COMMENTARY| The 2013 season for the New England Patriots will kick off on September 8 when they play divisional rival Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park. The first game is always a litmus test to ease or increase fan anxiety about their teams, so individual performances are scrutinized particularly closely.
The Patriots experienced a good deal of turnover this past offseason, losing veteran stars Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez among others. The team has traditionally dealt well with such situations, so the hope is that this season won't be any different. Buffalo will be the first chance to see which players may take a step forward or disappoint in 2013.
Here are five New England players to watch in Week 1 against the Bills:
Quarterback Tom Brady: The veteran signal caller welcomes back just one receiver (Julian Edelman) who was with the team last year. Additionally, Rob Gronkowski, his star tight end, is still working his way back from offseason surgeries.
Brady, who has passed for 18,360 yards and 137 touchdowns against just 37 interceptions over the past four seasons, should be fine. However, it's worth keeping an eye out if he has any difficulty developing chemistry with so many new receivers. If the preseason was any indication (34-of-44 passing for 357 yards and two scores), the transition may be seamless.
Brady has always enjoyed facing Buffalo. The 5,407 passing yards and 51 touchdowns he has in 22 career regular-season games are the most he has against any one team.
As the 36-year-old nears the end of his Hall-of-Fame career, he is bound to start slowing down at some point. It just doesn't seem like it will be this year.
Wide Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins: Undrafted out of the University of Cincinnati, the rookie came out of nowhere to nab a starting spot across from Danny Amendola. Despite just four touchdowns as a Bearcat, the 25-year-old showed enough to catch the eye of the Patriots.
Thompkins rewarded the team by having a stand-out preseason. He appears to have already leapfrogged fellow rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce on the New England receiver depth chart.
It's one thing to win a job and it's something entirely different to keep it. Thompkins will have to prove his huge jump from an unheralded college player to an NFL starter isn't a fluke.
According to the Buffalo News' Jay Skurski, the Bills' secondary ended the preseason on a down note. Thompkins' ability to exploit any weaknesses could go a long way in solidifying his starting role.
Punter Ryan Allen: The undrafted rookie surprised many by unseating popular veteran Zoltan Mesko to win the job this preseason.
With a big leg that allowed him to twice win the Ray Guy Award for the best punter in college while with Louisiana Tech, Allen can boom the ball. However, the untested youngster will also have to contend with directional kicking, trying to pin the ball inside the 20 and acting as holder for placekicker Stephen Gostkowski.
There is sure to be growing pains but hopefully they won't all materialize at once and prove costly to the Patriots.
Defensive End Chandler Jones: After posting six sacks (all in the first eight games) during an uneven rookie season last year, the 23-year-old is looking to break out in 2013.
Conditions could be ripe for him to have a big game against Buffalo, as they are expected to start a rookie quarterback.
Additionally, SB Nation's Kenneth Arthur reported the team wasn't exactly pleased with their offensive line this preseason.
As the Patriots' top pass-rushing option, Jones will need to be a lot more consistent if he is going to establish himself as a threat. He won't get opportunities like what may be presenting itself in Buffalo very often, so he will need to take advantage.
Tight End Rob Gronkowski: Once thought to be possibly lost for an extended period of time this season, the massive tight end is nearing a return to game action.
The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe reported Gronkowski recently returned to practicing. Although it's assumed he won't play against the Bills, he could be ready in time for the following week's game against the New York Jets.
Gronkowski is a physical specimen and shouldn't be counted out. Don't be surprised to see him on the field against Buffalo, even if it is for a limited number of plays.
Conclusion: Even though it's the first game of the season, there is a lot to look forward to against the Bills. These five players to watch in Week 1 will not only look to personally get off on the right foot, but will also help determine if the Patriots are able to pull out their first win of the year and start the season on a high note.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.
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