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Great unknowns

Five questions the Patriots will face once the lockout is lifted and the players return to the field

Despite appearing in just nine games, Patriot Logan Mankins made the Pro Bowl and was named All-Pro last season. Despite appearing in just nine games, Patriot Logan Mankins made the Pro Bowl and was named All-Pro last season. (File/Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
July 24, 2011

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First of two parts examining 10 key storylines leading into Patriots training camp. It was compiled by Globe staff writers Greg A. Bedard and Shalise Manza Young.

1. How will the lockout affect the Patriots? Three factors: How Bill Belichick approaches training camp, particularly if it is abbreviated; the development of young players; Tom Brady’s capabilities as a leader.

Finding the answer: Every team will be affected by the lockout, but some teams will be more adversely affected, and the smart money here says the Patriots won’t be one of those on the “more adverse’’ side.

The primary reasons for that are Belichick and Brady. This will be Belichick’s 12th season as head coach, and the 10th in which Brady is the starting quarterback at the beginning of the year. That continuity from the two most important spots on the team will give the Patriots an advantage - there won’t be an adjustment period as players get to know a new coach and new system, or a different quarterback. Also, Belichick has not had any major changes among his assistants. Bill O’Brien was officially named offensive coordinator, but he has been with New England for four-plus years.

However, the Patriots’ main AFC East rivals, the Jets, are in a similar situation, with Rex Ryan and his staff, and quarterback Mark Sanchez, heading into their third season together. Elsewhere in the division, only Miami is dealing with a new head coach or coordinator: former Patriots assistant Brian Daboll was named offensive coordinator, his first coordinator job in the NFL. After flirting with other head coaching candidates, Miami retained Tony Sparano, and Mike Nolan served as defensive coordinator last year. Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey and his coordinators, Curtis Modkins and George Edwards, were hired before the 2010 season.

But back to Belichick and Brady. Given the way Belichick prepares for nearly any eventuality, it’s a safe bet he has a carefully constructed plan for how his team will approach the preseason and prepare for the regular season. He has undoubtedly identified the things that require the most attention at the outset. His players know how he operates, know what’s expected. Consider a team like St. Louis, which has a second-year quarterback in Sam Bradford and new offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels who will face a steeper-than-usual learning curve, or San Francisco, which has an entirely new coaching staff - and a question mark at quarterback.

As for Brady, he is coming off a season that earned him his second MVP award, this one by a unanimous vote. He did undergo foot surgery shortly after the playoff loss, and barring any complications will be expected to pick up where he left off.

New England also has established veterans on the defensive side who can help keep everyone on the same page, from Vince Wilfork on the defensive line to Jerod Mayo at linebacker to James Sanders in the secondary.

The major issues for New England may involve the cadre of second-year players who contributed heavily as rookies and whose growth heading into this season was potentially stunted by the lockout, and this year’s rookies, who certainly will be affected by not being around their new team.

Belichick has said on numerous occasions that a player’s biggest jump in development is almost always from his first year to his second, and one wonders how Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes, and even Zoltan Mesko will be affected by not having those weeks of offseason work with coaches in the film room and on the fields.

And for top draft pick Nate Solder and Co., they will be starting essentially from scratch, trying to learn a new language (the playbook) as they navigate the rigors of NFL training camp.

One other factor: The Patriots finished the season with 14 players on injured reserve, plus those such as Brady, Hernandez, and Alge Crumpler who are known to have had offseason surgery, and none have been able to rehab with the team’s medical and training staffs since March.

Early on, Belichick may streamline or even simplify things. But the majority of players have experience with Belichick and his system, and history has shown us that Belichick will be ready for whatever eventuality the league throws at him, from a full six-week training camp and preseason to one that might be abbreviated thanks to legalese and the tedium of getting the collective bargaining agreement completed.

2. What positions will have the most competition? Three factors: New CBA rules; health; future of some former high draft picks.

Finding the answer: There is much we won’t know until the new CBA is completed, namely what the rules on transactions and rosters will be.

How many years will it take to hit free agency? Will teams gain rights of first refusal on any player who would normally be a free agent? What’s the salary cap going to look like and how will it be calculated? What will the roster limit be for training camp and then the regular season? Will teams get more spots than the usual 80 and 53?

All of those questions will factor in how the Patriots’ roster will look when training camp commences, and what the most competitive positions will be.

But going by the current roster (minus the three players on the reserve/military list who are due to come off it) with an eye toward free agency, here are the three positions that figure to have the most spirited competitions:

Defensive line - By pure numbers, this is the position that will have the most competition. Right now, the Patriots have 13 defensive linemen under contract. They kept eight in 2010 at the 53-man roster cutdown, after retaining six the previous two years.

Locks to be on the roster figure to be Vince Wilfork, Mike Wright (coming back from a severe concussion), Ty Warren (hip surgery), and Ron Brace.

Myron Pryor, Brandon Deaderick, Marcus Stroud, and Eric Moore (who is a tweener) are likely penciled in. Deaderick is iffy because of his late-season team suspension. He may not have a long leash. The Patriots signed Stroud in free agency to replace Gerard Warren, but Stroud will still have to prove he has something left in the tank.

That’s eight right there, seven if Moore is figured more at outside linebacker.

That leaves Kyle Love, Kade Weston, Landon Cohen, and Darryl Richard for one spot, more if one of the others falters.

Safety - Another position heavy on numbers. The Patriots have kept four each of the previous three seasons. Right now, they have seven under contract.

The locks are Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather, though with a year left on his contract the team could be looking hard at Meriweather’s long-term value.

Jarrad Page, who was tendered as a restricted free agent, could be an unrestricted free agent under new free agency rules.

James Sanders, a master communicator and leader, figures to be back, but his contract makes him expendable. He could garner some interest on the trade market.

So after Chung and Meriweather, that leaves Page, Sanders, Sergio Brown, Ross Ventrone, Brandon McGowan, and Josh Barrett for two spots, if the team doesn’t find a value pickup in free agency.

Cornerback - Leigh Bodden’s return from injury makes this a crowded, if not talented, position. He joins Devin McCourty, second-round pick Ras-I Dowling, and Kyle Arrington (who is an unsigned exclusive-rights free agent) as virtual locks. The Patriots usually keep five cornerbacks, but did retain six in 2009.

As a second-round pick in ’09, Darius Butler figures to be back, but the numbers don’t guarantee it. He would make five corners.

That means Jonathan Wilhite, Tony Carter, Thad Turner, Bret Lockett, and seventh-round pick Malcolm Williams fighting for scraps, or a fall by Butler.

3. Can the Patriots and Logan Mankins reach a long-term deal? Three factors: Do hard feelings remain on either side (or both sides)?; money, of course; and Mankins’s play and durability.

Finding the answer: As recently as late April, the stalwart left guard quipped, “I’ve heard there’s this thing in football called free agency . . . but I haven’t seen it. Maybe one of these days I could actually experience that.’’

But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time in the near future for the 2005 first-round draft pick.

Before the lockout, New England designated Mankins its franchise player for the 2011 season, and those tags will likely remain in the new CBA. So for this season, at least, unless another team steps up with a sweet trade offer, Mankins will be playing with the Patriots under a one-year, guaranteed $10.1 million contract (the franchise tag for offensive linemen is not broken down for tackles vs. guards/centers, therefore guards benefit because tackles are higher earners overall). That $10.1 million is more than Mankins has made in his previous six seasons combined.

At the moment, however, that only covers this year.

Since being drafted, Mankins has started every game for which he’s been with the team, and has not missed so much as a practice. With the media, he has never talked a lot, but when he does, particularly after losses, he’s frank, insightful, and often funny. There were no signs that there was an issue between him and the team until June 2010, when he told ESPNBoston.com that he felt he had been lied to by the club about wanting to hammer out a contract extension.

One of more than 200 fourth- and fifth-year players who were affected by the rules of the 2010 uncapped season and not allowed to become unrestricted free agents, Mankins received a restricted free agent tender from the team, which was reduced when he did not sign by a certain date, and then prorated when he opted not to report to Gillette Stadium until Nov. 2. But he was with the first-team offense on his first day of practice and was a Pro Bowl starter and All-Pro pick despite playing just nine games.

Things have been rocky ever since. The Patriots offered Mankins a five-year deal in 2010 that would have made him the second- or third-highest paid guard in the NFL - and it was turned down by Mankins and agent Frank Bauer. Other agents with knowledge of the offer have told the Globe they would have accepted the contract were Mankins a client of theirs. At the combine in February, Bauer called the Patriots’ treatment of Mankins “a travesty.’’

Bauer’s portrayal may be a bit of a stretch, and Mankins is a victim of unfortunate circumstances. But the players drafted around him in 2005 have either signed extensions with their teams or were allowed to hit free agency (the exception being 33d overall pick David Baas of San Francisco). Mike Patterson, drafted the spot before Mankins, received a seven-year extension from the Eagles midway through the 2006 season - before he’d even played two full campaigns - and Heath Miller, taken 30th by the Steelers that year, signed a six-year extension in 2009. Brodney Pool, taken two spots after Mankins, hit free agency in 2010, and Reggie Brown, another Philadelphia pick at 35th overall, also signed a long-term extension a few years ago, though he was traded last year. None have the résumé of Mankins.

There was a story in the fall that the sides were close to an agreement, but it fell apart when owner Robert Kraft asked Mankins to apologize for saying he’d been lied to; Kraft has denied that story, but when asked Bauer didn’t confirm or deny it.

Mankins enjoys his teammates, even the ones he hasn’t played with yet: He offered advice to Nate Solder when the rookie called him in the spring. His relationship with Bill Belichick is also solid, and Kraft said earlier this year that he would like to have Mankins in New England long term.

None of that, however, speaks to either side’s willingness to let bygones be bygones and get Mankins signed to a deal that pays him for being one of the best at his position and keeps a great player in his spot protecting Tom Brady.

4. Will the pass rush be any better this season? Three factors: If the lockout negates any of the usual improvement; whether the team adds any players; scheme.

Finding the answer: The short answer is none of us - along with the Patriots - has any clue.

Because of the lockout, there are so many variables at this point it’s hard to know exactly what will transpire.

We do know two things. One, the Patriots ranked in the middle of the pack with 36 sacks, but 17 came in three games against the injury-ravaged Steelers, a backup quarterback with the Packers, and a Dolphins team that quit in the season finale. The Patriots also had, by a wide margin, the worst third-down defense (47 percent conversions).

The other thing we do know is the Patriots opted not to get any help in the draft, which indicates coach Bill Belichick likes what he has. Sixth-round pick Markell Carter is a project, and if he does help, it will be down the road.

We don’t know if free agency will bring any help, but you have to think the Patriots will add at least one player, be it Matt Roth, Manny Lawson, Antwan Barnes, Jason Babin, Mathias Kiwanuka, or someone of that ilk. Keep in mind that the Patriots don’t seem to be looking for that every-down killer pass rusher. Or at least they probably won’t find one in free agency. If a player can help the rotation and play a certain role, all the better because it keeps offensive coordinators and quarterbacks guessing with the Patriots’ assorted packages and personnel changes.

With so much up in the air, all we can do is look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for a group that contributed to the team’s downfall: not being able to get off the field enough against the best competition.

Best-case scenario ■Second-year outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham used the lockout to not only mature physically, but to learn the schemes like they’re second nature. Better yet, he worked on developing pass-rush moves, something he lacked in his rookie campaign. Cunningham has promise - he’s a terrific athlete - but he has a lot to learn about pass rushing in the NFL, which often is more about smarts and techniques than agility and speed. Same goes for Rob Ninkovich, who improved as last season went along.

■Tully Banta-Cain is healthy and back to his 10-sack form from 2009. He was hurt much more last season than he or the team let on. If Banta-Cain has his usual quickness, he will definitely be better than five sacks.

■Mike Wright makes a complete recovery from his severe concussion. This is almost a must because he was the Patriots’ pass rush before he missed the final six games of the season. Wright will command a lot of attention if he’s right. Ditto for Ty Warren. A healthy Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Wright will make things a lot easier for the guys on the outside.

■Leigh Bodden is in top form and effective. That would allow some of the other cornerbacks, namely Kyle Arrington, to play more in the slot where they are dangerous as pass rushers. The Patriots really like Arrington’s pass-rush ability. They even used him at nickel on occasion at the end of the season. Another indication of how desperate they were for a pass rush.

■Eric Moore improves on the promise he showed near the end of the season as a nickel pass rusher. The guy showed a nose for the ball. Now that teams know who he is, let’s see if that continues.

■The Patriots add a player like Roth, the former Brown who was drafted by Belichick buddy Nick Saban in Miami, and he flourishes in a specific role.

■Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia used the oodles of downtime during the lockout to think up a scheme that revolutionizes the defensive side of the ball. OK, they’ll settle for a few different looks for each opponent that they can whip out to confuse the quarterback and help get the defense off the field in crucial spots.

■For the moment, we’re not buying the perception out there that “Belichick is creating pressure by having an awesome secondary that will make the quarterback hold the ball and allow the pass rush to get there.’’ This is the NFL. At some point, usually in the biggest games, you just have to beat the other guy. And nobody can cover forever in this league. But we’re open to changing our mind on this once the Patriots actually get on the field and we can size up the roster.

Worst-case scenario ■Wright gets dinged during training camp and is in and out of the lineup all season.

■Cunningham shows little improvement because the lockout took away the offseason practices and minicamps.

■Banta-Cain shows that last season actually foretold the downside of his career at 30.

■Moore shows why he had to come from the UFL.

■Whomever the Patriots bring in during free agency shows exactly why their former team let them walk.

■The Patriots don’t master the new wrinkles put in by Belichick in time because the lockout cut down on prep time.

So what will it be, the former or the latter? Probably a bit of both. The question is, will it be enough to make a difference? We’ll have to wait to find out.

5. Which player who spent a significant chunk of the 2010 season on injured reserve will have the biggest impact in 2011? Three factors: Did the players receive proper medical attention and rehab during the lockout?; Mike Wright’s long-term health; depth on the defensive line.

Finding the answer: To start, here are the 14 players the Patriots had on IR at the end of last season, with their injury and the date they were placed on the list in parentheses - K Stephen Gostkowski (quadriceps, Nov. 10); CB Leigh Bodden (rotator cuff, Aug. 31); CB Jonathan Wilhite (hamstring, Dec. 15); DB Bret Lockett (chest, Aug. 31); S Brandon McGowan (torn pectoral, Aug. 31); RB Kevin Faulk (torn ACL, Sept. 22); G Stephen Neal (shoulder, Dec. 2; now retired); DL Kade Weston (abdomen, Aug. 24); T Nick Kaczur (back, Oct. 12); DL Darryl Richard (foot, Aug. 31); DL Ty Warren (hip labrum, Aug. 13); DL Ron Brace (elbow, Jan. 3); DL Mike Wright (concussion, Jan. 7); DB Josh Barrett (shoulder, Aug. 31).

For the purposes of this discussion, Neal and Brace are eliminated - Neal because he isn’t returning and Brace because he didn’t miss a game because of injury until the postseason. Wright is included because even though he wasn’t formally placed on IR until the regular season had ended, he missed the final six games.

The opinion here is that Warren and Wright will have the biggest impact. The Patriots’ pass rush is in need of help, and that help starts up front with the return of two of their three best defensive linemen. While Wright led New England with 5 1/2 sacks, when the Patriots are playing with a three-man front it is generally the job of the linemen to win the trenches, occupying the offensive linemen and hopefully collapsing the pocket, while the outside linebackers chase and/or sack the quarterback. The return of Warren and Wright would help make that happen.

The concern for Wright is whether he’s more susceptible to concussions and the debilitating effects he dealt with for weeks after the Indianapolis game. Another knock could lead to him missing more time, and more frightening for a player not yet 30, could affect his long-term health.

Bodden and Gostkowski are the other players whose returns will have an impact. Bodden opposite Devin McCourty is quite the cornerback tandem, and allows the Patriots to experiment with Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler, or possibly rookie Ras-I Dowling at the nickel spot. While Shayne Graham didn’t miss a field goal try in Gostkowski’s stead (he did miss two extra points), his kickoffs were noticeably shorter than the normally big-legged Gostkowski. Having the sixth-year kicker back will help the coverage unit.

One of the many negatives of the lockout is that team medical staffs have not been allowed to contact injured players. The assumption is that players sought the best care they could, but for those who have been with the Patriots for several years, there may not be a doctor who knows them better than the team doctors.

Coming later this week: Five more questions. This analysis is also available at www.boston.com/patriots.

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