Thursday, August 11, 2011

What to Watch For: Preseason Game 1 vs. Jacksonville

Football is finally back and so am I. There is plenty to catch up on, as the Pats have made some big splashes since the lockout ended, and I'll post about those in due time. Xmark emailed me 2 weeks ago to put up a post about the acquisitions, but I was on a 2 week vacation; and faced with the decision between sitting on the beach or sitting in front of my laptop my was no choice at all. If it makes you feel any better, I was lobster red with a goof burn for a few days after, as I decided I had as much interest in sunscreen as I did writing.

Yes, I'm aware that most people couldn't care less about preseason football. Yes, I'm aware the game will be very sloppy and probably pretty boring. That's ok, because I'll still be watching. This is where position battles and roster spots are won; breakout players are spotted and we get to see cheerleaders for the first time this year. For those of you who care to watch here's a quick list of the top things you should pay attention to:

1.) Rookies: Every year Belichick shocks/outrages the New England fan base by drafting guys that no one has ever heard of, at positions they don't think are needed. Then he turns them into Pro Bowlers. This is the first step of that process. Our first glimpse at the potential that the greatest coach of all time saw in the player. I'm disappointed that Ras-I and Vareen appear on the list of players you shouldn't expect to see, but at the same time, so does Matt Light - so we should see plenty of First Round behemoth Nate Solder at OT. Other players who should see significant time are RB Stevan Ridley and QB Ryan Mallet.

2.) Defensive line: While Fat Daddy Haynesworth won't be suiting up, there is still plenty to watch in this area. The Pat's currently have 22 D-Linemen on the roster, but project to keep around 10. This is the area with the most competition on the team, and tonight will be a good opportunity for players to separate themselves from the pack.

One important factor to watch is who can play multiple roles (4-3 DE/DT; 3-4 OLB/DE, etc). Also situational versatility - for example, playing as a run stopping 3-4 DE on early downs then moving inside as a pass rushing 4-3 DT on later downs will help differentiate the winners from the losers

3.) Cornerback Battle: This is a position with tons of depth, and quality players most likely be cut. The team traditionally carries 5 corners. With 3 spots locked up (McCourty, Bodden, Ras-I), there will be fierce competition for the final 2. Watch the performances of Arrington, Butler, Wilhite, and others closely.

4.) Receiver battles: The Patriots will carry between 5 and 7 receivers, and currently have 11 on roster. After Welker, Branch, Chad Johnson and Brandon Tate, who will make it? Special teams impact important, which gives Edelman an advantage with his explosive punt return skills. I'm most excited to see Taylor Price's progress after his "Red Shirt" year last season.

5.) Ed Hochuli: How did the most jacked Ref in the NFL handle the lockout? Will his guns be in their usual pristine shape, or did lack of access to team facilities cost him?

6.) Rookie QB's: Jacksonville QB Blaine Gabbert is getting the start tonight after little action in training camp. How will he fare? The Pat's D made Sam Bradford look like an All-Pro in the preseason last year, so perhaps better than expected. Ryan Mallett is likely to see time and show off his rocket arm.

7.) Terrance Wheatley: Former Pat draft pick is now on the Jags. He had an injury plagued career in NE before being cut last year. How is he playing given his second chance?

8.) Defensive alignment: The Pats have traditionally been a 3-4 team, but have the roster make up for both a 3-4 and 4-3, or even slightly favoring 4-3. See how much they experiment and what players play where in each front. Preseason games usually consist of vanilla looks, so don't expect to see much of this tonight- but it will be a top story line throughout the early season.

9.) Lee Smith: Replacing one of my favorite players from last year, Alge Crumpler. Does he possess the same beastly blocking ability at TE?

10.) Lockout hangover: How will the teams look after minimal preparation time? I expect them to look out of rhythm on O, and see players out of position on D. As always, the goal is to get through preseason games without any big time injuries. Tonight will be a good test of the players individual off-season conditioning.

I'll check back in tomorrow with some thoughts from the most likely non-entertaining game.

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