Ten things to watch in Pats-Saints

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots host the New Orleans Saints in both teams' preseason opener Thursday at Gillette Stadium, and here are 10 areas to monitor from a Patriots perspective:

1. Wes Welker's participation. The recovering wide receiver fully participated in joint practices with the Saints on Tuesday and Wednesday, opening the possibility that he suits up for the preseason opener. The Patriots have not had live tackling in practice, other than at the goal-line, so if Welker suits up for the preseason opener it would mark another step in his progression. Bill Belichick was noncommittal Wednesday when asked if Welker will play.

2. Tom Brady's playing time. In last year's preseason opener, Patriots starters played into the second quarter, and Brady finished 10 of 15 for 100 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. Some have speculated that Brady might not want to see extended time on the field until his contract situation is resolved because of the possibility of injury, but there has been no indication from Brady himself that this is the case.

3. Brandon Spikes in the middle. The late-second-round draft choice was moved into the starting lineup on the fourth day of training camp when Gary Guyton was sidelined with a knee injury and has been there since. He's a big presence next to Jerod Mayo, and Belichick seems intrigued by his instincts and feel for the game. Mayo also likes what he sees, but cautioned not to read too much into things at this point. "He's a good player. I knew that when he was at Florida and I was at Tennessee," Mayo said. "He's stepped in and done a nice job so far, but we haven't really done too much. Ask me that question after some games."

4. Where is the pass rush coming from? Because making contact with quarterbacks is off limits in training camp, it's been difficult to gauge the team's pass rush. Second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham and five-year veteran Rob Ninkovich have shown explosiveness at times in complementing Tully Banta-Cain at outside linebacker. But does that show up in the game?

5. Strength of depleted offensive and defensive lines. The Patriots have taken some big hits at the line of scrimmage, working without Logan Mankins (contract standoff), Nick Kaczur (back) and Ty Warren (hip). That's a lot of power, consistency and toughness to account for. Five-year veteran Dan Connolly will start at left guard, while veterans Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis are key players to watch early at defensive end.

6. Tight ends in the red zone. Rookie Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez haven't missed a training camp practice and they have been a major part of the team's red-zone and goal-line work. Hernandez, the team's impressive fourth-round draft choice, looks like he is in position for a major offensive role this season.

7. Brandon Tate off the jam. The second-year receiver has gotten the majority of opportunities as the No. 3 receiver alongside Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Working mostly with free releases on the line of scrimmage, he's likely to see his first test on Thursday when potentially facing consistent jams at the line of scrimmage. How Tate does getting off the jam, which is a key for any receiver, should provide a better indication of how he could help the team.

8. Young cornerbacks face big test. Veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden isn't expected to play, so it's likely that second-year man Darius Butler and 2010 first-round draft choice Devin McCourty are the starters. Butler said Wednesday that the game is slowing down for him, which is often the case for players making the jump from their rookie to second season. The tests don't get much tougher than what that unit will see from the Saints.

9. Running back rotation. The last few days have started to provide some clarity as to the running back pecking order, with veteran Fred Taylor the first to take repetitions. Assuming the Patriots want to get their top backs a few carries, the rotation in which they play should provide a snapshot of how the coaching staff views the complete depth chart.

10. Improvements in the return game. Special-teams coach Scott O'Brien said he's looking for better results from the kickoff return unit, where Brandon Tate is the primary returner. Receivers Julian Edelman and Taylor Price, and cornerback Devin McCourty have also been back as return men. On punts, Edelman is the primary option, with Tate and Price also in the mix.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.