The New England Patriots will take on the Carolina Panthers on Friday in what's always believed to be the most significant preseason game of the four. The third game usually indicates who will be the starters and who will make an impact this season.
For the Patriots, the starting quarterback for Week 1 is likely to be Jimmy Garoppolo given Tom Brady's suspension, but both players should see the field on Friday -- it's just a matter of how much.
Here are three things to watch for in Friday's preseason game against the Panthers.
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The Brady-Garoppolo dynamic
In most cases, teams us the third preseason game as their final look at the presumed starters for the regular season opener. The fourth game is usually irrelevant -- other than roster-bubble guys trying to earn a spot -- making Week 3 of the preseason the final "real" game. For the Patriots, it's worth keeping an eye on how Belichick splits reps between Brady and Garoppolo. Brady has typically played at least one half of the third preseason game in the past, but with his suspension looming, that could change this year. Garoppolo needs all the work he can get and will likely play more than any Patriots quarterback. Keep an eye on his chemistry with receivers such as Danny Amendola and even Reggie Wayne, who's expected to see the field for a brief time against the Panthers. Garoppolo played well last week against the Saints, but it wasn't against the team's best players. That will change Friday as the Panthers should play their starters more often than in weeks prior.
The cornerback situation
By now, most fans realize that the Patriots aren't exactly loaded with talent at cornerback. Malcolm Butler is the presumed No. 1 cornerback on the roster, but beyond that, question marks loom. Given the situation at corner, the Patriots have even slid safety Devin McCourty back to his old position. It's worth keeping an eye on the cornerback position to see whether or not McCourty sees time there once again. Tarell Brown has performed well since he was signed this offseason, and he could be on the fast track to winning the second cornerback spot.
Logan Ryan and Bradley Fletcher are also vying for playing time, with both needing strong outings Friday to earn it. Depth at safety has allowed McCourty to move around the secondary, but you shouldn't expect him to play cornerback regularly this season. Friday's game will be telling with regards to Butler's ability to match up against No. 1 receivers, and the depth behind him.
Backup running backs
Similar to the cornerback position, the Patriots have depth at running back but aren't loaded with talent, per se. LeGarrette Blount will miss Week 1 due to suspension, leaving one of the backups to take over in the season opener. Friday's game could give a hint as to who will be Blount's primary backup, with several guys vying for the job. Jonas Gray has played well in the preseason and in training camp, as have James White and Dion Lewis. White and Lewis have displayed good hands out of the backfield and could be reliable third-down backs -- even after Blount returns.
The Patriots won't keep six running backs on the roster, which will leave Lewis or Travaris Cadet without a spot. Blount, Gray, Lewis, and Brandon Bolden are the most likely players to make the team, with the possibility of one more being kept. Several backs have a lot to prove on Friday, so keep an eye on who sees the most playing time against the Panthers.