A few items to keep an eye on tonight, as the Patriots open the preseason against the Philadelphia Eagles.
1. How the Patriots use Jamie Collins
Collins has been primarily a run defender and a cover linebacker in practices to this point. It's fairly safe to assume he'll be used in coverage against tight ends and running backs over the middle of the field.
That was a huge weak spot for the Patriots in 2012, where they ranked 29th in the NFL in coverage on tight ends and 23rd in coverage on running backs according to Football Outsiders. He could be covering talented tight end Brent Celek, who finished second on the Eagles with 57 catches and third with 684 receiving yards in 2012.
Don't rule out the possibility that Collins could be used other ways. We have seen some flashes of him shooting gaps on his way into the backfield, and Collins was regarded as a solid pass-rusher coming out of Southern Mississippi. We haven't seen him participate in the team's one-on-one pass-rush drills pitting the offensive and defensive lines, though, so the Patriots may scheme him to rush the passer in other ways.
2. Tom Brady's chemistry with his new wide receivers
The biggest story line of the offseason in New England has been the dramatic change in pass-catching talent. Brady's top five pass-catchers from 2012 will not be on the field on Friday, and only one of those five will see the field for the Patriots in 2013.
Danny Amendola is regarded as the pseudo-replacement for Wes Welker for his similar skill set and ability to work the slot, but there's reason to believe Brady and Amendola could also share similar chemistry to what Brady once had with Welker. It won't be immediate, but we've already seen flashes of it in training camp. How that translates in game action remains to be seen.
Rookie Aaron Dobson has already begun to show signs of the outside-the-numbers downfield threat the Patriots have been sorely lacking for years. If Brady is dialed in with Dobson, the Patriots offense could be heating up for another fireworks show in 2013.
Kamar Aiken has been very solid and consistent, and continues to fight for a roster spot, but undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins may be the surprise of training camp. He was regarded by cornerback Aqib Talib for his impressive release, and has made impressive catches in almost every practice. If he has a big game, he'll be making the Patriots' job that much harder when it comes time for cutdowns.
3. Zach Sudfeld's everything
Undrafted free-agent Zach Sudfeld has been in focus throughout training camp for his potential role in replacing injured tight end Rob Gronkowski. He's been impressive as a pass-catcher, but can he continue to be a steady presence when the bullets are real?
Also, replacing Gronkowski isn't just about catching passes. At some point, Sudfeld is probably going to have to block. All eyes will be on him as viewers hope to see his 6'7", 260-pound frame translate into a mauler of a blocking tight end. The Eagles run a hybrid 3-4 defense, so he could be blocking pass-rushers Trent Cole or Connor Barwin.
4. Reps at defensive tackle
The Patriots lack of depth at defensive tackle is a story line we've been watching all throughout training camp. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly have been getting a majority of the first-team reps at defensive tackle, with Marcus Forston subbing in for either player from time to time.
The Patriots are still waiting for Armond Armstead to practice, as he recovers from a surgery he had to remove an infection. In his absence, Cory Grissom and Joe Vellano have earned a good deal of snaps in team drills, Grissom with the first- and second-team and Vellano with the second- and third-team. The Patriots might look to get them both reps with the starters, to prepare them in the event of an injury.
Look for defensive ends like Marcus Benard and Jermaine Cunningham to play a part in the team's interior defensive line rotation, as well. Cunningham assumed a role as an interior pass-rusher last season, and the Patriots might have to manufacture their depth at defensive tackle.
5. Safety combinations
Devin McCourty is likely the starting free safety, but there is no clear front-runner to start opposite him on the Patriots back end. Adrian Wilson has taken most of those reps, but Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory have all been in the mix.
Beyond that, we've seen combinations at safety not involving McCourty. While the team may simply be preparing for injuries, which forced them to overhaul their secondary last year, it will be worth noting where players line up and which players participate in the nickel vs. the base defense.
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