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It seems like just yesterday that the NFL lockout finally ended and training camp began for the New England Patriots.
Actually, it was less than two weeks ago. And now the Patriots are hours from their first preseason game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium.
Patriots starters usually play for just a few plays in preseason games, then the reserves take over to fight for roster spots. With such a short preseason, and no off-season training beyond what players did on their own, that tendency will probably be even more noticeable.
Nor will there be any likely revelations about the Patriots defense, whether it will use the 3-4 or 4-3 defensive alignment. Bill Belichick has delighted in toying with the media over this issue, and it’s doubtful he’ll show his hand in a meaningless game.
Tonight will be about the lesser known and the unknowns, but who will stand out? Here are six players worth checking out.
Brandon Tate: Brandon Tate showed his blazing speed in Week 17 against the Dolphins, when he beat his mark deep for a 42-yard touchdown bomb from Brian Hoyer. The Patriots are loaded at wide receiver this season, but Tate may be the deep threat the Patriots could use to keep safeties from creeping up over the middle. He can also contribute on special teams. Tate will have to prove he can consistently outrun NFL cornerbacks if he wants to move up the depth chart.
Ryan Mallett: Ryan Mallett is the first high-quality college quarterback the Patriots have drafted in the Brady era. The Patriots may see him as the quarterback of the future, which is why they gave him a four-year, $2.2 million contract. Then again, they might just be setting up to trade him, á la Matt Cassell.
Mallett will get his first opportunity to show what he can bring to the team tonight. If he can really excel, he might steal Hoyer’s job as primary backup, putting him in an ideal position to learn from the one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history.
Leigh Bodden: Leigh Bodden led all Patriots cornerbacks with 55 tackles in 2009 before a shoulder injury cost him the entire 2010 season. In the year Bodden was away, Devin McCourty transformed into one of the elite shutdown corners in the NFL. McCourty never had a second elite corner helping out, however, and teams realized they could neutralize him without sacrificing offense by just throwing to the opposite side of the field.
Bodden might be that second corner the Patriots need to beef up a defense that was ranked 30th in the NFL in opponent passing yards. With the second starting cornerback job up for grabs, look for Bodden to try to seize it.
Mike Wright: Mike Wright looked poised to become one of the Patriots’ better pass rushers last season, recording 5.5 sacks in six weeks before a concussion sidelined him for the final six games and the playoffs. The Patriots recorded no sacks against the Jets in the playoffs and were soundly beaten. Better corners help, but the real key to disrupting a passing game is to get to the quarterback faster.
Stephen Gostkowski: Stephen Gostkowski was on his way to a career year in 2010 before a quadricep injury ended his season after eight games. He averaged 67.9 yards per kickoff, often contributing three, four, even five touchbacks a game. He was also perfect on extra-point kicks and kicked his first overtime game-winner against the Ravens in Week 6. Can Gostkowski retain last season’s power and stay healthy at the same time this year? He can start to answer that Thursday night.
Chris Koepplin: Belichick doesn’t want to have to scramble for a replacement place-kicker should Gostkowski go down again, so the Patriots signed former UMass and Arena Football 2 kicker Chris Koepplin, who set multiple records at UMass as a junior.
These include most single-season field goals (16), single-season points by a kicker (99), and single-season PATs (51). He finished his Minuteman career having converted a record 98 percent point-after attempt. Gostkowski has always been a bit streaky, and Koepplin might take over if the accuracy isn’t there this season.