The player many Patriots fans are most excited to see Sunday retired this offseason and last played a home game at Gillette Stadium nearly four years ago.
Tom Brady will certainly bring excitement to the hometown crowd. But for the first time in 22 years, he won’t be the most important player on the field.
Instead, these four players will be key in deciding the Patriots’ matchup against the Eagles.
QB Mac Jones
If Jones plays as poorly as he did in 2022, then quite simply put, the Patriots don’t stand a chance against the defending NFC champions. And Jones has his work cut out for him.
Bill Belichick has stressed the fact that the Eagles have the most ferocious pass rush in the NFL. They compiled 70 sacks, lost Javon Hargrave but gained Jalen Carter in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
Jones has played behind a banged-up offensive line all summer. He’s expressed confidence in the group. We’ll find out if he’ll still be pumping up his blockers by Monday morning during his weekly interview with WEEI.
Jones not only has to be more accurate and better at preventing mistakes, he also will have to play around the pressure that his offensive line will inevitably leak into the backfield. The Alabama product was one of the NFL’s worst passers under pressure in 2022. He was much better in that regard as a rookie.
To succeed Sunday, Jones will have to face the pressure, evade it and continue to make impressive throws with Eagles defenders breathing down his neck.
LT Trent Brown
It’s unclear what the Patriots’ starting offensive line will actually look like on Sunday. But we do know that, barring anything unforeseen, Brown will be at left tackle and David Andrews will be starting at center. If healthy, Cole Strange (knee) and Mike Onwenu (ankle) will be manning the left and right guard spots. Right tackle is the real mystery with Calvin Anderson, Vederian Lowe, Sidy Sow and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. all serving as imperfect options.
Anderson spent nearly all summer on the non-football illness list. Lowe and Wheatley were acquired via trade last week. And Sow is a rookie who spent nearly all of his college career at guard.
So, Jones should put a lot more faith in the player protecting his blind side: Brown.
Brown will primarily be spending his time blocking Josh Sweat, who rushed off of the right edge for most of his snaps last season. Brandon Graham, who split his time between the left and right edges last season, will be mixed in, as well. The right tackle’s primary concern will be Haason Reddick.
All three players had over 50 total pressures and 11 sacks last season.
CB Christian Gonzalez
The Patriots’ 2023 first-round pick is about to be thrown into the fire as a 21-year-old rookie. The team needed a tall cornerback to match up with bigger wide receivers, and that’s what Gonzalez will be tasked to do against 6-foot-1, 226-pound A.J. Brown and 6-foot, 170-pound Devonta Smith, both of whom were 1,000-yard wideouts in 2022.
One of the reasons Gonzalez fell to the 17th overall pick in the draft was his perceived lack of physicality. That makes him a better option to cover Smith. But there’s no cornerback on the roster with better size, speed and stature to cover Brown than Gonzalez.
So, we’ll find out if Gonzalez’s physicality is a problem early in the 2023 season.
He ran hot and cold this summer. There were times when he matched up well against contested-catch maven DeVante Parker, and he asserted himself well against Packers wide receiver Christian Watson in joint practices.
But he was also beat handily at times by Patriots receivers — including an undrafted free agent like Thyrick Pitts — at times this summer.
Don’t expect Gonzalez to be perfect as a rookie. But the Patriots will need to rely on him, and he’ll be forged in the fire by the litany of top wide receivers the Pats play this season.
S Kyle Dugger
Devin McCourty is gone, and it still seems like the Patriots’ primary plan to replace him will be a free safety-by-committee with Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jalen Mills and Jabrill Peppers, among others.
Pass rush is important. But protecting the deep half of the field and causing turnovers might be even more paramount against quarterback Jalen Hurts and his impressive set of pass catchers, which also includes tight end Dallas Goedert.
Dugger has seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries over his last two seasons. He scored three defensive touchdowns last season, two coming off of pick-sixes and another from a scoop and score.
He needs to bring that play-making element from wherever he’s playing Sunday. And that might include some snaps in McCourty’s old position.