On a team with so many unproven players about to be thrust into key roles it's hard to narrow it down to just five who we're most interested to see when the Patriots kick off their preseason against the New Orleans Saints. The Patriots will undoubtedly need contributions from a great majority of the twenty-four players they've added over the last two drafts, plus the handful of veterans they added this past off-season, but which five have the most pressure on them to impress immediately?
Our thoughts after the jump...
1. Gerard Warren/Damione Lewis: With Ty Warren out indefinitely, and an open position battle at right defensive end, both of these vets will need to prove that they can hold the point of attack in a two-gap scheme. Both are used to getting upfield in 4-3 defenses, so while they are proven in that system they remain newbies in the Patriots 3-4. In a division with so many dangerous ground games it is absolutely essential that the Patriots prove they can stop the run. While pass rush remains a concern it won't matter very much if teams can run all over the Pats like the Ravens did in the playoffs. I expect Warren and Lewis to see significant time against the Saints to help get them as much experience as possible.
Also keep an eye on dark horse rookie Brandon Deadrick as a potential 3-4 DE of the future.
2. Brandon Tate: Tater Tot has been having a good camp by all accounts. He's had some inconsistency at times, but he's had a share of spectacular catches and seems to be the favorite to win the starting kick off returner position, an underrated weakness of the 2009 Patriots. The lack of a legitimate third outside wide receiver also hurt the Pats in 2009, if Tate can provide a vertical threat opposite Randy Moss it will mean great things for underneath receivers like Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Aaron Hernandez.
Also keep an eye on rookie Taylor Price as another new wide receiver who could help.
3. Brandon Spikes: No rookie has built up greater hype in training camp than Spikes. He's logged a lot of time next to Jerod Mayo in the starting defense, and has even played some outside linebacker in passing situations, a move that some draft gurus thought he could excel at in the NFL. Any time Coach Belichick calls a player "interesting" you know there could be something special about him. We've heard the knocks on him for a lack of speed, but the Patriots have needed a ferocious run-stopping presence at the Mike linebacker position since Ted Johnson retired. You don't need to be sideline-to-sideline fast to play there, you just need to be a monster who can instantly diagnose a play and blow it up. Spikes just might be that presence, but with even more versatility than Johnson brought. He should see plenty of time against the Saints.
Also keep an eye on Tyrone McKenzie, as another linebacker whose role is not exactly known to us yet.
4. Whoever's playing OLB across from Tully Banta-Cain: It could be Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich or Marques Murrell, all have seen time with the first defense in training camp and it seems as though this position battle is still wide open. We all know the number one knock on the Patriots is their lack of a pass rush threat, but whoever is to win this starting spot in the base 3-4 defense will need to be far more than just someone who can get after the quarterback. They must be able to drop into coverage and hold up at the point of attack. This could be the most interesting position to watch on Thursday night, and we'd like nothing better than one of these players to be making plays all over the field.
5. Dan Connolly: It's never sexy to focus on a left guard, especially in preseason but if the Patriots are to embark on the 2010 campaign without Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur, Connolly will be a vital piece of the puzzle. He has the benefit of some playing experience in 2009, as well as playing in between two veterans like Matt Light and Dan Koppen. But the Patriots loved to run behind Mankins and their ground game could be limited if Connolly isn't as much of a road grader as Logan was. This will also put the spotlight on the other guards on the roster like Ryan Wendell, Eric Ghiaciuc, and Rich Ohrnberger as they rotate in. Let's not forget that Stephen Neal hasn't played a full season since 2005.
Who else are you guys excited to see on Thursday night?