The New England Patriots are set to take the field for the first time in 10 days, as they will host the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night for their second of four preseason games (8 p.m., ESPN). The game signals the beginning of a whirlwind stretch in which the team will play its final three exhibition games in 10 days, and also will travel to Tampa Bay for joint practice with the Buccaneers.
Here are five things we'll be watching for at Gillette Stadium:
1. Roster management. No matter the opponent, roster management is always a storyline to monitor during preseason action. Specifically, how much Bill Belichick will opt to play his projected starters, including quarterback Tom Brady, receiver Brandon Lloyd and tight end Rob Gronkowski, whom we saw working on a field separate from their teammates for much of Friday's practice. Those three are just a sampling of the many players whose snaps we will be keeping a close eye on, as it is also possible that both guard Logan Mankins and linebacker Brandon Spikes will make their preseason debuts.
These games undoubtedly are important for the team, particularly as evaluative tools to help study the 89-man roster, as well as to practice the many components thus far installed into the playbook. But they're also important for coaches to be mindful of the bigger picture, and that may lead Belichick to send some of the aforementioned players to the sideline early to help ensure that they enter the regular season in tip-top physical form.
2. The offensive line. The Patriots' offensive line endured ups and downs in the preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints and has been a work in progress throughout training camp, assimilating new bodies into the mix and shuffling players around to various positions. The task doesn't grow any easier against the Eagles, who have a tremendously fast defensive line that can apply pressure in a variety of ways. The Eagles are known for sending their defensive ends flying around the corner from their "Wide 9" alignment, and the Patriots' offensive tackles will have to be ready to get depth in their kick steps to prevent those players from turning the corner and attacking the quarterback.
The potential of Mankins playing is a positive for the Patriots, as despite the fact he has been back for just a few days on the practice field, he's already had moments of very good play during practice. With the Patriots particularly thin at the tackle spot, it'll be interesting to see how long Marcus Cannon -- the team's starter on the right side with Sebastian Vollmer having opened camp on the PUP list -- stays on the field.
3. Can the defense keep it up? Keeping the Saints out of the end zone -- even in the preseason -- is an accomplishment, and that's what the Patriots were able to do last Thursday night. They've followed up that performance with a week of practice that featured the defense flying around and causing havoc for Brady and his offense, including a number of interceptions. The test it will face in the Eagles is different than what the defense has seen before, as Michael Vick adds an element of elusiveness from the quarterback position that can prove lethal on any snap.
The Patriots seem to be coming together on all three levels of the defense, as the line has been able to generate pressure, the linebackers look cohesive and the secondary has generated a number of plays. Of course, all this momentum will matter more if the Patriots can yield defensive results on the field, and Monday night is another opportunity to make that happen.
4. Will recent injuries create opportunities? Recent injuries to receiver Jabar Gaffney, running back Stevan Ridley and safety Tavon Wilson leave each in doubt of playing on Monday night, which should open the door for others to receive increased reps.
In replacing Gaffney, the Patriots have a number of options to balance the open reps, including Deion Branch, Donte' Stallworth, Julian Edelman and Jeremy Ebert. Gaffney, Stallworth and Branch could be vying for two roster spots, which makes every rep count. If Ridley is out, that likely means a heavier load for both Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Vereen has come on strong recently and could further drive himself up the running back depth chart. (Recent signee Jeff Demps will not be eligible to play, as he must adhere to a three-day acclimation rule). And with Wilson out, fellow rookie safety Nate Ebner could pick up reps, perhaps in the Patriots' starting sub defense. If he's shown one thing in training camp, it's that he has ball skills, highlighted by his recent two-interception practice.
5. Names of note. As is the case with every preseason game, there will be a number of individuals worth watching, and my list begins with Chandler Jones. It's still so early in his career -- he hasn't even played a regular-season snap -- but Jones has impressed in a number of ways thus far. The Eagles lost starting left tackle Jason Peters this offseason to an Achilles injury, then poached Demetress Bell on the free-agent market for big money. Bell has already been bypassed on the depth chart by King Dunlap, whose towering 6-foot-9 frame mirrors that of Nate Solder. Looking forward to the Jones-Dunlap battle.
Another player to keep an eye on is Ryan Wendell. Wendell may have been viewed by some as an unlikely candidate to emerge in the starting center race, but he's certainly in the thick of it, especially if Dan Connolly remains at guard in Brian Waters' absence. The Eagles' talented defensive front will put Wendell to the test.
And finally, first-round pick Dont'a Hightower. Hightower seems to be growing more comfortable by the day. Although he hasn't generated quite the same buzz as Jones in camp, he projects to play an important role in 2012.