Marcus Cannon, Terrance Knighton among top Patriots on radar tonight

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New England Patriots visit the Carolina Panthers on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET), and here is a position-by-position breakdown for the team:


Tom Brady will reportedly play, and if there are no last-minute changes, the expectation is to see him early in the game. It wouldn’t make much sense to have him playing late and throwing to pass-catchers who probably won’t be on the roster Oct. 9 against Cleveland.


Undrafted rookie D.J. Foster is expected to make his debut and he has some intriguing traits that could be worth keeping on the roster as a backup “passing back” behind James White (while Dion Lewis opens the season on the physically unable to perform list). The question is how much the time he missed in training camp has stunted some of the momentum he built in the spring.


Julian Edelman and rookie Malcolm Mitchell aren’t expected to play and Danny Amendola remains on the PUP, so this is a chance to look at some of the pass-catchers who are vying for what could be one roster spot, mostly notably Keshawn Martin, who is expected to make his preseason debut.


Can 2015 sixth-round draft choice A.J. Derby of Arkansas continue to build momentum for the No. 3 job behind Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett? He’s been one of the surprises of training camp. Gronkowski hasn't played in the preseason since 2012 and that streak isn't expected to be snapped tonight.


Right tackle Marcus Cannon has quietly put together a nice training camp, and with news last week that incumbent starter Sebastian Vollmer is likely headed to injured reserve, he becomes a key cog up front. So naturally, more eyes will be focused on him, in addition to backup centers Ted Karras and Josh Kline after Bryan Stork was traded to Washington on Wednesday.


Veteran defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has seemed to struggle at times adjusting to the team’s two-gap techniques, with some speculating that his roster spot could be in jeopardy. If he plays deep into the fourth quarter, that could be an indication he is in trouble. At end, don’t expect to see Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Shea McClellin or Barkevious Mingo, which means more time for 2015 fourth-round pick Trey Flowers.


Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins have played a lot this preseason (57 snaps apiece through two games) and balancing the idea of getting them ready for the regular season but keeping them healthy is a top thought at this spot. The depth drops off somewhat considerably behind them.


The competition is solid for some of the backup spots, with Darryl Roberts, Cre’von LeBlanc and Jonathan Jones all making plays on the ball. Only one can likely stick behind Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan (possibly making his preseason debut), Cyrus Jones and Justin Coleman.


This group struggled overall last week, so focusing on eliminating the big play and better tackling are some primary thoughts. Patriots coach Bill Belichick previously called this maybe the team’s strongest position, from top to bottom.


There are no competitions of note at kicker, punter or snapper, so the focus is on the return game, where top draft pick Cyrus Jones has made some plays.