by Chris Warner

Despite the fact that a team’s preseason performance has little relation to how the regular season will go, New England’s competition over the next few weeks will mean a great deal to fans.

For one, it’s the closest thing we’ve had to actual football in over six months. We can also begin to answer questions: Has the offense gotten its deep threat in Brandon Lloyd? Has the defense-minded draft made that side of the ball less charitable? We shall see, eventually.

In the meantime, we’ve compiled some predictions based on preseason reports, gut instincts, and a lack of interest in whatever Olympic event happened to be on television as we wrote this.

Two Too Much: For the record, we don’t see New England winning more than two of their four preseason games. Too many new players on the field, too many different looks to consider. Plus, Coach Bill Belichick couldn’t care less about winning in August.

Remember the 1990s, when Pats coach Pete Carroll would get all fired up over these things, pumping his fists on the sideline as Michael Bishop skittered around the backfield before unleashing a 60-yard pass with about as much accuracy as a blind man’s punt? Good times!

Anyway, back to the present …

It’s Ridley’s, Believe It Or Not: Most productive running back over the next few weeks will have to be Stevan Ridley, the prototypical big-bodied starter the Patriots have employed for the foreseeable future. We see Ridley getting the bulk of first-half carries over the next four friendlies.

Undrafted Rookie Em-Boldened: Looks like Brandon Bolden is getting a chance to make the running back rotation, something we guessed in our roster prediction back in May. Our thoughts on the Ole Miss product? Based on his reported nose for the goal line, he leads the team in preseason rushing touchdowns.

Such A Shane: Anyone else disappointed in the witness-protection status of running back Shane Vereen? We still have high hopes for the second-year talent, and recent reports have had him demonstrating more of his overall skills in practice. Look for him to have one game with big rushing numbers – we guess the preseason finale.

Running An Aaron: Speaking of rushing, we don’t expect to see tight end/multi-tasker Aaron Hernandez in the backfield often, but we do expect him to lead the TEs – and, in fact, all players – in receptions. His size, quickness and experience have all seemed to come together in his third year.

Gronk To Show Support: Not that Rob Gronkowski won’t be productive come September. We just figure he’ll get a rest this preseason.

No Mistake With Gaffney: Our pick for preseason reception yardage leader? Jabar Gaffney. With Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch spending quality time on the bench, someone’s got to gather in those 15-yarders across the middle.

Expecting A Little Wes: Meanwhile, Wes Welker will gather in the first four passes of each game for less than 10 yards each. Workday over, Welker healthy, job done.

Studying The Nation Of Chad: We don’t expect Chad Ochocinco to contribute much this year. Oh, wait: that was last year’s concern.

Seriously, that dude’s made a bigger impact in Foxboro over the past month via Twitter than he did over the entire 2011 season via his play.

By The Don’s Early Light: Congratulations to guard Donald Thomas for all his hard work in making his mark during Logan Mankins’ absence. We can see Thomas starting at left guard this preseason, largely because …

Tattoo Gallery: As much as we loved the idea of bringing in Robert Gallery at guard, it became apparent the inked-up vet left his best football behind him. Gallery’s lackluster performance in camp and ensuing retirement has kept the focus on guys like Thomas, Nick McDonald and Ryan Wendell.

Saving Pride, It’s Ryan: While quarterback Ryan Mallett seemed like a gimme pick last year, he has yet to showcase the ability to lead the team on consistent drives. Mallett will get plenty of opportunities to play this preseason, especially given New England’s brutal schedule, but we don’t expect him to raise his trade stock anytime soon.

The reason? Think back to Matt Cassel’s preseason in 2008. Brutal. Hard to believe that guy ended up leading the Pats to an 11-5 season. While we believe Mallett has some solid throws in him, it’s too soon for the second-year QB to make a difference.

The Life Of Brian: With that in mind, we figure the leading passer will not be you-know-who but Brian Hoyer, who will play the bulk of games two and four to give Our Tom his proper rest.

Ain’t That A Kick In The Edelman: Our pick for most overall preseason yards is Julian Edelman, who will snare a few passes, return several punts, and – we hope – get a chance to demonstrate his kickoff return ability.

The Tony Award: We were thinking that fullback Spencer Larsen would get some competition from Tony Fiammetta at the lead blocker role, but the latter’s see-you-later status gives Larsen a clear path to the roster, despite his current injured status. We expect Eric Kettani on a few reps to get opposing defenses thinking about the run.

Defensive Do’s and Dont’a: We cannot wait to see linebacker/pass rusher/minister of mayhem Dont’a Hightower in action. If Jerod Mayo and the on-again, off-again Brandon Spikes get rested, that leaves Hightower to lead the team in preseason tackles.

What’s That Four? What is looking more and more like a switch from a base 3-4 defense to a 4-3 may become the most important personnel adaptation in New England since Tom Brady took over Charlie Weis’ offense. With four defensive linemen penetrating up front (including big bodies like Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love) and linebackers like Hightower, Mayo and Brandon Spikes hitting everything in sight, we expect this defense to show some positive signs over the next four games.

That is, of course, if …

Blind, Devin Dumb: Ohhh, yeah, the defensive backfield. This position poses more questions than a curious four-year-old. Will 2012 Devin McCourty continue as the ninny-like 2011 version? Can Ras-I “The-I-Is-For-Injured” Dowling stay healthy? Will any Patriot defender actually look for the ball once it’s up in the air? The preseason’s where we might detect positive changes.

A Hard Charger: For what it’s worth, former San Diego safety Steve Gregory will lead the team in interceptions this summer, because he seems like the kind of heady player who will actually get himself into proper position most of the time. Let’s hope rookie Tavon Wilson gets educated.

First Rounder’s First Round: We’ll have fun watching rookie defensive end Chandler Jones against live competition. He’s our pick for most batted passes.

Lighten Up, Francis: Our surprise pick for sack leader in August is undrafted rookie defensive end Justin Francis, for two reasons. One, he has done solid work against starting linemen in drills. Two, he will get plenty of chances vs. second- and third-string tackles. Should help him make the roster this season.

Thoughts? Predictions? Summer movie critiques? Give a comment below.

Chris Warner can be reached by putting a note in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean at high tide. Or you can email him at