- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Two weeks after the commencement of training camp, the New England Patriots will take the field Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET for their first of four preseason games. They'll play host to the New Orleans Saints, and anticipation is justifiably high.
Here's a look at 13 areas of focus worth keeping an eye on as Bill Belichick's team enjoys its first taste of game action during the 2012 season.
1. Depth and reps: It's still early in the preseason, meaning much can change between now and the regular-season opener, but we'll start to have an idea of how the Patriots currently evaluate players based on how much and alongside whom they play. We aren't expecting to see extensive time from quarterback Tom Brady or a number of other starters entrenched at their position. However, we should closely monitor the reps of players such as top draft choices Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Seeing them on the field with the starting defense would be an indication of their development and progress.
2. Brady and the quarterbacks: The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and we should never take for granted Brady and his play. Should he play a series or a quarter, we'll closely study his performance. Reserve signal-callers Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett will likely be treating the preseason games like their own Super Bowl and will jockey for positioning on the depth chart. Can Mallett hone his raw talent in game action, or is the backup job firmly Hoyer's?
3. First-round picks: With the hype surrounding both Jones and Hightower after the draft, it's natural to want to see what these two offer during their first preseason action. The Patriots' front seven looks different than a year ago, and these two could play a major part in redefining its performance.
4. The secondary: We don't need to retell the story of the Patriots' secondary in 2011, but 2012 is a new season. Personnel have been added to the group in the form of Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson, among others. Ras-I Dowling returns to the lineup, and on paper this group looks stronger. Will it translate on the field against an excellent Saints passing attack?
5. Offensive line shuffling, specifically the tackles: It's been a revolving door of sorts at the tackle position for the Patriots, highlighted by the number of transactions involving added linemen in recent days. The team is thin at tackle, and we're curious as to how much Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon -- the team's projected starters Thursday -- will play. Could they be forced into extensive action due to depth issues? Or will they be pulled in order for others to receive reps and prevent overuse? Additionally, how will the interior of the line look? The Patriots have a number of options to start at both guard and center entering Thursday night.
6. Josh McDaniels' offensive approach: Josh McDaniels takes the headset as offensive coordinator for the first time since returning to Foxborough, and although the system he is running largely resembles that which he orchestrated during his previous tenure with the team (and that which the Patriots ran in 2011), we've yet to see it in game action. How much will he rely on two-back sets? Will the Patriots continue a reliance on the pass, or perhaps balance out the attack with more runs?
7. Running back competition: A well-chronicled position battle at running back will enter a new stage, as the quartet of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden will likely split duties in the backfield. Will Ridley continue his emergence? Or might another back state his case to play a featured role?
8. Who won't be on the field: Not all 90 Patriots will be active, as a number of them are dealing with injury issues. Here's our best guess on who will sit this one out: Sebastian Vollmer (PUP), Logan Mankins (PUP), Daniel Fells (PUP), Markus Zusevics (PUP), Myron Pryor (PUP), Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring), Ron Brace (unknown), Spencer Larsen (unknown), Visanthe Shiancoe (unknown), Jake Ballard (knee), Brian Waters (did not report), Kyle Hix (arm/shoulder), Dustin Waldron (unknown), Matt Kopa (unknown), Gerard Warren (unknown), Jonathan Fanene (unknown), Tracy White (unknown), Brandon Spikes (unknown). New signee Kyle Hill is not yet eligible to play, due to the NFL's three-day acclimation rule. Should those 19 sit out, that will leave the Patriots with 72 bodies (keep in mind, Waters does not count toward the 90-man roster).
9. Undrafted free agents and opportunity players: Though Brady will likely be long gone by the second half, there exists a contingent of players that will see more snaps during that time than they may see at any other time during the season. These opportunity players, who may include many (or all) of the Patriots' undrafted free agents, will be playing to earn roster spots. This group will also likely include late-round draft choices, younger players, and perhaps veterans who find themselves on the bubble. It takes just one play to catch a coach's attention. Who will step up when the opportunity presents itself?
10. Special teams play: Perhaps the best opportunity for some of the Patriots' younger players to make the roster is through carving a role on special teams. Thursday night is their first chance to shine in the kicking game, and the coaches will have their eyes out for players flying down the field and playing with a ferocious tenacity while maintaining their discipline and technique.
11. Situational football: Belichick has shown his commitment to situational football throughout camp, highlighting its importance in news conferences and drills on the field. As he has noted, some of the situations the team has practiced might not come up in a game all season, but for those that do, it will be interesting to see if his team is ready to handle them.
12. Coaching operation: The Patriots' staff has some new faces and coaches in new roles in 2012, and we'll keep an eye on the operation on Thursday night from the standpoint of who is on the field and which coaches work from the box with a bird's-eye view. The role of coaches in the box involves identifying personnel, offensive trends and coverages, and monitoring video replays when a head coach is contemplating a challenge.
13. Attendance at Gillette: If training camp practices are any indication, the fans of New England are ready for some football. Supporters have arrived in record numbers at the practice fields near Gillette Stadium, and it will come as little surprise if a nearly packed house emerges Thursday night.