1. Ryan Mallett’s development.
Even if Tom Brady starts and plays a series or two, Mallett still figures to get the bulk of the playing time. And not to overstate things, but this preseason is incredibly important for both Mallett and the Patriots. If he plays well, the Patriots can try to trade him next offseason before his contract runs out in 2014. And he can prove to the rest of the league that he’s ready to be a starting quarterback. Last preseason, Mallett completed 33 of 67 passes (49.3 percent) with three touchdowns, one interception, and a 70.5 passer rating.
2. Can the rookie receivers perform under the bright lights?
The Patriots have a quartet of rookie pass catchers who have all looked fantastic during training camp: second-round receiver Aaron Dobson, fourth-round receiver Josh Boyce, undrafted receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, and undrafted tight end Zach Sudfeld. All four have been working with the starting unit and generated a lot of buzz in practices with the Eagles this week. But there are plenty of young receivers who perform well in practice and then wilt under the pressure of game situations. All four figure to get a lot of playing time even if Brady plays only a series or two.
3. Which running backs will emerge?
We know that Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be the main 1-2 punch in the backfield. But there’s a logjam of four running backs for two likely roster spots: veterans Leon Washington and LeGarrette Blount, and youngsters Brandon Bolden and George Winn. Washington and Blount likely have the edge to start out, but Bolden and Winn can win over their coaches with decisive running, good blitz protection, and no mental errors.
4. Can they rush the passer?
The inability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback was one of the Patriots’ biggest weaknesses last year; they had 37 sacks in 16 games, tied for 15th in the NFL. And on a per-snap basis — the Patriots faced the eighth-most pass attempts in the NFL last year — they ranked in the bottom third of the league. Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, and the rest of the pass rushers haven’t gotten many opportunities to prove themselves during training camp, where contact is limited. The game situations are the only good opportunities for them to work on their craft.
5. How much has the pass defense improved?
The Patriots ranked 29th in the NFL last season in yards allowed (though fifth with 20 interceptions), and on paper the secondary looks improved, with Aqib Talib now here for a full offseason and Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and Ras-I Dowling a year older. But Talib and Arrington (having a great camp) probably won’t play much, Dowling is hurt and won’t play, and Dennard is a bit banged up and might not play either. That gives Marquice Cole and rookies Logan Ryan, Brandon Jones, and Justin Green a great chance to get a ton of reps and work their way up the depth chart.