By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — We have to wait another month for real football to return to Gillette Stadium, but Thursday night will give us our first glimpse of the 2018 New England Patriots.

Chances are that glimpse won’t include Tom Brady. Or Rob Gronkowski. Or Julian Edelman. Or Dont’a Hightower. Or Stephon Gimore. Or [insert just about every starter’s name here]. So get ready for a lot of Brian Hoyer to Riley McCarron and Jacob Hollister as the Patriots kick off their preseason against the Washington Redskins. After all, those are the players the preseason is really for; those who are trying to make the team, or in Hoyer’s case, sneak in some playing time before holding a clipboard for 16+ games.

But any way you cut it, football is upon us. Those real games are just a short four weeks away and these exhibition games will help establish the New England roster for the 2018 season.  It may not be pretty, and it may not be entertaining, but it’s an important part of the process.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots take their home field for the first time in six months.

The Rookies

Sony Michel was the big name from this rookie class, but he will not be playing this preseason due to an knee injury. But the Patriots have no shortage of 20-somethings to keep an eye on throughout these four pretend games.

Isaiah Wynn was the first player the Patriots drafted, and he has a shot to be starting along the offensive line with a strong August. Trent Brown will likely be protecting Tom Brady’s blind side when the regular season kicks off, but Wynn could force Bill Belichick’s and Dante Scarnecchia’s hand to put him elsewhere along the line thanks to his versatility. Thursday night, Wynn will likely find himself protecting fellow rookie Danny Etling, the quarterback the Patriots drafted out of LSU in the seventh round. He’s probably not Brady’s future successor under center, but a rookie quarterback is always worth monitoring during what will hopefully be his only playing time in 2018. He even has a fellow rookie to throw to in receiver Braxton Berrios, a sixth-round pick out of Miami, who heads into his first game as a Patriots with hopes of making an early impact during Edelman’s suspension.

The most intriguing rookies are on the defensive side. Cornerback Duke Dawson should get plenty of run this preseason, a second-round pick who appears to be New England’s third corner in their nickel package. We’ll also be keeping an eye on corners Keion Crossen (drafted in the seventh round out of Western Carolina) and JC Jackson (undrafted out of Maryland), who both have a shot at making the team following strong showings in training camp. They’ll need to keep building those resumes throughout the preseason.

If you’re worried about the Patriots’ depth at linebacker, you’re not alone. So it will be interesting to see what Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam can do this preseason. Bentley, a fifth-round pick out of Purdue, is a hard hitter, but he’ll have to show a solid all-around game if he wants to beat out Elandon Roberts as the team’s third linebacker.

The Other Guys

While Rex Burkhead, James White and Michel (when healthy) should lead the way in the offensive backfield, there’s intrigue at the running back position this preseason as Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill battle for a roster spot. One of those two veterans will likely be looking for a new team come September, and the preseason will go a long way in determining who that will be.

At receiver, we’ll see if veteran Eric Decker gets any run, or if he’ll wait until Brady joins the fun either next week or in two weeks down in Carolina.

We may also get our fist look at Derek Rivers since the defensive end tore his ACL last preseason. Rivers was a monster pass rusher in college and it will be fascinating to see what he can do in game action — even if it is just preseason.

Punts

Who is exactly going to return punts for the Patriots this season? Danny Amendola is enjoying life in South Beach while Julian Edelman shouldn’t be allowed near a punt return for the rest of his playing days. It’s just not worth the risk for the Patriots and their No. 1 receiver.

Patrick Chung, Chris Hogan, rookie Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron are all candidates, and Burkhead was even getting a few chances at practice the last few days. It will be interesting to see how many different players get the honor on Thursday night.

And while we’re talking about punts, we also have a punter battle to feast on this preseason. Rookie Corey Bojorquez is trying to unseat incumbent booter Ryan Allen, much like Allen did to Zoltan Mesko six years ago. Allen is heading into the final year of his contract, but his job is in jeopardy with Bojorquez’s booming left leg turning heads in training camp.

Even if nothing else about the preseason interests you, it’s nearly impossible not to get fired up about a punter battle.

The New Helmet-To-Helmet Rule

Does anyone know what is going on with this new helmet-to-helmet rule? The refs? The players? The coaches? The experts in recliners?

The new rule in place says it will be a 15-yard penalty if a player “lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” They can also be ejected for the infraction.

Basically, defensive backs will get penalized for having a head and using it to lay a hit on their opponent. The goal is to eliminate needless helmet-to-helmet hits that could lead to horrific results for the player on the receiving end.

Referees have been going around to training camps throughout the country to explain the nuts and bolts of the new rule, but it’s going to take players time to get away from their old way of doing things. It’s going to be a learning process for all involved. The biggest concern is consistency; from play-to-play and game-to-game. It’s going to be chaos for the first few weeks, and potentially beyond. But the preseason is when you should expect to see a whole lot of yellow flags hit the field.

That will frustrate every party. Players will get mad for being penalized for doing something they’ve always been allowed to do. Coaches will get mad because that’s what they’re paid to do. Fans will get mad because in-game huddles and 6-minute discussions by refs will increase by an estimated 3,250 percent, slowing down the game even more. Officials will get mad because everyone will be mad at them.

The groans will be loud and the online memes will be relentless. No one is going to be happy. But most are never happy anyways, so how is this any different? Chances are we’re all just overreacting about this anyways.

Welcome back, football.

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