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Tom Brady (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Tom Brady (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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New England Patriots

BOSTON (CBS) - The New England Patriots get their preseason schedule underway Thursday night, hosting the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium.

Sure, it’s only preseason. But there are plenty of story lines to keep an eye on with the regular season just one month away. Here are four to watch for Thursday night:

How Much Of The Starters?

Last year, Tom Brady didn’t play a single down in the Patriots’ preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Neither did Wes Welker or Rob Gronkowski.

This year, they might actually see some time in their first game since the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. After tonight’s game, the Patriots won’t play again for another 10 days. Then they’ll play three games in 10 days, including two in four days.

Still, don’t expect much out of Brady, Welker, or Brandon Lloyd Thursday night (especially Brady, with the Patriots offensive line mostly injured). They will likely see the field for one drive, if that. Expect plenty of both Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett under center. This will be a big preseason for Hoyer, who is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

A few starters you can expect to see are Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez given the Patriots’ current shortage at tight end. Keep an eye on Gronk (not that you wouldn’t be) with him returning from his ankle injury suffered in the AFC Championship game.

The Rookies

With two first-round picks in the NFL draft, the Patriots gave their defense a youthful boost in defensive lineman Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. There has been high praise of both coming out of camp, and now they’ll get their chance to show it in game action.

Both have seen a lot of time with the first defense in camp, and have high expectations heading into the season. Thursday night will be the time to see if their work in camp translates over to the field. Both will get plenty of playing time, and should give fans a glimpse of what to expect come September 9 in Tennessee.

Not to be forgotten are rookies Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard, who were both taken to help a Patriots secondary that struggled in 2011. Both should see a ton of action Thursday night against the pass-happy Saints.

Running Backs

While it appears Stevan Ridley will be the starter when the regular season comes around, there is still plenty to prove for the Pats’ young running backs. Ridley had some fumble issues as last season came to a close, but has said he is feeling a lot more comfortable out with the first team.

Shane Vereen lost most of last season to injury, so this preseason will be big for the second-year back. The 2011 second-round pick has much to prove, with Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead also battling for snaps out of the backfield.

Kick Returns

The Patriots returned just one kick for a touchdown in 2011. Now it’s an open competition in regards who returns kicks in 2012.

Julian Edelman, Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead are all options, and Donte Stallworth has also taken reps as a kick returner during training camp.

While it seems as though Edelman is a lock to keep returning punts, the Patriots will be employing a variety of returners on kickoffs. We’ll see if any of them can improve from last season’s special teams production.

Tune in to Patriots-Saints on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV at 7:30 pm. Pregame coverage begins on the Hub at 4pm, with a special Patriots Pregame on WBZ-TV at 7 pm. Following the game, stay tuned to both 98.5 and WBZ-TV for all the postgame reaction and analysis!

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