W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
7:21
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- The New England Patriots open the preseason against the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday night at Lincoln Financial Field (7:30 p.m. ET). Here are some of the main areas of interest:

1. Dobson and young receivers. Through the early stretch of training camp, the play of rookie receivers Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted free agent) has made onlookers take note. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Dobson in particular offers something the Patriots haven’t had for a few years: size and the athletic ability to go up and get the ball.

“It’s like going up for rebounds and you can control your body,” Dobson said Thursday after practice. “I guess it’s a good skill set for a receiver.”

PatriotsEaglesWhile Dobson brings that size and athleticism on the outside, Boyce (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) can flat out fly. He brings a speed element not seen around these parts in recent seasons.

Thompkins (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) strikes us as more of a tactician. He’s shown ability to win at the start of his route with sharp footwork that sets up defensive backs and also some speed to threaten the deep parts of the field.

For the first time in Bill Belichick’s coaching tenure, it looks like the Patriots will open the season with three rookie wide receivers.

2. Top draft pick Collins and the defense. When the Patriots first take the field on defense, it’s possible that top draft pick Jamie Collins (jersey No. 91) will still be on the sideline. He’s been the first linebacker to come on when there is a substitution, and the Patriots are still exploring ways in which his speed and athleticism can best help them.

Watching Collins (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) on the practice field, a few things stand out: He runs well and has shown a knack for ball disruption by forcing fumbles.

One of the trouble areas for the Patriots last season was matching up against athletic tight ends, and that’s a position that has traditionally been a big part of Chip Kelly-coached offenses; Kelly announced Thursday that quarterback Michael Vick will start this game.

There figure to be times when Collins is matched up against tight ends, and perhaps he shows signs that he can help the Patriots in an area in which they mostly struggled in 2012.

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3. Mallett, Tebow and backup quarterbacks. No. 2 quarterback Ryan Mallett has totaled 130 pass attempts over the past two preseasons, which is a team high. Now in his third NFL season, the question remains: Is he a potential No. 1 quarterback for another team who could provide value to the Patriots in a trade?

The preseason opener, when Tom Brady usually doesn’t play past the first quarter, is the best chance for the Patriots to find out.

If things go according to plan, Mallett won’t be called upon during the regular season unless the game is well in hand and the Patriots take Brady off the field to protect him from injury.

“I get a lot of action right now, and it’s just going to help me in the long run, so I’m excited to get out there with my teammates and go compete,” Mallett said Thursday.

At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, he looks the part and has a cannon for an arm. Now is his time to show he can put it all together.

As for Tim Tebow, he said Thursday that he hadn’t been informed of how much, if at all, he will play. But he is encouraged by his progress to this point.

“I feel like I’m getting better every single day,” he said. “I’m more comfortable with the offense, better timing with everybody around me, better understanding of what the coaches want me to do, with the offense, with the reads, with the timing. Every day, I’m trying to get a little bit better, and it sounds cliché, but it’s true. That’s really what I’m focused on, and I know that’s something hopefully I’ve been able to accomplish.”

4. Do Jones and the pass-rushers show signs of life? One of the keys for the Patriots defense is the development of 2012 first-round draft choices Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Jones in particular has the tools to develop into a disruptive game-changing pass-rusher.

After a solid six-sack rookie season, he’s built more upper-body strength and will be matched up against second-string left tackle Allen Barbre, who is expected to fill in for starter Jason Peters.

In one-on-one drills against Patriots left tackles, Jones has shown signs of explosiveness, but in the one drill we watched Tuesday, Jones was kept at bay by Barbre.

In addition to Jones and fellow starter Rob Ninkovich, there is a developing competition behind them, with second-year man Justin Francis and five-year veteran Marcus Benard the current top candidates. Others include 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette and 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan.

5. Sudfeld and the tight-end competition. While the biggest question at tight end is whether Rob Gronkowski will open the season on the physically unable to perform list, there is also a good competition unfolding with the remaining players on the depth chart.

Undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld (jersey No. 44) has opened some eyes. He’s 6-foot-7 and listed at 260 pounds, although he’s probably a bit lighter than that. He runs well and has caught most everything thrown in his direction, with Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews calling him more of a receiver than a pure tight end.

Then there are veterans Jake Ballard (6-foot-6, 260 pounds), Daniel Fells (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-foot-4, 260 pounds).

Not everyone can stick, and with Ballard on the books for $630,000 and Fells ($1.25 million) and Hoomanawanui ($1.3 million) in the higher tax bracket, the latter two probably have to prove they are a cut above to land on the roster.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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