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Players to Watch in Patriots Preseason Opener

To this point, the New England Patriots have had an interesting lead-up to the NFL regular season. A move from the modified Erhardt-Perkins offensive system and to some mix of a Shanahan-McVay setup has not been an easy transition. Reports of universal offensive struggles have become a daily occurrence over the last week. Bad pass protection, negative runs, zilch in the passing game, you name it, it's probably happened.

In what may be exactly what they need, this offense will get the chance to go up against some fresh faces. In this case, the New York Giants, who visit Gillette Stadium tomorrow night. Going into this first preseason matchup, here are some Patriots I’ll be taking a close look at on both sides of the ball. Along with one player on the opposing sideline.

Pierre Strong Jr - Running Back (Rookie)

The running back situation in New England has been a strength for years now. This season, however, there is an interesting wrinkle with James White still not back to 100 percent after his hip injury nearly a year ago. That leaves the third spot on the running back depth chart wide open at this juncture.

Strong, while not a lock for that spot with Ty Montgomery and J.J. Taylor in the mix, has a massive opportunity in front of him. Last year at South Dakota State, he led all FCS running backs with 1686 yards and 18 touchdowns, en route to an FCS First Team All-American selection. Strong doesn’t possess the pass-catching ability that White has (yet at least) but is electric with the ball in his hands as a runner. On Tuesday, the Patriots had him taking red zone 11v11 reps over Taylor, which is a great sign for him after entering camp limited.

Rookie running backs have typically gotten the redshirt treatment in year one under Bill Belichick, but Stevenson bucked that trend last year, doing so after fumbling on his second carry in Week 1 mind you. If the Patriots go the same route with Strong as they did with Stevenson, expect to see him on the field starting in the third quarter, but you never know.

Raekwon McMillan - Linebacker (6th Season)

Just over a year ago today, McMillan tore his ACL just over a week into training camp after signing with the Patriots that March. Now, the former Miami Dolphin/Las Vegas Raider could be Steven Belichick/Jerod Mayo’s field general in his second season in New England. McMillan was reportedly doing well in camp a year ago, and that hasn’t changed in 2022.

Steven Belichick also spoke highly of McMillan, recently, as the pair have known each other for over a year now. “Great to have him. Obviously, I’ve been around him for a full year in the building and everything like that. He’s a great person, great leader. And then out on the field he’s a great player. So we’re really happy to have him.”

With Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins out of the fold, McMillan may be just what the doctor ordered. He, along with Ja’Whaun Bentley, create a solid run-stuffing duo at the second level. Additionally, while not a world beater in coverage, is an improvement on what they had last year. For what it's worth as well, they traded for Mack Wilson with that in mind anyway. Thursday will be good just to see where McMillan is at, as he hasn’t seen game action since early 2021. On a side note, he is a big Hightower fan, so we are basically the same person.

Marcus Jones - Cornerback (Rookie)

Perhaps my favorite pickup in this year’s draft was Jones, a 5-foot-8 slot corner out of the University of Houston. Normally that would sound odd, but Jones isn’t just your average slot guy. On top of his coverage ability, he was one of the country’s best return men. In two years at Troy, then later at Houston, he put up six kickoff return touchdowns, and three punt returns. Additionally, Jones put up 711 punt return and 612 kickoff return yards between 2020 and 2021. Safe to say the Patriots have a solution in the return game.

As it relates to his abilities as a cornerback, he isn’t lacking in that department either. So much so, that on Monday and Tuesday, he has lined up as the first team slot corner, bumping Jonathan Jones to the outside with Jalen Mills. It will be interesting to see if Jones gets some reps in the opening pair of drives with the rest of the ones.

Anfernee Jennings – EDGE (3rd Season)

Although he is entering year three, Jennings completely missed last year after being put on IR in late August. Now back as a full participant, the Crimson Tide product has put last year behind him and has had himself a good camp. Worth noting that Jennings did take reps with the first team defense during last week’s Gillette Stadium scrimmage with his locker room neighbor Matt Judon out as well. If the practice success translates to in-game success, he should be looking at a role as a rotational edge rusher in a pivotal third season.

Tyquan Thornton – Wide Receiver (Rookie)

Safe to say that everyone knows about the Patriots' lackluster history of drafting wideouts by now. I had my reservations on the second night of the draft, but Thornton isn’t what Bill Belichick has sought after in the draft as a receiver. That is a good thing, by the way, the Patriots were better off not committing to the definition of insanity and trying something new.

Make no mistake either, Thornton isn’t just a straight-line speed guy, although 4.28 speed is nice to have. He’s shown off he can win vs coverage in a variety of ways, not just impressing fans, but his teammates and coaches alike. Receivers coach Ross Douglass had this to say about the Baylor product recently. "He's gotten better every single time he's stepped on the field. He truly has a lot of gifts. It's not just his speed. His ability to change direction, ball skills. He has a good attitude and the guys in the room have embraced him. His development will be key and we'll get him there."

In a positive development for Thornton, he is reportedly being mixed in with the ones more in practice. However, the real challenge is when he gets his first NFL game reps against the new look Giants defense under Wink Martindale. One preseason game won’t make or break him, but a solid outing would inspire some confidence moving forward.

Kayvon Thibodeaux (Giants) – EDGE (Rookie)

Depending on who you talk to, Thibodeaux may have been the best outright player in this year’s draft. When you peak at the college numbers, they don’t jump out, but he has freakish athleticism that should translate well at the pro level. Putting a guy like him with Wink Martindale of all coordinators has downright horrifying potential. He’s even been seen on tape getting the better of fellow first-rounder Evan Neal, considered this draft’s top offensive tackle. Do not be surprised at all if Thibodeaux jumps off the screen a few times tomorrow evening.

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