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Five Players to Watch During the New England Patriots Preseason Opener

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The New England Patriots open up their preseason against the Washington Redskins Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. While the results in the preseason are about as important as they are in the NBA regular season, it's still fun to watch the rookies, newcomers and the position battles over the course of the four games. Malcolm Butler made a name for himself with his play during the preseason a few years ago, and we all know how that turned out. It's impossible to predict who is going to play and how much they will play, but below are five guys worth watching Thursday night, if and when they're out there. 

1. Jeremy Hill - RB

With the injury to Sony Michel, the door has swung open for Hill. A guy who may have been on the outside looking in as far as making the roster before, now has an opportunity to be the starting running back, or at least get some meaningful carries in the regular season. While James White will have a large role in this offense, it will primarily be in the passing game. The carries are likely to go to Hill or Rex Burkhead. Hill had some strong years with the Cincinnati Bengals; although last year was not one of them. He recorded 29 TDs and averaged over 900 yards in his first three years with the Bengals. The ability is there. The Patriots know what Burkhead can bring to the table, so the preseason will be more about Hill. On Thursday we should get a good idea of where Hill is at based on when he's on the field, who he's on the field with and oh yeah, how he performs when he's out there. 

2. Jacob Hollister - TE 

Hollister has built up a lot of momentum this camp. He has looked sharp, and appears to be establishing some type of rapport with Tom Brady. Hollister turned heads during the preseason last year where as a rookie, he caught 12 passes for nearly 150 yards and one touchdown. He appeared in 15 of 16 regular season games last year, but caught just 4 passes on 11 targets. The second TE spot is certainly up for grabs. While Dwayne Allen was tremendous as a blocker last year, he left much to be desired as a pass catcher. Let's see if Hollister can emerge as another legitimate receiving tight end. If so, he could help fill the void left by Edelman in the first four weeks.

3. Duke Dawson - CB

The Patriots have had a difficult time drafting defensive backs over the years, even more so in the early rounds. Picks have included guys like Tavon Wilson, Ras-I Dowling, Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, and the list goes on. I'm not ready to close the door on Cyrus Jones yet, but his first two seasons have been underwhelming. With that being said, none of it stopped the team from selecting Dawson in the second round this past April. A versatile corner, Dawson projects to line up in the slot for the most part. As a rookie, that can be a tall task in today's NFL. 

4. Derek Rivers - DE 

Rivers is going to be eager to get back on the field. After a strong few months, his rookie season came to an abrupt halt when he tore his ACL in early August last year. Pass rush has been a major weakness for the Patriots defense in recent years, and Rivers could play a major role in improving it. The team had high hopes for the third-round pick before his season-ending injury last year. He's been compared to Willie McGinest, which would be a welcome addition to this defense. All reports indicate that he is now healthy and ready to get back on the field. Though he may be healthy, the Patriots still may want to ease him back into things. He may get limited reps against the Redskins, but he'll be worth watching when he's out there. 

5. Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn - OT

These two will be fun to watch all preseason long. This competition is one of, if not the most important of the Patriots offseason. Brown is just an enormous human being so watching somebody his size on the football field will be a real treat. He seems to have the upper hand in the battle to replace Nate Solder as the starting left tackle, as he has gotten rave reviews from both teammates and media during camp. If he's been as impressive as the reports have indicated, he may see very few snaps against the Redskins.

As a rookie, and first round pick, I would expect Wynn to see a lot of action on Thursday. I think the Patriots surprised some people by selecting Wynn, mainly because he projected as a guard to most scouts, but the Patriots view him as a tackle. There's some versatility there, which the Patriots and Bill Belichick covet. The only thing Belichick loves more than versatility is lacrosse. As a first round pick, Wynn comes with some high expectations. Linemen play isn't the most exciting thing to watch, but these two are worth keeping an eye on against the Redskins and beyond.

Follow me on Twitter - @mcvay34

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