Patriots Preview vs. Panthers: Can Kendrick Bourne get going?

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

Some of that, at least.

Mac Jones wants to play 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 a series or two, it will be an opportunity for him, his teammates and his coaches to work out some of the operational machinations that will be critical in September.

As we’ve thoroughly recounted, there are plenty of balls in the air on the sidelines for the Patriots these days. How Jones interacts with his playcaller, head coach and positional coach when he walks off the field after the first series of a given game will be important. Finally.

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Using Friday’s no-nonsense game to get a sense of how communication between all critical parties will proceed will be valuable. Trying to keep the communication right between Jones and his offensive line, and between the offensive linemen themselves, in a game situation is also a worthwhile pursuit.

The joint practices on Tuesday and Wednesday were more valuable in getting a sense of how players will perform in certain matchups. (The Panthers plan to play primarily against reserves on Friday night, so matchups under the lights at Gillette Stadium won’t be as revealing.)

The joint practices were more valuable to Bill Belichick, as he got to watch his team try several different types of plays: downfield passes, red zone passes, two-minute urgency calls, some — down runs — over and over. again.

That will not happen on Friday. Not for Mac Jones and the rest of the headlines, in all likelihood. But what the headlines Will do is take a step forward in the way they communicate with each other and with their coaches in a game setting. We’ll also get to see which of Jones’ coaches are calling plays when he’s there, which may be a sign of things to come in Week 1.

As for what else to watch on Friday night, there’s plenty…

Can Kendrick Bourne get going?

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

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Bourne, who has had a very quiet camp, spent most of his time in team drills with the seconds. He was kicked out of practice Tuesday and continued his quiet camp when he returned Wednesday.

How long he plays and how many opportunities he gets when he’s there will give some indication of his position within the Patriots’ offense right now. However, a bit of positive momentum built up on Friday could help him have a better week next week in Las Vegas.

Will Mac Jones let it break?

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 pitches 50-50. He passed it on to Agholor, Ty Montgomery and Meyers at times. Those instances had been so few and far between during previous camp practices that the deeper planes stood out as new.

Will that persist under the lights? Will the Patriots continue to try to fit a high-impact passing game into their overall attack? That was so absent from what they did last year that opposing coaches weren’t worried about the deep end of the field when they faced Belichick’s club.

Whether it’s with the starters or the backups, it would be fascinating to see a new emphasis on long balls on Friday, as it could hint at a different kind of approach for the fall.

Will the racing 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 often during camp, and it gave them a four-yard gain. Traction.

It was better than most of what they had seen at those types of races over the summer. But most of the Panthers’ and Patriots’ practices focused on the passing game. And when the running game was called upon for Belichick, he did very little.

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Even if the starters only get a couple of drives tonight, it will be worth watching how the running game performs on the first and second downs. Part of the reason wide zone plays are used so much in the league is because of the action plays attached to them. But will Belichick be willing to call for game action if his running game isn’t producing and if he doesn’t think the defense will bite the fakes?

Are these rookies for real?

The Patriots’ rookie class has had a good summer. Cole Strange had a tremendous one-on-one production week against the Panthers. Tyquan Thornton continues to show up for all the right reasons. Marcus Jones looks like the defensive starter in the corner of the slot. Jack Jones has shown good instincts and Devin McCourty has been impressed with his ability to transition and change direction.

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

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 hit a pass that turned into an interception on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he recorded a “sack” and a goal-line run.

Ray may have the best chance of any undrafted rookie to make the roster right now, but the three names mentioned above will have more than their fair share against the Panthers on Friday to prove they deserve a spot.

What does the depth of the offensive line look like?

The line in front of Jones has been a problem all camp. The team knows it. But the hope of those in the building is that communication clears up by the time Jones is constantly in danger in Miami next month.

The offensive line has been slow to show any improvement, which it did this week, as their best communicator, David Andrews, has been limited. But the group is starting behind from last year because of A) the changes made to the offense and B) two good communicators now in different spots.

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

Put the communication issues aside and there are also injury concerns. Andrews withdrew from one of the team’s final practice periods Wednesday after clumsily hitting the turf. He also had his left hand heavily bandaged this week. Behind him, James Ferentz had two tough days of practice against Carolina, was kicked out of work Tuesday and suffered decisive one-on-one losses on Wednesday.

Friday should be a chance for the likes of him, tackle Yodny Cdonde and others to establish themselves as viable backups down the line. The Patriots will need depth there, but there are very few clear cut options behind the starters. It’s time for those players to make themselves known.

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