Football is back and the Patriots will be back in action at home with a pre-season game Thursday Night against the New Orleans Saints. Kickoff will be at 7:30 PM EST at Gillette Stadium, and there are several players to really focus on for the Patriots on both sides of the ball. Here are “Ten Patriots Players To Watch For Against The Saints”.

10. Marcus Cannon – This offensive lineman was a fifth round draft pick out of TCU in 2011, and showed promise at the end of the last season. With all of the offensive lineman out, he will be counted on to help protect Tom Brady. I have heard mixed reports regarding his play so far in Training Camp. He will definitely be a player to watch against the Saints.

9. Nate Solder – This left tackle has the responsibility for taking over the job of Matt Light at protecting Brady’s blind side. Solder was a first round draft pick last season, and looked pretty solid during the season. However, he will be asked to do more this season as he has a very important job. I think he is up for the position, but Thursday Night against the Saints will be his first true test.

8. Shane Vereen - This 2011 second round draft pick out of California, did not play much last season as he was dealing with an injury early in the year. When he did play, we got a glimpse of the burst that he had in college. In a very limited role he had a long run of 19 yards, and looks like he could have break away potential. I will be watching him because the Patriots offense could use a running back that can offer something special.

7. Ryan Mallett – As Brady gets older, it is only normal to think about the future at the quarterback position. Mallett was a third round draft pick in 2011 out of Arkansas, and some experts predicted he would go in the first round.

He actually was pretty impressive in his first pre-season game against Jacksonville last season, as he had a passer rating of 108.2, and threw for 164 yards. However, in the next three pre-season games he struggled, and definitely looked like a rookie quarterback.

Mallett has the rocket arm, but so far he has shown me a very slow release which could get him into trouble in the NFL. For him to become a starter someday he is going to need to speed up how he reads defenses, and releases the ball. Thursday Night will be the first test to see how much he has progressed as a quarterback.

6. Bobby Carpenter – This linebacker has never lived up to the hype of being a first round draft pick after playing seven seasons in the NFL. However, so far in camp reportedly he has been involved in many of the sub packages the Patriots have been showing on defense. He certainly looks like he has settled in nicely to this role.

Brandon Spikes has been out of action for several practices now, and Carpenter could get a serious chance to play in his absence. Before Training Camp began, I had my doubts about Carpenter making the team. He will have a huge opportunity on Thursday Night to show if he belongs.

5. Brandon Lloyd – This wide receiver has looked very impressive in camp, and seriously looks nothing like the former player that wore the number eighty five for the Patriots. What has been impressive about Lloyd is he has the ability to not only stretch the field, but jump and fight for the ball.

Last season he caught seventy balls combined with Broncos and the Rams. He might not get those types of numbers this season, but he could have the quality receptions that could take the Patriots offense to the next level if that is possible. A huge asset has to be that Lloyd knows the offense, and I am looking forward to watching him against the Saints.

4. Tavon Wilson – This rookie safety was taken in the second round, and the Patriots were highly criticized by so called draft experts who had him going later in the draft.

The Patriots had a serious issue with a partner for Patrick Chung at safety last season. I am hoping this former University of Illinois player can be the solution for this season.

So far at training camp, I have been encouraged by what I have seen from Wilson. He has lined up at safety, and in certain sub-packages has been in at linebacker. This could be another player that has serious versatility, and I am interested to see what he could bring to the defense.

3. Chandler Jones – This defensive end was drafted in the first round from Syracuse, and I expected him to ease into the defense. So far in training camp, he has been very impressive, and reportedly been a part of the starting defense. He is listed as weighing 260 pounds, but he looks like he put on some extra muscle to his frame. His build reminds me of Richard Seymour, and lets hope someday he plays like the former Patriots player.

The Patriots need a player that can get off the edge, and get after the quarterback, along with stopping the run. I will be watching Jones to see if really does have that potential that I have already seen in Training Camp.

2. Dont’a Hightower – This first round linebacker from the University of Alabama has looked like a natural already in camp. Hightower is huge for a linebacker weighing 270 pounds and being 6 feet and 4 inches tall.

I have seen him all over the field from his outside linebacker position. On one play, he came up to blow up a screen, and then the next play I watched him dropping into coverage to cover the tight end. Hightower I feel looks like the player that Coach Belichick hoped Adalius Thomas would be a few years ago.

You can see his versatility, but he has something that I think the Pats defense has been missing, and that is a mean streak. I will be watching him closely against the Saints to see if he has that nastiness.

1. Steve Gregory - I have been very critical of this nine year safety from Syracuse. I have watched his entire career, and I am not convinced he is the answer at safety. He is an aggressive player that can hit like Rodney Harrison, but takes bad angles to the receiver like Brandon Meriweather.

Reports so far in camp have been very positive on Gregory as he has thrown himself into the playbook, and so far has played well. Reportedly, he has been partnered with Chung at safety on the starting defense mostly in camp.

I will give Gregory a chance to prove me wrong, and will certainly be watching him against the Saints. He is definitely the Patriots player I will be watching the closest.

Well, those are ten players that I will certainly be focused on in this game against the Saints. I will follow up this article with a review of how these players fared in the first pre-season game of the season.

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