1) Depth in the Secondary
It's no secret that 2011 second-round draft selection Ras-I Dowling has a difficult time avoiding the injury bug, and that's being nice. The severity of his training camp nick has yet to be elaborated upon, but relying on Dowling for anything less than a little extra icing on the cake would be egregious. Dennard also got a little beat up and will likely sit, but nearby reporters didn't consider his case incredibly serious. Aqib Talib has reportedly been outstanding for the most part, but the train really fell of the tracks for the New England Patriots when he exited with an injury during the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens.
This team needs to show it possesses strong depth in the secondary, and it needs it badly. The team committed a hefty amount of cash to slot corner Kyle Arrington in the offseason, but preseason represents an excellent opportunity for the young supporting cast to make a case for the roster. Logan Ryan was highly regarded as one of the top cover corners in the draft, and a strong showing from him would help the team tremendously. Brandon Jones is another Rutgers product who's a long shot to make the roster, but he finds himself the beneficiary of too many safeties and not enough true cornerbacks.
Early reports show that Devin McCourty has been moving back to cornerback from free safety, and while McCourty flashed brilliance at times at FS, the trickle-down effect helps the overall depth chart tremendously. This indicates that the coaching staff has been particularly impressed with new acquisitions SS Adrian Wilson and SS/FS Duron Harmon who spent time deep and in the box. If the former Scarlet Knights can perform in preseason and challenge positional incumbents for potential starting roles, the secondary could be better than it's been in many years.
You'd almost be forgiven this offseason in forgetting there was another quarterback on this roster without the surname Brady or Tebow. There is, and there's chance he'd take over for one in the case of injury and easily leap-frog the other. Reports indicate that Ryan Mallett has improved nearly every aspect of his quarterbacking this year including his timing, decision-making, footwork and accuracy (that's the big one). He's got a cannon for an arm and has zero difficulty in making any throw, but inconsistency has been an issue the limited amount of time we've seen him. With Tom Brady basically saying he'd retire a Patriot--and the front office almost confirming just as much--it's unlikely that Mallett will get the starting nod anytime soon. If the coaching staff somehow feels that Tim Tebow as No. 2 isn't too big a drop-off, Mallett could be dangled as trade bait with a strong showing in preseason. Mallett fell all the way to the third round with some minor 'character concerns' in a draft rich with quarterbacking talent, and a weak pool this year only elevates his stock in the eyes of a starter-needy team.
Mallett possesses the Aaron Rodgers effect in that he was a raw talent that was able to learn for a handful of seasons over the tutelage of an acclaimed veteran. If Mallett displays growth tonight, a desperate team could bite--and give the Patriots tremendous value in the process. If Tebow develops a serious case of the Foxboro Flu, Mallett might have to stick, and this is where any improvement becomes paramount. Tom Brady has stayed relatively healthy throughout his 12 years in the league, but his longer teeth will do him no favors if disaster strikes. Mallett has to prove he's a steady and reliable No. 2 that could flourish in the system he's studied for several years.
And, well, there's Tim Tebow. As unconventional a quarterback you'll ever see, all eyes will be on him as he tries to prove the coaching staff's shrewdness in bringing him aboard. We wish him the best of luck in that task.
3) Personnel Groupings
Preseason is a decidedly vanilla affair with no team really wanting to tip their hand, so specific gameplanning is rare. It's a scrimmage with the intent of seeing who of the marginal 'bubble' guys want a roster spot the most. Still, it'll be interesting to see how the Patriots decide to assemble their personnel based on who's on the field at a given moment. The offense has been downright TE dominant since the advent of Rob Gronkowski and
Aaron Hernandez, but with both unavailable for one reason or another, how will the offense be effected? They have plenty of tight ends rostered, but do they possess the skills to be consistently dependable in 2 TE looks?
Question marks obviously surround the Patriots' inexperienced receiving corps this season,so it'll be interesting to see who gets dropped into 4-5 WR sets--if there are many at all. Preseason will give the coaching staff an idea on who's the most ready when facing legitimate competition. The amount of quality we see out of the receivers and the tight ends in the preseason will likely dictate personnel tendencies in the regular season. Depending on which position emerges as the strongest, the offense could experience a bit of a paradigm shift if the coaching staff sees a strength that just can't be ignored. The Patriots will likely avoid placing too much reliance on the young receivers early on, but a strong showing out of them could open yet another dimension in an already diverse offense. Boyce/Thompson/Dobson have been impressive in training camp, but everyone knows the games that count are always an entirely different animal.