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Tim O

Tim O’Sullivan: Five things to watch for in Patriots’ preseason opener

  • New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson, right, pulls in a pass as Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Eddie Whitley defends during NFL football training camp, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

    New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson, right, pulls in a pass as Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Eddie Whitley defends during NFL football training camp, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

  • New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson, right, pulls in a pass as Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Eddie Whitley defends during NFL football training camp, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

    New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson, right, pulls in a pass as Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Eddie Whitley defends during NFL football training camp, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

  • New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins on the field during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins on the field during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

  • New England Patriots' Ryan Mallett walks onto the field during a joint workout with the Philadelphia Eagles at NFL football training camp in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    New England Patriots' Ryan Mallett walks onto the field during a joint workout with the Philadelphia Eagles at NFL football training camp in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson, right, pulls in a pass as Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Eddie Whitley defends during NFL football training camp, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
  • New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson, right, pulls in a pass as Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Eddie Whitley defends during NFL football training camp, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
  • New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins on the field during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
  • New England Patriots' Ryan Mallett walks onto the field during a joint workout with the Philadelphia Eagles at NFL football training camp in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The game won’t count in the standings, but New Engand’s preseason opener tonight in Philadelphia does matter. Just ask the millions of fans who have been waiting to watch their beloved Patriots take the field since last season ended. Or ask the players who are trying to make the team, or make an impression, while they have a chance. With that in mind, here are five areas to watch as the Pats take on the Eagles.

The top pick

The best part of preseason is probably seeing how the rookies react in their first professional games. Most of the attention during New England’s training camp has been focused on the rookies who are trying to fill the void in the receiving corps, and that’s a plot that definitely deserves attention. But the Patriots top pick from

last year’s draft is on the other side of the ball, linebacker Jamie Collins, and he’s stayed out of the spotlight so far. That could change tonight.

During last year’s preseason opener against New Orleans, top pick Chandler Jones announced his presence against Saints Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod by forcing two holding calls and playing the entire first half with the first string. Collins probably won’t be among the starters, but he should get plenty of playing time. With good size (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) and excellent athleticism, Collins has the versatility to rush the passer, defend the run and drop into pass coverage. If he can make a meaningful mark in any of those areas against the Eagles, it will be a good opening statement for the rookie.

Now, about those receivers

Okay, so it didn’t take long to get to this story line, and it shouldn’t, because Tom Brady will be without his top five pass catchers from last season – Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead. Gronkowski is scheduled to return from forearm and back surgeries at some point during the season, but he’s the only one of the above coming back to the Patriots this year.

With all that turnover, there are questions everywhere. Can Danny Amendola replace Welker in the slot and develop the kind of synchronicity Brady and Welker had? Can rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce adjust to life in the NFL and grasp the New England offense? Is Dobson the kind of big (6-3, 204), deep threat the Patriots haven’t had since Randy Moss left? Are wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld, both undrafted rookies, really steals or just training camp stars who will flop in game situations? Can Julian Edelman handle an increased workload? Will Michael Jenkins contribute or just be another veteran-receiver free-agent failure? Can any of the six tight ends on the roster make anyone forget about Hernandez? None of those questions will be answered in full after one preseason game, but the process will be under way.

How long, and fast,
will Brady play?

In last year’s preseason opener, Brady was only on the field for the first two series. That seems like the right amount of time a future Hall of Famer needs in such situations, especially when you recall that Will Smith sacked Brady from behind to end that first series, slamming the quarterback to the turf and forcing a fumble.

Maybe Brady will see that kind of short time again tonight, but given all the changes at receiver, there’s a chance he’s out there longer. If he plays a full quarter, you’ll know Bill Belichick believes there’s some extra work to be done in the passing game. If Brady plays a full half, you’ll know the coach believes there’s a lot of extra work to be done.

It will also be worth nothing how often Brady, or any of the quarterbacks, employs the no-huddle. An up-tempo approach has been a critical part of the New England offense the last two years, but can it carry over into this season? Once again, all the offensive turnover is at the heart of this question. Are all the new faces familiar enough with the offense to make the no-huddle a viable option? What happens tonight may start to provide an answer.

Defense up the middle

The old baseball adage applies here because the only place the Patriots will make a definite change on defense is in the middle of the line, and there’s a possibility for change in the middle of the secondary. Veteran Tommy Kelly was signed to fill the void at defensive tackle left by Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, and it will be interesting to see how much pressure he can take off New England’s defensive anchor, Vince Wilfork, and put on the opposition. Marcus Forston, who was on the Patriots practice squad last year, has had a good training camp and will probably get plenty of time against the Eagles to build on that performance.

Devin McCourty is locked in at one safety spot and the man who started next to him last year, Steve Gregory, is back, but veteran newcomer Adrian Wilson has been pushing Gregory for playing time. Belichick has also been using some three-safety looks, and there’s competition there as well between second-year player Tavon Wilson and rookie Duron Harmon.

The clipboard carriers

Another time-honored preseason tradition is evaluating the backup quarterbacks, and the Patriots have a pair of noteworthy players behind Brady. Ryan Mallett will likely be first off the bench, and the third-year man from Arkansas will be auditioning for his next team as much as trying to cement his role as the No. 2 quarterback in New England. Mallett probably doesn’t want to spend the next three or four years as Brady’s backup, and the Patriots would like to get as much as they can for him in a trade. For that happen, he needs to display more accuracy than he has in the past. Mallett has shown a major league arm, but only minor league control.

Last, but certainly not least in the eyes of many, is Tim Tebow. The mania-inducing quarterback has struggled in training camp with poor throws and poor decisions. But maybe he’s best suited for game action where he can harness some of his magic to move the chains and lead the troops, even if they are third string. Or maybe he’ll be making one of his final appearances on an NFL field.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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