FOXBOROUGH — The Carolina Panthers, with their flashy quarterback and stud defensive linemen, aren't the concern Friday night, for once.
Instead, for the third straight week the focus for the Patriots should be on holes in the roster and the individual competitions that are going on.
After Friday's game, Bill Belichick and the brass will have only a few days before they have to trim the team's roster to 75 players Aug. 26. (The 53-man roster cuts are due Aug. 30.)
So with that in mind, here's my points of emphasis for tonight's game.
1. Somebody has to emerge at strong safety — It doesn't matter if it's Kyle Arrington, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung, or even Logan Ryan. There needs to be a definitive answer for who can and should line up opposite of Devin McCourty when the season begins. Right now, it appears this position is a weak link in an otherwise stellar secondary. Veterans Chung and Wilson deserve a shot. But if they can't beat out Arrington, Harmon, or Ryan, there's really no place for them on the roster.
2. Can Josh Boyce make a play? — We're at the point now that a touchdown or two may not even save Josh Boyce from the guillotine. But I think if he's able to, say, break a tackle and show some flash, barring any mistakes he could make it into the second round of cuts where anything could happen. He obviously has stiff competition with wide receivers Brian Tyms and Kenbrell Thompkins. But he's also battling against players at other positions, including at tight end and on the offensive line. Unfortunately for Boyce, he is smack dab in the middle of a numbers game.
3. Who is the right guard? — Are the Patriots giving the job to Jordan Devey or Josh Kline? The two have both gotten extended looks in the preseason and have competed well. Kline was an early riser in camp while Devey has performed well of late. Between the two, as well as for the rest of the offensive line, there will be some difficulties with Panthers defensive tackles Star Lotulelei, Colin Cole, and Kawann Short.
4. Last showcase for Ryan Mallett that matters — After this week in the preseason, teams are likely to start resting their starters ahead of the regular season. Mallett, who is in the last year of his rookie contract, has one more shot to show general managers that he can be a viable quarterback for another team. It's important for him to get off to a strong start and to avoid any major mistakes.
5. Standouts on the defensive line — Outside of starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots need to know that their backup defensive linemen can spell these two during the regular season and still do some damage. We're calling attention to Will Smith, Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette, and Zach Moore, who each have had difficulties this preseason. They're still adjusting to working in a 3-4 scheme, but there won't be any excuses when the cuts come.