Five Things To Watch: Preseason Week 1

Friday night brings a lot of challenges to the younger players on the Patriots roster. There are five key positions where Patriots players can help their chances to land a starting role - or at least a roster spot -- if they impress the coaches during the preseason. Who is in the tight races and what should you be watching? PI gives you the primary competitions in 5 key areas.

1) Cornerback play - The Patriots unsettled position at cornerback makes the defensive matchup against the Buccaneers a matchup to key on. Randall Gay and Tory James have swapped turns playing opposite Ellis Hobbs as the starting corners. Newcomer Dante Wesley saw immediate action during the week at corner, but figures to get a little leeway in winning a roster spot due to his significant special teams ability.

The backup competition is where things get interesting. Gay, James and Hobbs figure to be on the final roster, while players like Wesley are competing with second year hopefuls Willie Andrews and Gemara Williams. Eddie Jackson remains on the PUP list and will likely start the season that way, or on IR.
Rookie Brandon Meriweather is another almost guaranteed lock for a roster spot. It will be interesting to see where he lines up against Tampa Bay. Meriweather - like Andrews and Williams - played at both corner and safety the first couple weeks at camp. He's expected to see time at nickel corner or nickel safety.

2) Linebacker backup battle - staying with the defense, another key concern for the Patriots is the play of the linebackers behind the starters. While Adalius Thomas, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin are the undisputed starters for the team, the second level of linebackers remains a mix of young and old. Cagy veterans Junior Seau, and Chad Brown are competing for roster spots with the likes of Eric Alexander, Oscar Lua, Pierre Woods, Corey Mays and a bevy of undrafted free agent hopefuls.

Keep an eye on Lua (No. 49) and Mays (No. 46) on both defense and special teams units. Alexander wore a red "non-contact" jersey throughout training camp, so the likelihood that he sees much action is limited. Mays and Lua are competing for what should be a single roster spot at inside linebacker if Seau makes the team.

At outside linebacker, Pierre Woods (58) is trying to take a positive step forward in his second season, while Kyle Bissinger (48) and Justin Rogers (No. 51) are trying to impress the staff enough to win a spot over veteran Chad Brown.

3) Right tackle - The Patriots offensive line is mostly settled with Matt Light at left tackle, Logan Mankins at left guard, Dan Koppen at center and Stephen Neal at right guard. It is the right tackle position where the competition steps up a notch. Incumbent Nick Kaczur is in a heated race with second-year challenger Ryan O'Callaghan. Both players split reps during training camp without a clear winner named thus far. Competition against other teams will help determine who has a leg up in the battle.

4) Wide receiver - The starting receivers for the Patriots appear to be predetermined when the Patriots acquired Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. The three amigos appear set as the starters, but the positions behind them on the depth chart are up for grabs.

One player close to locking up a spot is Jabar Gaffney, who has had a solid training camp and has turned in one of the better performances in the first part of training camp. Right next to Gaffney is his former college teammate Reche Caldwell. It was the performance of this pair, coupled with veteran Troy Brown and young players like Bam Childress, Kelvin Kight and Chad Jackson which prompted the Patriots to go on a free agency spending spree in the first place.

If Gaffney performs during the preseason like he has in camp, he'll make the final cut. Caldwell likely must outperform off-season acquisition Kelley Washington as well as youngsters Kight and Childress, and the ever-popular Brown to land a roster spot. Jackson is on the PUP list and is expected to start the season there as well.
Players who have had moments, but remain long shots at the position are C.J. Jones and Chris Dunlap who has

5) Punter - As unusual as it is to have a roster battle in the special teams unit, the competition at punter has carried over from the 2006 season. Gone are Todd Sauerbrun and the strong leg he used to win favor with the coaching staff. In his place are rookies Tom Malone and Danny Baugher to compete with incumbent Josh Miller.

Miller has to show why he deserves a roster spot compared to the youngsters. When Adam Vinatieri left for Indianapolis, rookie Stephen Gostkowski filled in admirably. The results of that situation likely affected the team in the way of having a more open mind to breaking in a rookie who can become a started for the next 4, 5, 6 seasons or longer.

While Baugher has made a positive impression with his leg, it's Malone who actually appears to be able to uncork the Sauerbrun booming punts. When Malone is on, his kicks are high arcing spirals that tend to carry deep. He has routinely boomed punts 50 even 60 yards or more in camp. It's consistency that he and Baugher need to display to wrest the job away from Miller.

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Jon Scott has covered the NFL since 1995. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long time contributor to the network. A New England native, Scott has followed the Patriots for over two decades and covered the team since 2001. He can be found in the Insider's Lounge under the handle JSinCT.

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