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Taylor Price was active for just one game last season after being drafted in the third round out of Ohio. But against the Jaguars, he caught five passes for 150 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown after taking a short pass from Mallett.

“After a year into the game, things are starting to slow down,” said Price, vying for playing time in a crowd of talented veteran receivers. “Knowing what you’re supposed to do on every play and every situation, it’s a big part of it.”

Dane Fletcher, signed as a free agent out of Montana State, had just 13 tackles in 13 games as a rookie. But on Thursday, he started at inside linebacker and relayed defensive calls sent in from the sideline. He made five tackles, two of them for a loss.

“Getting used to kind of having the control out there for the first game was a little tough at first,” Fletcher said, “But, once I got the hang of it, I thought our whole defense played pretty well.”

His improvement is typical of rookies who stick with the Patriots after their first season.

“The fact that they’ve been through an NFL season in our system and all that, they’re way ahead of where they were last year,” Belichick said. “It looks like Dane’s had a very good offseason. He looks good physically and he’s certainly a lot more confident and is reacting quicker and is anticipating things better than he did, definitely, at this time last year.”

Of course, first-stringers who watched from the sideline Thursday will get most of the playing time during the regular season. But in a sport in which injuries are commonplace, a strong supporting cast is critical to a team’s success.

Preparing for next Thursday’s game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots are still playing catchup after the 4 1/2-month lockout.

“Some things we haven’t gone over as thoroughly as what we’ll be able to cover. Other things I feel like we spent quite a bit of time on and we should be doing better,” Belichick said. “It’s a start, so we’ll see here we go from here.”