Five things to watch: Patriots-Saints

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Five things to watch: Patriots-Saints

1. The Patriots figure to play Tom Brady very sparingly Thursday night. So this will be a Hoyer-Mallett production. In recent years, Bill Belichick has given one player the bulk of the work in the first game and then given most of the second game to the other. So watch for that but don't draw depth-chart conclusions from it. When Hoyer's in there, it will be important for him to build on what's been a solid start to camp. Very competent, very accurate, smart and reliable football have been the order of the day when he's under center. Mallett? Different story. His accuracy is an issue. Watch to see not only whether he completes passes, but where on his receivers he puts the ball and the difficulty of the throws.

2. We're all terrified of a fallwinter without Ed Hochuli's two-minute explanations of why additional time needs to be put on the clock. Nobody wants to miss Jerome Bioger calling a "hoading" penalty. And it won't be football season without Jeff Triplette butchering the result of a game by Columbus Day. Even scarier, though, are the devils we don't know. The replacement officials for the locked-out regulars. Thursday night, we'll get a load of their work. I will reserve smarm until after kickoff. But there's no doubt that the regular officials are rooting for their replacements to make like the football version of Lt. Frank Drebin in Naked Gun 33 13. Spoke briefly tonight with a former official. He said, Penalties and rules administration are the two biggest hurdles to clear tonight. Also, the pace of the game and being in command will be important.

3. Stevan Ridley won the early portion of camp at running back. Shane Vereen's been playing better. Watch to see if Ridley looks competent in blitz pickup. Check to see if Vereen can make some plays that signal promise.

4. Brandon Bolden figures to get a ton of reps tonight once Vereen and Ridley are put on ice. He will impress you

5. Donta Hightowers presence can free up the entire defense because of his versatility and talent. How exactly does that work? Waiting to find out myself. But I think well see a ton of five and six DB sets tonight.

Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

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Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

Malcolm Butler was one of many not spotted during OTAs on Thursday when the media got a looksee at one of the practices.

Butler wasn’t the only one. But he did stand out as a missing player who hadn’t (to my knowledge) had a surgery but did have a contract that needs addressing. Another one? Rob Gronkowski. If we really want to extend it out, throw in Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan.

This is the point where it’s important to point out that these workouts are voluntary – VAW-LUN-TERR-EEEE! Players don’t have to be there. Additionally, I’m not even sure Butler or Gronkowski (or Ryan and Harmon) weren’t at the facility. All I know is they weren’t on the field. And, per usual, nobody’s tipping his hand as to why.

But we do have this, relative to Butler. ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote Sunday that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to his contract status.” Reiss said that Butler “told teammates and friends he plans to push for an adjustment to his contract before the 2016 season, and staying off the field in voluntary workouts would be a decision that limits injury risk and also could be viewed as a statement to the organization that he's unhappy with the status quo and/or the movement/specifics of contract talks.”

In the same vein, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronkowski opted out as well for the same reason, especially since he threw out a tweet that signaled dissatisfaction with his pact in March.

But in terms of a statement, not going to OTAs is more of a throat-clearing than a noisy proclamation.

Not to minimize the move if Butler, Gronkowski or anybody else is actually staying away because of business. The Patriots usually enjoy almost perfect OTA attendance. Also, there hasn’t been much contract strife around here for the past five seasons.

Money matters were an annual issue for the Patriots from about 2003 through 2010. Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Ty Warren, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Randy Moss, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel and – quietly – Tom Brady all had their contract dances back then. But the only one that got hairy in the recent past was Wes Welker.

It’s still too soon to know if any of these will get contentious. When will we know? When either a player or his agent spouts off. Or, when someone’s a no-show at mandatory minicamp beginning June 7.

That would amount to a shot across the bow. Of all the players likely to take that shot, Butler seems a reasonable bet. His base pay this season is $600K after a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015 that saw him check the opposition’s best wideout on a weekly basis. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year. He deserves longer-term security than he currently has. Gronkowski has a lot less to kick about. He may make less than lesser players, but he also was the league’s highest paid tight end when he was missing scads of games due to injury.

After Butler, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower would figure to have the strongest cases to want new deals and want them snappy. Ryan and Harmon would be right behind those two. Then Jabaal Sheard.

Sheard, Hightower and Collins were all on the field Thursday. 

Can the Patriots get all these guys reupped? Will they even try? How do they have them prioritized? If the guy who howls loudest gets to the front of the line, the time to make some noise is close.

But we have yet to hear any of these players loud and clear.