Thursday will mark the first time media has access to the New England Patriots offseason team activities and there's a lot to be excited about.
The Patriots have very little negative turnover from 2015's AFC Championship squad, with a few added improvements. While the loss of defensive linemen Chandler Jones and Akiem Hicks are step backs, the Patriots have hopefully improved over Brandon LaFell and Scott Chandler with Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett.
New England also added a few great back-ups in tight end Clay Harbor and linebacker Shea McClellin, so it will be interesting to see how they're utilized.
The Patriots are in Phase Three of OTAs, which means that players are now allowed to participate in offense versus defense drills and can wear helmets- although contact is still not permitted. One-on-one drills (cornerback versus wide receiver; offensive lineman versus defensive lineman) are still not allowed.
This is what I'll be watching.
Offensive line groups
I think this will be at the top of everyone's register this offseason. While lineups don't mean anything at this point in the season- head coach Bill Belichick will say this time of the year is more about getting familiar with your teammates and seeing whether or not a player has versatility- we will get some insight on where the Patriots view prospects.
Who takes first team reps with quarterback Tom Brady? Will rookie Joe Thuney see time at tackle, or will the coaching staff try and put him at center? Will Bryan Stork remain on the interior, or could he move to tackle? Is offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia a magician?
We'll find out.
New faces at wide receiver
The Patriots could have had an intense camp battle at receiver, but the two most experienced players (Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola) are recovering from injuries and might open up opportunities for the other receivers to step up.
Can rookie Malcolm Mitchell plug right into the offense? Will Chris Hogan pick up the playbook and will he play inside or outside? Will Aaron Dobson survive another season? Does veteran Nate Washington's time in Houston help him adjust?
Tight end usage
Last season, there were multiple reports of tight ends Scott Chandler and Rob Gronkowski spending extra time together with quarterback Tom Brady during practice. Will we see more of the same with the newly acquired Martellus Bennett?
The Patriots also used a beautiful four tight end package early last season that was unstoppable on the goal line, but the team traded away Michael Hoomanawanui and then Scott Chandler was hurt. This year's top trio of Gronkowski, Bennett, and Clay Harbor is far superior to last year's (Michael Williams was the 4th tight end, but he's a glorified offensive lineman).
And speaking of Harbor, the Patriots gave him a lot of guaranteed money. Does he take over at fullback? Do the Patriots use him like they used Aaron Hernandez? He's an athletic phenom so it will be a lot of fun to watch his utility.
Development of 2015 draft picks
First round defensive tackle Malcom Brown developed into one of the best run defenders in the league last season and will be the team's top player at the position in 2016. Second round safety Jordan Richards rarely saw the field because Patrick Chung decided to become of the best defenders in the league, but could see increased time with Duron Harmon as a free agent after the season.
3rd and 4th round edge defenders Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers aren't even a lock to make the team, while 4th round linemen Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason are battling for starting roles. 5th round long snapper Joe Cardona is likely to make the team, while 6th round tight end A.J. Derby and 7th round cornerback Darryl Roberts will be competing at crowded positions.
A good NFL draft will have three players become key players on the roster. Brown is one. Can two others step up into possible starters this season? My money is on Mason and Flowers.
Return of 2015 injured players
The Patriots finished the season with roughly a billion players on the injured reserve and most will return to the field for New England in 2016. Will running backs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis participate? Is receiver Aaron Dobson finally healthy? How does offensive tackle Nate Solder look?
I'm extremely excited to watch sophomore cornerback Darryl Roberts, who was playing with the top unit before suffering an injury in the preseason, and also edge defenders Trey Flowers and Rufus Johnson. All three stood out last preseason in their first year with the team and will need to show that their injuries didn't derail their growth.