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NFL Preseason Week 1: Five New England Patriots Storylines to Monitor vs. Philadelphia Eagles

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COMMENTARY | After two weeks of training camp and three days of joint practices, the New England Patriots are set to kick off the 2013 NFL preseason Friday, Aug. 9 versus the Philadelphia Eagles.

The final score won't hold much weight, but the performance of the players -- from an execution and fundamentals standpoint -- certainly will. Because once September rolls around, each team's 90-man roster will be sculpted down to 53 men.

Players are striving for jobs and roles; coaches are striving to put the best personnel on the field. And when collaborated, those forces create some storylines worth monitoring.

Here are five Patriots-centric variables to watch for once the 7:30 p.m. ET tilt gets underway at Lincoln Financial Field:

A Young Trio of Wide Receivers

There's a wide receiver free-for-all brewing across from free-agent acquisition Danny Amendola. And it's filled with youth.

Rookie second-round draft pick Aaron Dobson may be a bit of a long-strider, which affects his route-running in small spaces. But his ability to box out defensive backs and extend his 33-inch arms for difficult catches will draw awe from spectators. With that upside, the 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound Marshall product finds himself in consideration for significant playing time at the "X" receiver position.

Rookie fourth-round draft pick Josh Boyce is in a different mold than Dobson. A 5-11, 205-pounder, Boyce is concise in his footwork and possesses game-breaker speed -- he ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and clocked a 6.68-second three-cone time at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Whether he's aligned the "Z" position off the line or the in slot, Boyce has a shown a prowess for making plays after the catch. In turn, the Texas Christian Horned Frog could find himself making an immediate impact.

One man who has garnered a lot of attention through the early part of training camp is undrafted Cincinnati Bearcat Kenbrell Thompkins. A 6-0, 195-pound, 25-year-old, Thompkins has impressed with his consistency in practices. He has kept his feet moving through his breaks and has caught most of the passes thrown his way. Thompkins doesn't have burner speed or tremendous size, but he knows how to get open. With a well-rounded skill set, Thompkins is no longer a long shot to make New England's final roster. Right now, he's in contention with Dobson and Boyce.

These three rookie wideouts have put themselves in good positioning thus far. They will have to continue to stand out over the likes of veteran Michael Jenkins, slot target Julian Edelman and impressive third-year receiver Kamar Aiken. The matchup against Philadelphia will be their next venue to do so.

The Performance of Tight End Zach Sudfeld

With the status of Rob Gronkowski uncertain, the first preseason game against the Eagles will serve as an opportunity for New England's tight end depth to materialize. The group includes reliable blockers Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, as well as former New York Giant Jake Ballard and undrafted Clemson "Joker" tight end Brandon Ford.

Yet there is another tight end in the fold who's expected to get a lot of looks. His name is Zach Sudfeld.

Undrafted out of Nevada -- where he spent six years due to a slew of injuries -- Sudfeld stood apart during organized team activities, mini-camp and the early portion of training camp. At 6-7, 260 pounds with surprising downfield receiving ability, the 24-year-old rookie could be an viable void-filler at tight end for the Patriots. In Nevada's Pistol offense, Sudfeld lined up in-line, off-line and at H-back, and was even a Mackey Award semifinalist in 2012. A strong game against the Eagles could very well separate him from the pack.

Looking for Answers at the Right Guard Spot

Over the last couple seasons, Dan Connolly has donned the title of starting right guard for New England. But to this point in camp, Connolly has been limited in practices. And other right guard suitors, including converted offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, have also missed some time.

The 30-year-old Connolly and the 2011 draft choice Cannon are in competition for the starting right guard spot. Last season, Connolly graded out as the 29th-best guard in the league, according to Pro Football Focus' premium statistics. In contrast, Cannon played only 12 snaps as a guard last season but played 166 snaps at tackle, where he ranked 41st.

Who will see the most extensive work at right guard versus the Eagles? It will be interesting to see how the chain of command pans out.

The Utilization of Linebacker Jamie Collins

New England's first selection in April's draft came in the form of Southern Mississippi "Bandit" defensive end/outside linebacker Jamie Collins. A former high school quarterback and a onetime safety, the 6-3, 250-pound Collins brings a unique blend of size, speed and strength to Foxborough, Mass.

With those sought-after qualities, the second-round rookie has seen time all over New England's front seven during camp. As Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald noted, Collins has played as an outside linebacker in both 3-4 and 4-3 bases for the Patriots. He has even been rewarded with some first-team reps alongside either Jerod Mayo or Dont'a Hightower at linebacker in the nickel defense.

Collins is well versed in rushing the passer off the edge, but he's also more than capable of dropping back in coverage to make stops. Keep an eye on how defensive coordinator Matt Patricia implements him opposite the Eagles' offense.

Keeping Tabs on the Starting Strong Safety Battle

Strong safety is one of the most intriguing areas of New England's roster. It's an area that's both experienced and inexperienced. And right now, the jury is still out on who the starter will be.

Five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson has journeyed east from the Arizona Cardinals and packed his 13 years of NFL knowledge along with him. The 33-year-old is massive for a defensive back. In fact, he's easy to mistake for a linebacker in the secondary at 6-3, 230 pounds. With that said, his build might make him more of an in-the-box safety than a deep safety for the Patriots. However, he does appear to be a good fit in regards to enforcing the run and shading tight ends.

Neck and neck with Wilson is the 30-year-old Steve Gregory. The ex-San Diego Charger got the nod in all 12 regular-season games he played in last year, but looks more like a prototypical free safety at 5-11, 200 pounds. Gregory has been on the field for a lot of first-team action early in camp. So there's a chance he could retain his responsibilities from a year ago next to Devin McCourty.

On the opposite end of the experience spectrum is Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon. A 2012 second-round pick and a 2013 third-round pick, respectively, Wilson and Harmon are still in the developing phase of their football careers. Per Mike Reiss of, the second-year Wilson has conceded some snaps to the rookie Harmon of late. And that's a little concerning, seeing how Wilson carved a niche as the "Money" defensive back in the dime package last year.

The starting strong safety audition seems to be a four-man race at this juncture. The contest against Philadelphia should shine some light as to how the depth chart is taking shape.

Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for His work has been featured on,,, and

You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.

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