As Michael Corleone once said, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
While that popular quote from “The Godfather Part II” may seem a bit melodramatic for preseason football, there will be a showdown on the New England gridiron on Thursday evening.
The New England Patriots are set to open their 2021 preseason slate on Thursday, August 12 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro Massachusetts. The Pats will welcome the Washington Football Team for the first, and only preseason contest to be held in New England this summer. With an expected capacity crowd to cheer on the hometown team, the Pats will continue to use each opportunity to learn, improve and prepare for the upcoming 2021 season.
Though many players on both teams are expected to garner some attention during Thursday’s matchup, here are a handful of Washington’s players that might raise an eyebrow… or perhaps, catch a ‘sharp eye’ when they take the field against the Patriots.
Taylor Heinicke, quarterback
Many throughout Patriots fandom may forget that Heinicke was once a New England Patriot. For 18 days in the fall 2017, the current Washington quarterback was a member of the Pats’ practice squad. Following stops in Houston, Carolina and the XFL, Heinicke found his way to the Nation’s Capital in 2020. With then-starter Alex Smith out due to injury, Heinicke started the team's Wild Card playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though Washington would fall to the eventual Super Bowl Champions, Heinicke arguably stole the show. He completed 26 of 44 passes for 306 yards, throwing for one touchdown and running (and diving) for another. His performance earned him a two-year, $8,75 million contract extension in the offseason.
Still, Washington signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, presumedly to be their starter in 2021. Although Fitzpatrick’s experience is likely to solidify his role as “QB1”, the 28-year-old will continue to turn heads with his athleticism. Throughout training camp, Heinicke has shown the ability to use his legs to extend plays. He’s also reportedly put on 15 pounds of muscle, in an attempt to better sustain hits. With the Patriots front seven intent on improving their pass rush, Heinicke should get the chance to test his enhanced skill set against some formidable competition.
Steven Sims Jr., wide receiver
The last time Washington and New England met on a football field was in 2019. The District’s only points were scored on a 65-yard end around, courtesy of then-rookie wideout Steven Sims Jr. However, Sims was unable to parlay that success into an improved sophomore campaign. His production dipped in 2020. With Washington’s receiver corps much improved, Sims finds himself squarely on the roster bubble in 2021. Therefore, he should see significant action against the Patriots on Thursday. To keep pace with his peers, the 24-year-old must return to his strengths of securing the catch and making defenders miss on his way to large gains in the open field. Sims may also be called upon for punt return duties, as well. With several Patriots defensive backs attempting to earn their way on to the roster as well (i.e. Joejuan Williams, Michael Jackson, Sr.) Sims should have no shortage of competition against which to showcase his talents.
Sammis Reyes, tight end
With Logan Thomas and John Bates considered roster locks at tight end, Reyes has the chance to make the roster as Washington’s third or fourth option. The Chilean-born former college basketball turned football player brings an impressive blend of size, speed and athleticism to the position. Still, Reyes is a work in progress, as he has only been playing football for less than a year. Despite some struggles in camp, Washington’s coaching staff seems to be pleased with his progress. With only three preseason games on the 2021 schedule, Reyes should see significant playing time, and the team evaluates exactly what they have in the 25-year-old prospect.
Jamin Davis, linebacker
When a rookie is projected to start on one of the league’s most potent defensive units, it reveals a great deal about the prowess of that young player. Linebacker Jamin Davis is expected to make an immediate impact as Washington’s weak side inside (WILL) linebacker. Davis exhibits a great deal of length and range, capable of making big plays in the passing game. He also has a great deal of speed that will help him in the second level when drawing a bead on the football. The Patriots have been getting great blocking from members of their offensive line, as well as their tight ends. They will be well-tested by Davis on Thursday evening.
Benjamin St-Juste, cornerback
With the Patriots expected to test the progress of their receivers, the Washington secondary should see plenty of action. Though the District boasts one of the deepest secondaries in the NFC, the team invested third-round draft capital to select Minnesota’s Benjamin St-Juste. The 23-year-old is a long-bodied defensive back who makes a quick impact as one of Washington’s perimeter cornerbacks. St-Juste has both the skill set and length needed to contest the catch point with consistency. Though his speed is average, he is frequently able to stay close enough to his receivers to achieve disruption. Though the Pats do not have a ton of speed at the position, Nelson Agholor or Kendrick Bourne could be challenging matchups for the rookie. Washington is fully expected to see what St-Juste can do, and New England should be expected to test him in the same regard.