Perry: Five storylines to watch closely in Patriots vs. Panthers


The Patriots have work to do. And on Friday night they're going to use a preseason game to do it.

Some of it, at least.

Mac Jones wants to play against the Panthers in his team's second exhibition of the summer, and it looks like he'll get that opportunity. For how long? We'll see. But if he plays even for a series or two, it will be an opportunity for him, his teammates and coaches to iron out some of the operational machinations that will be critical come September.

As we've chronicled thoroughly, there are lots of balls in the air on the sidelines for the Patriots these days. How Jones interacts with his play-caller, his head coach and his positional coach when he's coming off the field after the first series of a given game will matter. Eventually.

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Using Friday's meaningless game to get a feel for how the communication between all critical parties will proceed will be valuable. Trying to get the communication right between Jones and his offensive line -- and between the offensive linemen themselves -- in a game situation is a worthwhile pursuit as well.

The joint practices on Tuesday and Wednesday were more valuable for getting a sense of how players will perform in certain matchups. (The Panthers are planning on playing mostly reserves Friday night, so the matchups under the lights at Gillette Stadium won't be all that telling.)

The joint practices were more valuable for Bill Belichick in that he was able to see his team try a number of different types of plays -- down-the-field passing, red-zone passing, two-minute hurry-up calls, some early-down runs -- over and over again.

That won't happen Friday. Not for Mac Jones and the rest of the starters, in all likelihood. But what the starters will do is take a step forward in how they communicate among themselves and with their coaches in a game setting. We also will get to see which of Jones' coaches is calling plays when he's in there, which may be a sign of what's to come Week 1.

As for what else to be watching Friday night, there's plenty ...

Can Kendrick Bourne get going?

Why would I mention Bourne first if there's a chance Patriots starters don't play much on Friday night? (They played 17 snaps in Week 2 of the preseason last year after joint practices with the Eagles.) Because Bourne practiced with backups Wednesday. Not exclusively. But the top-three group at that position was clear: Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker and Nelson Agholor.

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Bourne, who has had a very quiet camp, got most of his time in team drills with the second-stringers. He was booted from Tuesday's practice and continued his quiet camp when he was back on Wednesday.

How long he plays, and how many opportunities he gets when he's out there, will provide some indication of his standing within the Patriots offense right now. A little positive momentum built up Friday, though, could help spark him to have a better week next week in Vegas.

Will Mac Jones let it rip?

One of the main focuses for the Patriots in two days of joint practices this week has been pushing the ball down the field. Jones hit Parker on multiple 50-50 throws. He aired it out to Agholor, Ty Montgomery and Meyers at times. Those instances had been so few and far between during previous camp practices that the deeper shots stood out as new.

Will that persist under the lights? Will the Patriots continue to try to wedge a big-hitting passing game into their overall attack? That was so often missing from what they did last year that opposing coaches weren't concerned with the deep portion of the field when facing Belichick's club.

Whether it's with the starters or the backups, seeing a new emphasis on the long ball Friday would be fascinating as it may hint at a different type of approach come the fall.

Will the running game show signs of life?

During Tuesday's joint practice, the Patriots called one of the wide-zone runs they've been working on so frequently during camp, and it provided them a four-yard gain. Traction.

It was better than most of what they'd seen from those types of runs throughout the summer. But the majority of the Panthers and Patriots practices focused on the passing game. And when the running game was called to perform for Belichick, it did very little.

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Even if the starters only get a couple of series tonight, how the running game performs on first and second down will bear watching. Part of the reason the wide-zone plays are so widely used across the league is because of the play-action plays attached to them. But will Belichick be willing to call for play action if his running game isn't producing and if he doesn't believe the defense will bite on play fakes?

Are these rookies for real?

The Patriots' rookie class has had a nice little summer for itself. Cole Strange had a tremendous week of one-on-one production against the Panthers. Tyquan Thornton continues to pop for all the right reasons. Marcus Jones looks like the defense's starter at slot corner. Jack Jones has shown good instincts, and Devin McCourty has been impressed with his ability to transition and change directions.

Bailey Zappe has had his moments and should get plenty of action Friday. Sam Roberts had a nice preseason opener last week. And undrafted rookies Brenden Schooler, DaMarcus Mitchell and LaBryan Ray all look like potential 53-man roster players.

Schooler looks like a special-teams ace. Mitchell has seen real time in the kicking game, but he's also had disruptive moments as a pass-rusher. Ray batted a pass that turned into a pick Tuesday, and on Wednesday he recorded a "sack" and a run stuff at the goal line.

Ray may have the best chance of any undrafted rookie to make the roster right now, but all three of those names mentioned above will have more than their share of opportunities against the Panthers on Friday to show that they're deserving of a spot.

How does the offensive line depth look?

The line in front of Jones has been an issue throughout camp. The team knows it. But the hope for those in the building is that the communication will be cleaned up by the time Jones is consistently put in harm's way in Miami next month.

The O-line has taken time to show some improvement -- which it did this week -- as their far-and-away best communicator David Andrews has been limited. But the group is starting from behind relative to where it was last year because of A) changes made to the offense and B) two good communicators now in different locations.

The losses of Ted Karras and Shaq Mason are real in terms of ability, but what the team lost in comfort and continuity and communication skills was perhaps as important, according to those at One Patriot Place.

Put the communication problems to the side and there are injury concerns as well. Andrews checked out of one of the final team periods of practice Wednesday after he hit the turf awkwardly. He also had his left hand heavily bandaged this week. Behind him, James Ferentz had a tough two days of practice against Carolina, getting booted from Tuesday's work and being handed decisive losses in one-on-one periods on Wednesday.

Friday should be an opportunity for players like him, tackle Yodny Cajuste and others to establish themselves as viable backups along the line. The Patriots are going to need depth there, but there are very few clear-cut options behind the starters. Time for those players to make themselves known.

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