Status of Patriots' Malcolm Mitchell becomes big story in win over Saints

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t implode in Thursday's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, nor did he steal the show in playing 40 first-half snaps while finishing 11-of-18 for 168 yards. The most impressive offensive player for the Patriots in their 34-22 win was rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell (fourth round, Georgia), but he left the game late in the first half with a left arm/elbow injury that had him rushing to the locker room with a member of the team’s medical staff holding his arm close to his body. Mitchell was clearly in pain.

Maybe that player could start: Mitchell was the Patriots’ best receiver, as he continued to separate from his primary competition, Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper and Nate Washington. His speed, route-running and dependable hands stood out as he was positioning himself to join Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan atop the depth chart. The severity of his left arm/elbow injury becomes a significant story for the Patriots.

Ups and downs for Garoppolo: The third-year quarterback started slow (3-of-7 for 33 yards) before closing with eight completions on his final 11 attempts. His 56-yard screen pass to running back James White was perfectly executed as he drew the defense in before delivering an on-the-mark pass. He later threw an ill-advised pass over the middle that easily could have been intercepted, which reflected how there were some good teaching points for him to digest in the game.

Filling the Ninkovich void: With starting defensive end Rob Ninkovich (torn triceps) sidelined, the Patriots had veteran Chris Long start in his place. Then in the second half, defensive end Trey Flowers strip-sacked quarterback Luke McCown and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown. The 2015 fourth-round draft choice from Arkansas had sacked Aaron Rodgers in the 2015 preseason opener but injured his shoulder in the game and later landed on injured reserve after playing in just one regular-season game. He could be a bigger factor this year with Ninkovich sidelined at least four to six weeks.

One reason to be concerned: The revamped offensive line -- which opened with left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason, and right tackle Marcus Cannon -- didn’t have a decisive debut. Solder, in particular, had a challenging return after missing 12 games last season because of a torn biceps.

When it was starters vs. starters, the Patriots looked …: Defensively, linebacker Jamie Collins was impressive, with his 43-yard interception return for a touchdown leading off the scoring. Collins and fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower played 23 snaps apiece, which was a good start for them as the Patriots had not practiced live tackling through 12 training camp practices.

A surprise player who impressed: Undrafted cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc’s one-handed interception in the end zone midway through the third quarter was a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight play. The Florida Atlantic alum is a long shot for a roster spot, but with plays like that it’s hard not to take notice.

Bennett’s heavy workload: With tight end Rob Gronkowski dressed but not playing, it left Martellus Bennett as the team’s top option at the position. He played 37 snaps, which was a significant workload as he got his feet wet in the team’s offense. He finished with three catches for 33 yards.

QB depth chart: Tom Brady didn’t play, as he was excused from the team to attend memorial services for a family member. The difference between backups Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett was significant, as Garoppolo is the clear No. 2.

Who got hurt? Outside of Mitchell, the Patriots appeared to come out of the game clean.