by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

After a long, shaky off-season full of hope – as in I hope this year is better than last – Patriots fans get treated to a friendly vs. the team they rooted for in the Super Bowl, aka Not The Colts.

With the much-ballyhooed retirement of past Pats heroes and two dozen rookies selected in the last two drafts, we’ve decided to focus our worries on the newer New Englanders (following Bruce Allen’s lead in this post). Most have never been in an NFL game before, so whatever positives they can manage Thursday night will go a long way toward placating the Foxboro faithful.

Who dat trying to beat dem Saints? We’re trying to figure dat out for ourselves.

A Thin Line Between Love And Tate: After a season lost to injury, second-year receiver Brandon Tate has one end-around play in his NFL résumé. Though his athletic talent has never been questioned, his route-running discipline has. Will he line up opposite Randy Moss this week? Will he add some much-needed zip to the Pats’ lackluster return game? He has the potential of a box of tinder. Here’s hoping he can provide the spark.

Does Spikes Have A Need For Speed?

Put On Your Spikes: New England fans should never complain about scouts paying too much attention to 40-yard dash times. Otherwise, rookie linebacker Brandon Spikes never would have slipped to the second round due to his glacial 5.04-second run. Rather than raw speed, Spikes relies on preparation to get to where the ball carrier is (or wants to be). Still, his less-than-Mercurial feet could betray him vs. the passing game. Which brings up the following…

Big Mac With Mayo? He missed last year after a knee injury, but – as he predicted in his PD interview this springTyrone McKenzie has shown few ill effects during training camp. With Gary Guyton’s recent injury, both Spikes and McKenzie will vie for the spot next to Jerod Mayo. Will Spikes take running downs with McKenzie as the third-down guy? Will that cramp the defense’s style? Thursday night’s faceoff against the multi-faceted Saints offense might provide a clue.

Hi Price: More praise for the Pats’ college scouts. While tucked away in an Ohio offense about as productive as a broken toaster, Taylor Price got few opportunities to show what he could do. He’s gotten high grades in practice thus far, but will he prove worthy of a third-round pick?

Order In McCourty: Speaking of picks, how are we feeling about the Pats’ numero uno? Devin McCourty was welcomed to New England with a region-wide hush that spoke volumes (see our draft recap here). Here’s his first chance to prove that he’s a keeper beyond special teams and that he can get himself into the rotation at cornerback.

A Means To Some Ends: The Patriots’ tight end situation felt like your same old winter coat: unspectacular, but fine. Really, it had gotten to the point where you didn’t think about it much. Rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski could become the upgrade you didn’t realize you needed, making the tight end position a potent receiving (and red zone) threat for the first time in years. Embrace the warmth.

The Jermaine Topic: Barring a big free agent signing or a sudden surge in Derrick Burgess’ enthusiasm, rookie Jermaine Cunningham looks like the answer (or at least one answer) at pass-rushing outside linebacker. Watching a replay of last year’s SEC championship game, the then-Florida defensive end had a hard time setting the edge against Alabama’s tackles. How he holds up on early downs – and what kind of pressure he can provide on third down – will help determine the angle of Cunningham’s learning curve.

Another Fine Mesko: If punter Zoltan Mesko displays a consistent foot Thursday night, expect the numbers to rise on his Facebook fan club. Enough said.

Over the past two years, New England has gotten the infusion of youth that fans have been asking for. Thursday night’s a preview of how – or if – it’s going to come together this season.

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