10 things to watch in the Patriots preseason opener

It’s not Day 1, but it sure feels that way for a lot of people.

The Patriots are in Philadelphia to take on the Eagles in their first preseason game of the 2013 season. They do so as much changed team, particularly on offense. There are questions about the team’s receivers, tight ends, right guard, and much more.

So let’s not waste our time. Here are 10 things that you should be looking out for in Friday’s game.

1. How many snaps will Tom Brady get? — Coach Bill Belichick has not said what kind of playing time Brady will receive in the preseason opener, if any at all. Brady has been tearing up the Eagles secondary in joint practices this week but he surely still needs more repetitions with his new receiving group. All of these reps before the regular season are precious, but not nearly as precious as Brady’s health. We’ll see how Belichick weighs these issues Friday night.


2. Who will shine at tight end? — Pay attention to Zach Sudfeld, Jake Ballard, and Daniel Fells. Which of the three will get the start? And how will they perform. Sudfeld has looked fantastic in practices. But Fells has quietly had a solid training camp this offseason. Ballard, who has looked stiff at times, has fallen behind in the team’s competition. We’ll know more after the first game.

3. The mix of wide receivers — Don’t worry too much about who will be starting at wide receiver, because that can change depending on the package. Instead, pay attention to the packages the Patriots utilize throughout the game. Between their three receiver, four receiver, and double tight end sets, fans will get a better idea of what the Patriots envision for each player. Of course, those visions could change. But you’ll get the first hint of where they’re going with the rookies and veterans.
4. How the young receivers fare in a live environment — Rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce figure to play a big part of the Patriots’ season so far. While individually they have impressed in training camp, it will be interesting to see how they perform in a live action environment.
5. How will Jamie Collins be used? — The Patriots top draft choice has practiced as a sub linebacker, most notably in passing situations. We’ll see if that remains consistent come game time and who he winds up substituting for.
6. If Devin McCourty gets play at cornerback — The chances that McCourty plays corner this year seem pretty slim. But the defensive back did practice with that position group in training camp. Some run at his original position would speak to the Patriots’ confidence in the position.
7. How the interior defensive line looks — Outside of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, the Patriots have some question marks at backup defensive tackle. Marcus Forston will get an opportunity to showcase his skills and there are rookies to consider.
8. The backup defensive ends — There is a fierce competition going on at defensive end, with a number of players looking to back up starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. Pay attention to Justin Francis, Marcus Benard, Jake Bequette, and rookie Michael Buchanan.
9. The extent to which Alfonzo Dennard plays — The second-year cornerback has been limited in practice. Because of his diminished reps, we’ve seen more of rookie Logan Ryan as the third corner, with Aqub Talib and Kyle Arrington serving as starters. How much Dennard plays could very well give the rookie third round draft choice an opportunity to climb the depth chart.
10. How will Tim Tebow be used? — If Tebow takes one snap running the option, that will confirm all of our suspicions about his intended use. It will slso be very interesting to see how he has developed at quarterback since the beginning of training camp.
Of course, I’m also very much interested in how all the draft picks fare, including safety Duron Harmon and linebacker Steve Beauharnais.


Taking a backseat to the favorites
The offensive overhaul at receiver and tight end has apparently dipped expectations for the Patriots. In the first AP Pro32 poll, the Patriots were ranked seventh in the NFL behind the 49ers, Broncos, Falcons, Seahawks, Packers, and Ravens.
Even the Ravens, which lost eight starters from its Super Bowl winning team over the offseason, have edged the Patriots. No kidding.

Patriots social engagement
The folks at TicketCity have determined that the Patriots have the second most socially engaged fan base in the NFL, behind only the Dallas Cowboys.
The events portal used an algorithm based on a number of social factors to make their determination. They took into account the average total attendance of each game from 2012, average home attendance, ticket price, percentage of stadium filled to capacity, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers.
The Patriots scored an 89.64 on a 100-point scale, edging the Green Bay Packers (87.29) and New York Giants (85.51).
One of the keys for each team was obviously their social media presence. According to TicketCity, most teams with a strong social media presence dominate fan engagement metrics — except for Oakland. The Raiders can’t do anything right.

Tweet of the week


Remember this?

Last season’s preseason game against Philadelphia was more notable than usual because Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was knocked out of the game on a bone-crushing hit by Jermaine Cunningham. This quite literally might be the highlight of Cunningham’s NFL career.
Vick can rest easy, Cunningham will not be playing Friday night.

Plugging this and that
Have you checked out my Patriots player power rankings? There’s been some movement in the last week to reflect how far some players have fallen on the depth chart.
Also, Adam 12 was kind enough to have me on for a RadioBDC segment to talk about the rankings and also to discuss what to expect in the Patriots’ game tonight against the Eagles. We’ll try and pick up the conversation again next week, 2 p.m. Thursday.

Input this
A reader with the screen name user_4392468 writes on “New NFL rules, points of emphasis for officials this season”:

It would be nice if they would have addressed some of the problems with pass interference penalties. It seems that you often see a quarterback throw long, not expecting to connect with a receiver, hoping instead to get an interference call. Unfortunately he is often rewarded for this.

I couldn’t agree more. There were way too many instances of pass interference calls that were erroneous, giving an unfair advantage to offensive players toward the end zone. The Patriots have both benefitted and been hurt here.
But more than simply getting the call right, the punishment in some cases for pass interference is too extreme. A receiver that is interfered with on a 50-yard pass attempt should not necessarily get the benefit of those 50 yards. I think it would be much more appropriate for maximum 15-yard penalties, or spot fouls within the 15, to reign in these game-changing plays. An overtime PI call of any significant length can very well determine the outcome of a football game.


What’s to come
– The Patriots play the Eagles tonight at 7:30 p.m in Philly. We’re hours away.
– No practice on Saturday or Sunday. Patriots coach Bill Belichick will have a conference call on Saturday to discuss Friday’s game with the Eagles.
– Next week, the Patriots will re-convene in Foxborough for training camp and will hold joint practices with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The joint practices will lead into next week’s preseason matchup with the Bucs, which is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday Aug. 16 at Gillette Stadium. Bring friends.
– Alfonzo Dennard’s probation hearing is Aug. 27 in Nebraska.
– Also on Aug. 27, all NFL teams will have to pare down their rosters to 75 players.
– On Aug. 31, the Patriots and the rest of the NFL will have to trim its roster to 53 players for the regular season.
– At 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, the Patriots will open their 2013 regular season at the Buffalo Bills. That’s 31 days from now.
Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.

Loading Comments...