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53 burning questions for the Patriots headed into training camp

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  July 22, 2012 08:08 AM

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Michael Dwyer / AP file

16. How will Ryan Mallett develop in his second training camp? Last year was rushed for the Arkansas product and his fellow rookies, but now there’s time to dig in before the practice games start.

17. Will Logan Mankins be healthy enough to start the season on time? He’s a cornerstone of the team’s offensive line and is undoubtedly one of the Patriots most important players.

18. With the recent additions of fullbacks Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta, is the Patriots offense going to change? Bill Belichick has certainly favored his two-tight end sets, but his roster choices – even just for training camp – suggest he’s willing to tweak his recent philosophy.

19. Will Aaron Hernandez be awarded with a long-term deal? A new contract would certainly focus future contract talks on Wes Welker, but the lack of one could signify coach Bill Belichick’s evolving value in his position players.

20. Will Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly really battle it out for the starting center position? Or is the money invested in Koppen (2 years, $6 million) make it a moot point?

21. Was cornerback Will Allen just brought in for competition? The veteran corner is talented enough to hold his own in the league, but he may be past his NFL prime. Even with New England’s porous secondary (31st in the NFL last season), it’ll be interesting to see where he fits.

22. Can Kyle Arrington pull seven interceptions out of his hat again? Arrington made plays on the ball last year no one expected and he earned a ton of respect. But can he do it again in a way that makes everyone think it’s not a fluke?

23. Is Josh Barrett a capable safety for the Patriots? He was placed on injured reserve last season after a calf injury, but not before starting four games in the beginning of the year. It was a stretch that saw the Patriots allow 1,507 yards passing, good for 376.75 yards per game.

24. Can Marquice Cole shake up the secondary? Does he even have the talent to be in the conversation? He’s a special teams castoff from the New York Jets where he played three seasons. But he has shown flashes. In 2010, his best season with the Jets, he recorded five passes defensed and two interceptions, one of which he took back for a touchdown.

25. Will Alfonzo Dennard’s impending trial on charges in Nebraska, including assaulting an officer, have any affect whatsoever on his standing with the Patriots? At all? Dennard is free on bond in the case.

26. Does Deion Branch still have it? It, as in, the gusto to shimmy his way across the field and catch passes in traffic. If he does, it’ll be tougher on the team to decide which wide receivers to carry into the season.

27. Is this Ron Brace’s year? The fourth-year pro out of Boston College who hails from Worcester has been hard-pressed to find a starting role, not to mention stay healthy. Can he put it all together for this season?

28. Will Jermaine Cunningham even get a shot? He was expected to be a pass-rushing threat last season around this time. Now, with two rookies drafted to do exactly that, and some free agents brought on to boot, will he even get a chance to fight off the competition?

29. Is Kyle Love the answer opposite of Vince Wilfork? He’s certainly a big body, but is he tapped out potential-wise? Last season he recorded 33 tackles and three sacks. And he’s only 25 years old.

30. How will offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, who has recovered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, fit into the Patriots’ plans? Will he be first off the bench, like Nate Solder and Dan Connolly were last year, or will he be regulated to observing?

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Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

31. What will Ras-I Dowling’s comeback look like? He’s another injury-plagued player on the Patriots’ roster. He started the first two games of the season for the last year before suffering a torn tendon and being placed on injured reserve. He has the size and speed of a top corner, but he’s got stiff competition before he can prove anything in a game situation.

32. Can Julian Edelman be an impact player if he doesn’t get any catches again? The punt returner and makeshift defensive back had four catches for 34 yards last season in a small receiving role. But he made his mark as a true Patriot in terms of versatility. Will he be able to impact the team positively if his role on offense is so minimal again?

33. What will Dont’a Hightower bring to the table? The rookie out of Alabama has the versatility to play linebacker outside or in the middle and he’s certainly expected to help a position group that was struck with the injury bug last season.

34. Where does Dane Fletcher fit in the offense with a healthy linebacker group? He’s another player with the versatility to go from one position to another, but will he be as needed this year as he was before with all of these healthy bodies?

35. Is Bobby Carpenter anything more than a backup linebacker on this team? Was he brought in just for the competition, too?

36. Can Chandler Jones compete on Day 1? The rookie defensive end will get his snaps, but will he make an impact to calm the ever-present noise requesting a pass-rushing threat for the team’s defense?

37. How many defensive linemen do the Patriots need? They’ve got 17 listed on the roster now. Last season, the team carried 10 on the 53-man roster.

38. How many times will Ross Ventrone be cut and signed this year?

39. Is Sergio Brown on the bubble? In a healthy year in which he played 15 games, starting three, he played so porously that cornerback Devin McCourty ended up at safety in his stead when injuries decimated the secondary.

40. Will Devin McCourty venture to the safety position again this year? All indications point to him sticking to his natural left cornerback spot, but circumstances can change.

41. Will Devin McCourty regain his rookie form? He had trouble in man-to-man coverage last season, which led to him playing some safety as well.

42. Can the rookie Tavon Wilson contribute this season, or will he be viewed as a nominal backup?

43. How does Bill Belichick view defensive back Sterling Moore, who came up with two interceptions in a Week 17 game against the Bills but struggled in the Super Bowl?

44. What will the Patriots do if Patrick Chung gets hurt again? As one of the team’s top defensive players, he’s key to securing the team’s secondary. But if he misses eight games again, a bottom of the barrel defensive ranking again will not be surprising. So how will the Patriots respond in that what-if scenario.

45. Of the free-agent signees on the defensive line, who will make the biggest impact? Trevor Scott? Jonathan Fanene? They both had great minicamps.

46. Will Justin Francis make the team? He reportedly had a great minicamp, showing some potential upside for the Patriots at defensive end.

47. Who will be the surprise defensive player of the year? Last year it was a tossup between Kyle Arrington and his seven interceptions and Andre Carter and his 10.5 sacks. Given that there are 17 players listed on the defensive line, the possibilities there are endless.

48. What will the Patriots base defense look like this year? Are they enamored with the 4-3 again or are they too entwined with the 3-4 to change much?

49. How much will Josh McDaniels actually help the team’s offense in his first year back in New England? After a season in which the Patriots ranked second overall in yards per game, can McDaniels raise the bar? Or is meeting the bar just as good?

50. Will Josh McDaniels bring more balance to the team’s offense and commit more to the running game?

51. Is Bill Belichick tired of hearing the phrase “bend but don’t break”?

52. What’s a realistic prediction for the Patriots? 12-4? 13-3? Better?

53. Will this upcoming season be anything like the last? Thirteen wins are hard to come by. But with so much of the core group returning, and so many more players healthy at the moment, it’s not hard to believe the Patriots could be even better than they were after last season’s Super Bowl run.

Zuri Berry is a sports writer and producer for Boston.com. He can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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