The Patriots will kick off their preseason against the Saints at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (TV: Ch. 4, radio: 98.5). Here are Greg A. Bedard’s top things to watch for during the game:
1. ROOKIES: All eyes will be on the top three Patriots draft picks on defense: right end Chandler Jones, strong-side linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and safety Tavon Wilson. All three should get plenty of action, with Jones and Hightower starting and Wilson mixing in with the dime package to thwart tight ends. Jones will get a lot of good experience against Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
2. LINE DANCE: The Patriots offensive line got whupped by the Saints in Tuesday’s practice. Time to see how well New England learns and makes corrections. Keep an eye on Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. The second-year players have struggled of late.
3. SPECIAL TEAMS: The biggest clue as to which bubble players are in a good position to win roster spots comes from special teams. Expect Sergio Brown, Nate Ebner, and Niko Koutouvides to be out there trying to show they can stand out from the rest.
4. CORNERING THE MARKET: The Patriots are not going to have a Super season unless their cornerbacks show great improvement. A lot of eyes will be on Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling, who started last season. They need to be competitive, make plays on the ball, and play with the correct technique.
5. STUDY UP: Third-string quarterback Ryan Mallett did not inspire a lot of confidence last preseason, but with an offseason under his belt, there aren’t any excuses. Mallett needs to play with a quick tempo and get rid of the ball in rhythm with the offense. No holding the ball.