Part 1 in a 10-part series examining key storylines leading into Patriots' training camp...
The question: How will the lockout affect the 2011 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 - that is inevitable. But some teams will be more adversely affected than others, and the smart money here says the Patriots won't be one of those teams on the "adverse" side of the scale.
The primary reasons for that: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
This will be Belichick's 12th season as head coach in New England, and the 10th in which Brady is the starting quarterback at the start 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. Belichick has not had any major changes among his assistants either; Bill O'Brien was officially named offensive coordinator, but he has been with the New England offense for four-plus years.
However, the Pats' main AFC East rivals, the Jets, are in a similar situation, with Rex Ryan and his staff as well as QB Mark Sanchez heading into their third season together in New York, which also is a plus for them this year. Elsewhere in the division, only Miami is dealing with a new head coach or coordinator: former Pats' offensive assistant Brian Daboll was named OC of the Dolphins, his first job as a coordinator in the NFL; after flirting with a 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 that 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 and those will be honed first. 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 staff in place - and a question mark at QB.
As for Brady, he is coming off a season which earned him his second NFL MVP award, this one by a unanimous vote. He did undergo foot surgery shortly after the Patriots' playoff loss, and barring any complications from that, will be expected to pick up just where he left off last year.
New England also has established veterans all over the defensive side of the field who can help keep everyone on the same page, from Vince Wilfork at the heart of the defensive line to Jerod Mayo at linebacker to James Sanders in the backfield.
The major issues for New England may come with the cadre of second-year players who contributed heavily as rookies and whose growth heading into this season was potentially stunted by the lack of offseason, and this year's crop of 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 like 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 the lockout began in 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 stunted a bit thanks to legalese and the tedium of getting a significant contract like the collective bargaining agreement completed.