It’s crunch time in the NFL’s preseason.
After nearly a month of players crunching each other on the field, coaches and general managers will soon start crunching the roster numbers in earnest.
Like every team across the league, the Patriots have a ton of decisions to make over the next two weeks, and the next step in the evaluation process comes Thursday night when the Panthers come to Foxborough for exhibition game No. 3.
New England is deep in a lot of areas, and trimming nearly half the current roster to the initial 53-man unit will be a monumental task. There are myriad battles for jobs and starting snaps.
Here are five of the fights that bear watching as we head into the home stretch of the preseason.
1. Phillip Dorsett vs. Maurice Harris
Assuming Josh Gordon remains on the non-football injury list for the time being and Demaryius Thomas is on the 53, the competition for the fifth receiving spot (Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and Jakobi Meyers are locks) is a tight one.
Dorsett has a solid knowledge of this offense and has produced in stretches, most notably during last season’s playoff run. He relies on speed to gain separation and has Tom Brady’s trust. Dorsett (5 feet 10 inches, 192 pounds) can get knocked off his routes, but if he gets his hands on the ball, he usually catches it.
Harris had a strong spring and early summer, but the last two weeks have been a little rough. Harris (6-3, 205 pounds) dropped a few balls in the Detroit game (but he did have a contested touchdown catch), and an undisclosed injury kept him out of the Tennessee game.
It’s possible the Patriots delay this decision by initially keeping six receivers on the first incarnation of the 53.
2. Dan Skipper vs. Cole Croston
Skipper has spent a good portion of camp as the left tackle, though Isaiah Wynn’s recent progress likely means the former first-rounder gets that job. That swing tackle job, however, is open.
Skipper, who plays with a mean streak, started at right tackle against the Titans and slid back to the left side later. Another thing in his favor? You can’t teach 6-9, 325 pounds.
This is Croston’s third year in the program — he has flipped between the active roster and practice squad — and the 6-5, 310-pounder has shown his versatility as well by playing tackle and guard.
3. Terrence Brooks vs. Obi Melifonwu
The Patriots have excellent safeties in Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon, but need to add depth.
Brooks primarily has been a special teamer throughout his career, but he has seen considerable defensive snaps in camp and the two exhibition games. He has looked controlled and comfortable in all situations.
Melifonwu has superb size (6-4, 224 pounds) and athleticism on his side. He can be a nightmare to play against because of those skills, but he needs to prove he can consistently stay on the field.
4. Danny Shelton vs. Mike Pennel
If the Patriots decide to run more 3-4 packages this season — this club is always multiple — there may not be room for both veterans, especially if rookie Byron Cowart continues to flash.
A year into the system, a lighter and quicker Shelton has had an outstanding camp. He can get low and use strength and leverage to anchor but also can slip gaps and be disruptive in the backfield.
Pennel possesses prototypical nose tackle size (6-4, 330) and has had a solid camp, particularly in one-on-one battles. Pennel entered the Titans game late and played a lot of snaps (24), an indication he’s behind Shelton right now.
5. Matt LaCosse vs. Stephen Anderson, Eric Saubert, Ryan Izzo, Andrew Beck, et al.
This is assuming Lance Kendricks, who really had a strong week in Nashville (save for his holding penalty that resulted in a safety), holds down the tight end spot until Ben Watson returns in Week 5. Kendricks showed aggressive blocking and solid receiving skills in the Music City after returning from a minor injury.
LaCosse was enjoying a nifty summer before spraining his ankle in the Detroit game. He returned to practice this week, and there’s a good chance he’ll get plenty of opportunities Thursday night to cement a spot. He’s a good athlete, has good size (6-6, 255 pounds), and is an engaged blocker.
Anderson is a fluid athlete and receiver but doesn’t have the bulk to be an in-line blocker. Izzo and Beck are solid in the blocking department but haven’t shown a lot as receivers.
A couple of guys are destined to be on the practice squad as the Patriots offense continue to evolve in the post-Gronkowski era.