- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here are three things we are keeping an eye on:
No. 1: Defensive improvements
There is only one big question I have about the reigning AFC champs: Can the defense make improvements following a horrible 2011 season? The Patriots know their 31st-ranked defense is a problem. They drafted all defensive players this year until the seventh round. Rookies such as defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Tavon Wilson are expected to make immediate contributions. Will the pass rush improve? Can the Patriots get better play from their corners and safeties? New England's offense will be a juggernaut again this year. But the defense must carry its weight.
No. 2: Who takes over at running back?
The Patriots have mostly unproven players at running back. But the coaching staff was confident enough in this group to let sure-handed tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk in free agency. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are expected to make up for the production lost when Green-Ellis left. Ridley and Vereen have just 102 career carries between them. Free-agent pickup Joseph Addai and backup Danny Woodhead also will be in the mix. The Patriots like to have a committee of running backs at their disposal and often go with the hot hand. We will keep an eye on which tailbacks are separating from the pack early.
No. 3: Wide receivers
The Patriots have so much depth at receiver that they didn't flinch to cut six-time Pro Bowler Chad Ochocinco last week. That provides some clarity to the position, but there is still work to be done. Free-agent additions such as Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney are virtual locks, along with Pro Bowler Wes Welker. But other players such as Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Donte' Stallworth, Matthew Slater and rookie Jeremy Ebert will compete for roster spots. It will be a competitive summer for this group, and minicamp is part of that evaluation.