Tonight, the Patriots take the field in their final preseason game before the 2013 regular season gets underway. If reports are correct, Tom Brady won’t play against the Giants (which, taking history into account, might not be a bad idea).

Nonetheless, there will be plenty to play for, and watch for. Final roster cuts are still to be made, and many current Patriots will soon be ex-Patriots. Former second round pick Ras-I Dowling was already trimmed from the squad, representing yet another disappointing career for a Patriots defensive back.

Here are five players to watch tonight who are either in danger of being cut, or need to show something against the Giants to get playing time in week one:

(Tim Tebow is not on this list, because let’s face it, you’re going to be watching him anyway.)

Jake Ballard: The former Super Bowl-winning New York Giant faces his old team, and is in need of a vintage 2011 performance. Though he probably won’t get cut, Ballard hasn’t exactly been the best blocker (an almost-underrated task for modern tight ends). While rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld has assimilated very well in training camp, Ballard should also be playing a role in alleviating the problems of missing Rob Gronkowski for the early season.

Ryan Mallett: Though Tebow gets the majority of the headlines, it’s really Mallett who the Patriots would have to rely on in the event of a Tom Brady injury. Though all Patriot fans everywhere dread the possibility of their franchise quarterback getting injured, the scare earlier this preseason in a joint-practice with the Buccaneers showed that anything can happen. If Brady goes down, Mallett must show that he can step up (if only just as a fraction of Brady’s capability).

Josh Boyce: Though some fans will insist that Aaron Dobson has more to prove (considering the higher ceiling they believe Dobson has as a wideout), this final preseason game is Boyce’s last high-profile audition time.  If he doesn’t show what he can do (at least a little bit), then he might get left behind by his fellow rookie receivers.

Jermaine Cunningham: He’s running out of chances to prove himself in the New England defense. They need another pass-rusher to offset some of the inevitable double-teams that Chandler Jones will receive. It’s very rapidly approaching “now-or-never” time for Cunningham.

All of the defensive backs: (Okay, this is cheating a little to say “all of them,” but seriously they’re all in the same boat.) Considering that the offense may not quite achieve the same insane standards that they’ve grown so accustomed to in the last few years, given the myriad of new receivers that Brady is still adjusting to, the defense will be called upon to step up. And all of the pass-rush in the world won’t stop opposing offenses if the db’s keep messing up on coverage assignments, or getting burned in man-coverage. Other than Aqib Talib, virtually no one’s job is safe in the unit.

 

Also, keep an eye on the running backs. Not all of the Ridley/Vereen/Blount/Washington/Bolden/Winn crew can survive the final cut. While I doubt Ridley or Vereen are in any trouble, the other four have everything to play for.

 

 

Image via Zimbio