- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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In recent years, it has been commonplace to put together a "things to watch" list leading into preseason and regular-season games. It has almost become cliché.
Here's an attempt to add a wrinkle to that exercise. Instead of "things to watch," here are the main areas that pique my interest in the New England Patriots' preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars (Ch. 4, 7:30 p.m.):
Filling the Albert Haynesworth void. Veteran defensive lineman Haynesworth is not expected to play. Neither is defensive lineman Mike Wright. This creates an opportunity to evaluate a few of the team's younger linemen as defensive tackles in the four-man line the team has been working on during camp. In particular, 2010 seventh-round draft choice Kade Weston comes to mind. He has caught the eye in camp and should play a lot.
Tom Brady-to-Chad Ochocinco connection. Ochocinco was late to the team's walkthrough practice Wednesday, leading some to wonder if he'll suit up in the game. Top players aren't expected to play long, but if they do, watching the first Brady-to-Ochocinco connection -- coupled with the reception from the crowd -- figures to be fun.
Can't miss Nate Solder. The first-round draft pick should get a ton of action at left tackle. At 6-foot-8, you can't miss him. Solder shows signs of being the left tackle of the future, but the team appears to be counting on veteran Matt Light to bridge the gap until he's ready. With Light still on the active/physically unable to perform list, Solder is getting a lot of reps in practice, and as one would expect with a rookie, it's been up and down.
Brian Hoyer vs. Ryan Mallett. Preseason action is crucial for backup quarterbacks because if things go according to a team's plans, it will mark their only snaps of the season. Hoyer, now in his third year, has looked good in camp. So has Mallett. But doing it on the game field represents the next step and Hoyer should get a lot of work. This is his best chance to showcase his skills, similar to how Matt Schaub improved his stock with the Falcons (2004-2006) before being traded to the Texans in 2007.
Is that Ted Johnson at linebacker? Second-year player Dane Fletcher should see a lot of action and this will be a chance to see how far he's come. Wearing No. 52, one might mistake him for former Patriots thumper Ted Johnson. Fletcher should make the club on special teams, but let's see how he does calling the signals on defense and leading the huddle. With Jerod Mayo's snaps expected to be limited and Brandon Spikes sidelined with injury, this is Fletcher's time to shine.
Lee Smith should be tired after this one. Bill Belichick loves the tight end position. He's selected 11 tight ends in his 12 drafts with the Patriots, and the latest -- 2011 fifth-round pick Lee Smith -- has had a nice camp. He is a strong blocker with powerful hands. Much like Rob Gronkowski in 2010, Smith should play from start to finish in the preseason. He comes from Marshall, the alma mater of Troy Brown, and wears Brown's old No. 80. The Patriots hit it big with their two tight ends in 2010 (Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) and it looks like they have another good one in Smith.
Stephen Gostkowski's recovery. The expectation is that Gostkowski will hand over kickoff duties to UMass product Chris Koepplin in this game as he works his way back from a torn right quad muscle. But Gostkowski could take field goals. He's hit from 53 yards in practice and looks strong; we'll see what his range is in game conditions.
Blaine Gabbert as rookie QB.The Jaguars' first-round pick is expected to start. The team traded up to the 10th spot in the draft to select him, viewing him as a franchise-type signal-caller. Elsewhere on the Jaguars' side, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who is usually worth the price of admission, is not making the trip.
Julian Edelman in the return game. The third-year receiver has looked explosive on the practice field for the Patriots. He should be given ample opportunity, both on kickoffs and punt returns, to showcase his skills. Second-year receiver Taylor Price is next in line.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.