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Tim O

Five things to watch in Patriots’ preseason opener against Redskins

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12), quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) warm up during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12), quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) warm up during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)

  • New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett comes on the field for NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)

    New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett comes on the field for NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)

  • New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after a NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Mass., Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

    New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after a NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Mass., Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12), quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) warm up during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12), quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) warm up during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)

  • New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett comes on the field for NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)

    New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett comes on the field for NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)

  • New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after a NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Mass., Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

    New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after a NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Mass., Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12), quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) warm up during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)
  • New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett comes on the field for NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)
  • New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after a NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Mass., Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12), quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) warm up during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)
  • New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett comes on the field for NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo)
  • New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after a NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Mass., Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It’s here. Patriots (pre)season begins tonight, and the return of the Flying Elvis helmets stirs blood across New England.

That first-glimpse excitement will start in warmups, continue to opening kickoff at 7:30 p.m. … then quickly fade when the starters get pulled after one or two series and you’re left watching second stringers at best and next-day cuts at worst.

If you decide to keep watching the uniforms even after you don’t know most of the names on the back of the jersey, here are five things to watch for as the Patriots and Redskins open the preseason at FedEx Field.

Passing of the clipboard?

Backup quarterbacks are the real stars of the preseason, and there are two intriguing backups in New England – Ryan Mallett and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Mallett will likely take the majority of the snaps tonight. He’s drawn praise this

summer, especially during the last three days of joint practice with the Redskins in Richmond, Va. He didn’t wow anyone during his first three NFL preseasons, but both Mallett and the Patriots hope that changes this year. Not so he can supplant Tom Brady, obviously, but so he can draw the interest of other teams.

Mallett is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, and New England would probably like to trade him rather than let him walk away. But in order for that to happen, the Patriots will also have to see some good things from the rookie Garoppolo, who they took in the second round, a choice that sparked plenty of debate. Garoppolo has struggled so far in training camp, but he didn’t sound shaken when he spoke with reporters in Richmond yesterday.

“It’s one of those things, you don’t want to accept failure. … You just want to keep progressing in the right direction,” Garoppolo said. “I’m a rookie and I have a lot to learn still. If I keep doing that, I’ll be all right.”

Weakness at strong safety

With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner joining Devin McCourty, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington, the Patriots figure to have one of the best secondaries in the league this year. However, the biggest question mark on the defensive side is in that secondary – who will line up next to McCourty as the second safety?

It will be interesting to see who begins the game at this spot, but this one is worth watching throughout. Duron Harmon is listed with the first string on the unofficial depth chart on patriots.com, but this position is up for grabs. It should be fun to watch Harmon, Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner hunting for big plays and big hits as they try to gain an edge in this position battle.

Receiver No. 3

Julian Edelman looks ready to pick up where he left off last year, when he had 105 catches for 1,056 yards. Danny Amendola looks ready to erase the underachieving memories from last year, when he played in 12 games and had 54 catches for 633 yards. But after those two, there’s a compelling competition going on for the third receiver spot and beyond.

Kenbrell Thompkins, a surprise preseason standout last year, has had some nice moments in camp and may have the inside track on the No. 3 spot. Veteran free agent addition Brandon LaFell has the kind of size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) that has been lacking in New England. Josh Boyce still has the air of a player who won’t live up to his potential, but he does have speed. Those three, plus longshots like rookies Jeremy Gallon (Michigan) and Derrick Johnson (Maine), and Brian Tyms (a 6-3 receiver who played in Cleveland last year), will get extra chances to make plays with Aaron Dobson out with a foot injury.

Backups backing up the line

The Patriots are blessed with a trio of talented, versatile and physical starting linebackers in Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. But the guys backing up those starters are unknowns here in New England.

James Anderson finished with 102 tackles last year for Chicago, and he could turn out to be a valuable addition as a coverage backer, but he is going into his ninth NFL season, which is a long run for a linebacker. Second-year man Steve Beauharnais seems poised to earn a roster spot, but he took just one defensive snap last year for the Patriots. Darius Fleming has flashed great athleticism in the past, but he’s also torn both his ACLs. It will be important for one of those three (or other linebacking hopefuls like Chris White, Ja’Gared Davis and Cameron Gordon) to step up and provide some depth at a position that usually requires it.

The flags

There is supposed to be a re-emphasis on defensive holding and pass interference calls this season, which is kind of confusing since it was also supposed to be a point of emphasis last year, and the year before, and seemingly every year since the Patriots beat the Rams in the Super Bowl by beating up their receivers.

There’s no doubt this has been a topic of conversation swirling around the Patriots. New England receiver coach Chad O’Shea got upset that the Patriots defensive backs were manhandling his receivers, and there have been some comments from the Redskins staff insinuating that the New England DBs may have crossed the physicality line.

Maybe the difference between emphasis and re-emphasis will become a little clearer tonight. Either way, you’re a true diehard if you stick with a preseason game to keep an eye on the officials.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)

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WASHINGTON – In some ways, the preseason opener between the New England Patriots and Washington Redskins is very much an afterthought. For the regulars, the real work has already been accomplished. The teams went head-to-head over three days of joint practices this week at the Redskins training camp facility, running drills for nearly every scenario one might face in a … 0

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