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Plenty to keep an eye on with Patriots

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  August 8, 2012 10:38 AM

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Associated Press

In the preseason, the objectives for the Patriots are simple: avoid injury, particularly to anyone with a jersey number between 11 and 13. The Patriots lost twice last preseason. They subsequently lost just three more times until the Super Bowl.

Coach Bill Belichick has since made attempts to fortify an already improving Patriots defense, spending considerable draft collateral and some free agency dollars to do so. He even got quarterback Tom Brady a few more weapons. On Thursday, the revamped Patriots will take to the field for the first time since their loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, and there are more than a few areas that warrant at least initial inspection.

Among them:

* The offensive line. Following Tuesday's joint workout between the Patriots and the New Orleans Saints - whom the Patriots will play Thursday night - Globe football writer Greg Bedard referred to the Patriots' offensive line as a "sieve." That is hardly a surprise given the issues the Patriots are currently dealing with at the position, but it still warrants some concern in both the shorter term and the longer.

Obviously, nobody wants to see quarterback Tom Brady injured, let alone in the preseason. Thus far, the Patriots have operated without two Pro Bowl-caliber guards in Logan Mankins (PUP) and Brian Waters (has not reported), and are also missing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Robert Gallery retired days ago. The regular-season opener is still a month away and the Patriots have plenty of time to get things sorted out and stabilized, but things look quite jumbled at the moment.

* Personnel on defense. Last year at this time, there was lots of talk about the Patriots playing a more aggressive, swarming style of defense. By the early part of the regular season, the plan had been scrapped. Belichick subsequently made a concerted effort to address the front seven, and it will be interesting to see who lines up where when the defense steps onto the field for the first time.

Of particular interest, of course, are first-round selections Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Beginning in 2001, Belichick's first-round selections have included Richard Seymour, Daniel Graham, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Laurence Maroney, Brandon Meriweather, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty and Nate Solder. A number of them started at least the majority of games as rookies and almost all were a factor by the middle or end of their first seasons.

Additionally, the secondary alignment will be of obvious interest. The Patriots had lots of issues in the defensive backfield last season, and it will be interesting to see where Belichick begins this year.

* Brandon Lloyd. After the disaster that was Chad Johnson, the Patriots once again had an obvious need for a wide receiver on the outside. The worst-kept secret in all of football was the relationship between Josh McDaniels and Lloyd, who essentially has averaged 74 catches, 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns playing for McDaniels over the last two seasons.

On both occasions, someone other than Brady was the quarterback.

Without question, Lloyd was the Patriots' marquee acquisition in free agency. The hope and expectation are that he will give Brady a viable threat outside the numbers, creating even more dilemmas for opposing defenses. Without a true threat on the outside, after all, the Patriots have generally controlled the middle of the field with a passing attack built around Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski.

Since the departure of Randy Moss, the outside has been an ongoing issue for the New England offense. The general belief now is that Lloyd solves the problem.

* Running back. This isn't necessarily a big issue in the grand scheme of things, largely because the ball will be in Brady's hands (and rightfully so) for the large majority of the time. Still, there are lots of questions concerning the potential ball carriers, none of whom have a real track record of success in the NFL.

We all love Danny Woodhead, but he's a situational back. Shane Vereen barely got on the field last year. Stevan Ridley fumbled late in playoff blowout of the Denver Broncos and subsequently vanished. Relatively speaking, there has been a fair amount of hype surrounding 5-foot-10, 220-pound Brandon Bolden, an unsigned free agent out of Mississippi (sound familiar, Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis fans?) who has been getting a good look in camp.

The Patriots don't ask much of their running backs, but how Belichick sorts this out will be revealing. If Bolden is the guy, isn't that an indictment on Vereen and Ridley, drafted in the second and third rounds of the 2011 draft?

* Backup quarterback and kick returns. Brian Hoyer is entering his fourth season as backup to Brady, but the real wild card here is 6-foot-7 Ryan Mallett, a third-round pick last year who excelled in college at Arkansas. Partly because of the lockout last year, Mallet was a complete nonfactor in 2011. Belichick has remarked this summer the young quarterback is miles ahead of where he was a year ago.

Whether Mallett has any chance in the NFL may well be determined by how he develops this year, and he isn't likely to get much playing time beyond the preseason.

As for the kick returns, this may seem trivial. It isn't. Belichick miscalculated the impact of the kickoff rule change a year ago, and the simple truth is that the Patriots missed Brandon Tate in this area. The Patriots ranked 29th in the NFL in kick returns a year ago; and while they were just 18th in 2010, they did return two kicks for touchdowns. (Last year, they had zero.)

Who will return kicks this year? Good question. Belichick has lots of options, and better field position to start possessions certainly won't hurt.

In the Super Bowl, lest anyone forget, New England's average starting field position was its own 16-yard line.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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