Grover Stewart, and the aforementioned Tytus Howard. These aren't just depth pieces either. Every single name mentioned are guys who are plus starters at the absolute worst. Tangent over, but felt like that needed to be said.

No. 16 Malik Cunningham - Quarterback/Wide Reciever/Special Teams

The most exciting thing about Cunningham is I have no clue how many spots he may find himself in tonight. Will he only be under center? Will he be out wide at all? Maybe some looks as a gunner or perhaps a little bit of everything? The fact that he had been getting walkthrough snaps at quarterback this week would indicate that Cunningham is playing quarterback tonight. That will most likely be in the third quarter or later. If he does get some snaps as a wide receiver, that instantly becomes the most intriguing in-game story to follow. Just how would Cunningham look in live-game action, and how/where will he be used? The same could be said for Cunningham under center. How much the game plan shifts with him is something to keep note of.

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