6. First in-game impressions of defensive rookies
The Patriots’ 2012 draft heavily emphasized adding defensive talent to the roster after a season in which New England ranked near the bottom of the league in key statistics such as yards per game allowed (31st.) The first six of New England’s seven draft picks were invested on the defensive side of the ball: Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower in the first round, Illinois safety Tavon Wilson in the second round, defensive end Jake Bequette in the third round, safety Nate Ebner in the sixth round, and Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in the seventh round.
Dennard may miss the preseason opener after injuring his hamstring in an earlier practice, which will impair his chances of making the final 53-man roster, but it will be interesting to see how rookies such as Jones, Hightower, Wilson, and Bequette fare against their first real professional competition; Jones and Hightower in particular should see extensive playing time. Ebner may be a long shot to make the 53-man roster at this point, but impressive contributions on special teams would enhance his chances of making the team.
7. Defensive end competition
The Patriots’ final roster does not have enough room for all of New England’s defensive ends, so the preseason opener will be crucial for a number of Patriots pass rushers. Rob Ninkovich, 2012 first-round pick Chandler Jones, and third-round pick Jake Bequette will be on the final roster, but Tim Bulman, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, and Trevor Scott will all be competing for playing time. Ninkovich played well last season and has been receiving a lot of first-team repetitions at left end in training camp opposite Jones.
Trevor Scott started camp strong started camp strong but has since fallen down the depth chart behind Jones; at this point Scott may be fighting for a spot on the final 53. The final roster may not be big enough to accommodate both Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis; either player could increase their likelihood of making the team with a strong game. Cunningham, a 2010 second-round pick, put together a promising rookie campaign but was hampered by injuries as a sophomore and received almost no playing time on defense; Bill Belichick praised Cunningham’s offseason work ethic last month and reports out of training camp have been mixed to this point. Francis joined the team as a rookie undrafted free agent and has been impressive, using his technique to establish a pass rush and additionally contributing at defensive end, outside linebacker, and even middle linebacker.
8. Incoming defensive back overview
New England’s pass defense allowed the second-most yards through the air last season (4,703) and improving the secondary was obviously a priority over the offseason. The positional overhaul began in free agency when New England signed former San Diego Chargers safety Steve Gregory to a three-year deal with $2.5 million in guaranteed money; other free agent signings included cornerbacks Will Allen and Marquice Cole.
In April, the Patriots invested a second-round draft pick in Illinois safety Tavon Wilson, drafted Ohio State safety Nate Ebner in the sixth round, and selected Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in the seventh.
Gregory has been taking first-team snaps at free safety opposite Patrick Chung, but Tavon Wilson has reportedly looked impressive and may be gaining on Gregory; the battle for the starting safety spot figures to be the most high-stakes of the preseason. The game on Thursday will additionally offer some indication of how 2011 second-rounder Ras-I Dowling is progressing; Dowling missed most of last season with a hip injury. Look for Will Allen to see a number of snaps on defense, while Marquice Cole and Nate Ebner will likely have to make their mark on special teams; Dennard has missed practice time with a hamstring injury and may not appear in the game, which could cause him to lose ground on Allen.
9. Attempts to improve in the kick return game
Bill Belichick spoke out last season against the NFL’s decision to move the opening kickoff to the 35-yard line, wondering whether it may be more practical to “put more of a priority on your punt returner than your kickoff returner.” The Patriots finished 29th in the league in average kick return yardage last season and tried out a number of different players at the position, primarily Danny Woodhead (20), Julian Edelman (12), Stevan Ridley (7), and Matthew Slater (4.)
Running back Shane Vereen also has extensive collegiate experience as a kick returner. During practice, it appeared as though Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen will both be returning kicks at some point during the preseason.
Finding a kick returner who could improve the offense’s starting field position in 2012 should be a special-teams priority; players on the roster bubble may receive opportunities to return kicks and secure spots on the final roster as well, although it may be unrealistic to expect Belichick to retain a dedicated kick returner who does not contribute to the team on other special teams units as well.
10. Mark Ingram and Cameron Jordan
Prior to the 2011 NFL Draft many analysts had linked Alabama running back Mark Ingram and California defensive end Cameron Jordan to the Patriots for logical reasons; Ingram was a former Heisman winner who had starred on Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide teams, while Jordan was a big defensive end (6’4″, 287 pounds) with extensive experience playing in the 3-4 defense. Although both players addressed needs and were still available at number 17, New England surprised many onlookers by drafting Nate Solder. New Orleans subsequently drafted Cameron Jordan with the 24th overall pick and traded the #56 overall pick and their 2012 first-rounder to New England in order to move up the draft board, selecting Ingram with the 28th overall pick. New England used the 56th pick on Shane Vereen and included New Orleans’ 2012 first-rounder in part of their draft-day move for Chandler Jones. Patriots fans should look out for Ingram and Jordan in order to get some idea of how the two former first-round picks are developing.