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.

It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

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It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

The Patriots received a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 from the Browns in return for Jamie Collins. That's how the trade was described on the league's transaction wire. 

The "condition" of that fourth-rounder? Well, if the Browns received a third-round compensatory pick in 2017, the Patriots would nab that pick instead. 

On Friday, the NFL announced that the Browns had in fact been awarded a third-round compensatory pick, which meant that almost three full weeks after Super Bowl LI, everything was still coming up Patriots.

In actuality, the odds were pretty good all along that the Patriots would get what they got

Cleveland lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in free agency last offseason when he opted to sign with the Falcons. Because compensatory picks are based on free agents lost and free agents acquired, and because the Browns did not sign any similarly-impactful free agents, there was a good chance Mack's departure would render a third-round comp pick that would be shipped to New England.

Had Mack suffered a significant injury that forced his play to drop off or limited his time on the field, a third-rounder may have been out of the question, but he played well (named a Pro Bowler and a Second Team All-Pro) and stayed healthy -- lucky for the Patriots -- missing just 17 total snaps in the regular season. 

The Browns comp pick that will be sent to New England is No. 103 overall. The Patriots were also awarded a fifth-round comp pick, No. 185 overall. That was a result of the league weighing the departures of Akiem Hicks and Tavon Wilson against the arrival of Shea McClellin.

The Patriots now have nine selections in this year's draft: One first-rounder; one second-rounder; two third-rounders; one fourth-rounder*; two fifth-rounders; two seventh-rounders.

The third-round compensatory pick acquired by the Patriots carries additional value this year in that it is the first year in which compensatory picks can be traded. A near top-100 overall selection may allow the Patriots to move up the draft board or build assets in the middle rounds should they be inclined to deal. And we know they oftentimes are. 

* The Patriots forfeited their highest fourth-round selection in this year's draft as part of their Deflategate punishment. They acquired a fourth-round pick from the Seahawks last year. Because that would have been the higher of their two selections, that's the one they'll lose. They will make their own fourth-round pick at No. 137 overall.

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

When it comes to projecting Rob Gronkowski's health, it's been best to steer clear of absolutes. There have been too many injuries, too many surgeries, to predict exactly how he'll feel months in advance. 

Still, in speaking with ESPN's Cari Champion recently, he said he had "no doubt" he'll be ready for Week 1 of the 2017 regular season. 

"Yes, for sure," he replied when asked if he expected to be good to go. 

Gronkowski also fielded a question about his long-term future in the sit-down. Lately it's been his coach Bill Belichick and his quarterback Tom  Brady who receiver all the life-after-football queries, but Gronkowski, 27, was asked how much longer he'd like to play. 

"I’m not really sure," he said. "I mean, I still love playing the game, and as of right now, I want to play as long as I possibly could play. My mindset is to keep on going."

Gronkowski landed on season-ending injured reserve in December after undergoing a procedure on his back -- his third back surgery since 2009. He's had nine reported surgeries -- including procedures on his knee, forearm and ankle -- since his final year at the University of Arizona.