The teachings of Patriots preseason

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Shortly following the New England Patriots' preseason finale Thursday night, Bill Belichick was asked what he's learned about his team since training camp began in late July.

Belichick reflected on "ups and downs," saying that he liked the overall work ethic and competitiveness of the club, while adding that the players are in good condition.

Summing up his thoughts, he ended with this: "I think we're ready to go.

"I think everybody is ready to start the season next week, and we'll get on it right away. We're on to Cincinnati."

When players first reported to begin preparations for the 2010 season, there was no shortage of questions facing the team. Now that the preseason has concluded with a 20-17 loss to the New York Giants at the new Meadowlands stadium and sights are being set on the season opener against the Bengals on Sept. 12, some answers have come into focus.

1. Rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes looks like an opening-day starter next to Jerod Mayo. An injury opened the door when Gary Guyton, last season's starter, hurt his knee on the fourth day of camp. Spikes, a second-round draft choice, showed enough to keep the spot when Guyton ultimately returned. At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, he's a big presence in the middle of the defense.

2. Fred Taylor is positioned as the top running back. The Patriots will use all their backs, but it will be a surprise if it's not Taylor as the primary pure runner for the first handoff of the season. Laurence Maroney played sparingly in the preseason opener, didn't play in the second and third games, and saw his most extensive action in Thursday night's finale. If Maroney is the lead back, that would be a curious way to use him this preseason.

3. The depth on the offensive line is shaky. Even with Logan Mankins not reporting to camp and Nick Kaczur sidelined by a back injury, the first-unit offensive line hasn't missed much of a beat. But if there is one more injury, this unit could be in trouble. Backup quarterback Brian Hoyer took a beating this preseason playing behind the second-unit offensive line, and Thursday night was no exception. The backup tackle spot looks like a concern for the coaching staff.

4. The defense has question marks. While there has been little planning for games, the first-unit defense did little to inspire confidence. Questions remain whether the unit can generate enough pressure to help out one of the youngest groups of cornerbacks and safeties in the NFL, and whether the line can withstand a string of injuries that included losing starting left end Ty Warren (hip) for the season.

5. Wes Welker is ready to go. The remarkable wide receiver came back sooner than many expected. He played in the final three preseason games, setting himself up to be in the huddle when the Patriots open the season.

6. Tight ends are going to make a big impact. Veteran Alge Crumpler and rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez represent the only tight end position in the NFL that has been completely overhauled from last season. Their presence has given the Patriots' offense a new look, opening up various possibilities. After the preseason finale, Belichick gushed about Crumpler's impact, while Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) has quickly become a top red zone target and Hernandez is a chess piece who can be utilized in a variety of spots.

7. Young cornerbacks are being thrown into the fire. The Patriots project to have the youngest starting cornerback tandem in the NFL with rookie Devin McCourty and second-year player Darius Butler. In the preseason finale, both rebounded nicely after a tough performance against the Rams, showing that while they are young, they have an important trait when it comes to being an NFL cornerback: a short memory.

8. Vince Wilfork has emerged as a leader of the defense. The big nose tackle, who earned a five-year, $40 million free-agent contract, has become one of the team's primary voices. A rock in the middle of the defense, he now is positioned as a rock in a locker room that was fractured at times in 2009.

9. The offense has the potential to be one of the NFL's most explosive. With quarterback Tom Brady pulling the trigger and playmakers such as Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman as pass-catchers -- not to mention the revamped tight end spot -- opposing defenses are going to be faced with some challenging matchups.

10. They will be counting on more young players than ever before. The Patriots made 24 draft picks over the past two years, and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer -- who made the club as a rookie free agent last season -- is a 25th player. Of that group, 14 to 16 look like locks to make the team, with about 10 of them in starting or top roles. It's hard to remember another team in Belichick's tenure that was relying on so much youth.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.