Patriots OTAs Preview: Jimmy Garoppolo, Justin Jones Rookies To Watch

Jimmy GaroppoloFormer New England Patriots tight end Zach Sudfeld was the star of 2013 organized team activities, which shows both how valuable and overblown that first glimpse at a new team can be in OTAs.

Sudfeld continued to shine through training camp and the preseason, but once the regular season rolled around, the undrafted tight end burnt out quickly and appeared to lose confidence every time he took the field. I was among the Patriots beat writers heaping praise on Sudfeld too early in OTAs, and one of my goals this spring is to keep expectations — especially for young players — in check.

If a player stands out, NESN.com will point him out in our practice reports, but we’ll wait to start writing up his 2035 induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame.

Check out the biggest story lines we’ll be focused on during media availability May 30 and June 5 and 12 — OTAs are not open to the public.

1. Who takes the field?

The Patriots have some key players still recovering from injuries suffered during the 2013 season, including running back Shane Vereen (wrist), wide receiver Aaron Dobson (foot), tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee), defensive tackle Armond Armstead (unknown infection), rookie defensive tackle Dominique Easley (knee), defensive tackles Tommy Kelly (knee) and Vince Wilfork (Achilles), defensive end Will Smith (knee) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (pectoral).

We’ll be monitoring whether those nine players take the practice field Friday, and if any Patriots decide not to attend — like Brandon Spikes in 2013 — or still are recovering from unknown injuries or surgeries.

Vereen, Armstead, Easley and Mayo are expected to practice, while Dobson, Gronkowski, Kelly and Wilfork are not.

2. Where are they lining up?

The first player we’re focusing on will be second-year defensive back Logan Ryan, who could play cornerback and/or safety during OTAs. If Ryan takes the majority of his snaps at safety — he played cornerback in 2013 — it means he likely is competing for a starting role with fellow Rutgers product Duron Harmon.

We also will monitor which players have made the initial “first team,” whether the Patriots’ defense is lining up in a 3-4 or 4-3 and how the linebackers are being aligned with last year’s starting middle linebacker Spikes gone and Mayo back.

3. Who progressed?

OTAs always are important for second- and third-year players. Ryan and Harmon could earn starting roles in the Patriots’ secondary, and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has a chance to leapfrog Dobson, since the former second-round draft pick is dealing with an injury. The Patriots could be counting on defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Steve Beauharnais to serve as important depth on defense. Buchanan would benefit from going into the 2014 season with some added weight and strength.

4. Which rookie looks best?

This category should include first-year players Mark Harrison and Armond Armstead, as well, since both missed the entire 2013 season with injuries. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will get plenty of press behind Tom Brady and Ryan Mallett, but wide receiver Jeremy Gallon and defensive back Jemea Thomas also will have a chance to shine in unpadded practices.

There is typically one undrafted player who stands out during OTAs — like the aforementioned Sudfeld last year. Tight end Justin Jones — all 6-foot-8, 277 pounds of him — will be exciting to watch, especially in a depleted tight end corps.

5. Who wins the 1-on-1 battles?

Some of the most entertaining battles during OTAs are between cornerbacks and wide receivers, due to the unpadded nature of the practices — they wear helmets, blank jerseys and shorts. Darrelle Revis obviously is the player to watch in this category, since it will be notable when (or if) a receiver can beat him.

Fellow free-agent signing Brandon Browner (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) also will be fun to watch. He certainly will give the Patriots’ undersized receivers a physical challenge.