Patriots training camp is upon us and there are some issues we need to discuss.
Frankly, the Patriots as currently constructed are one of the most talented football teams in the NFL. There’s no doubt that this is another promising, Super Bowl threatening season upon us. So what’s really going to be the story of training camp? Is it simply about who starts where? Who will step up? Who will stay healthy?
Well, all of the above and then some. There is a level of cachet Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have earned that promises at least a 10-win season. (The last time the Patriots lost more than six games was in 2002, when they went 9-7. That is now 12 seasons ago.) So with the expectations in place, there is room to nitpick. And that’s certainly fine with us.
1. In Gronk we trust? — Rob Gronkowski has missed 18 games in the last two seasons, including the playoffs. He’s working his way back from a gruesome leg injury and certainly deserves respect for taking the time to properly rehab. He was limited in offseason workout activities and minicamp. But as with all things Gronkowski, the question is will he stay healthy to be the transformative figure for the Patriots offense we have come to expect. His biggest impact is in the red zone and on third downs, two key elements to determining the success of the team’s offense. Without Gronkowski, the Patriots were good. With him, they were great. There’s not much denying that. So in camp, we wonder what he will look like cutting in and out of routes, coming off the line, and most certainly blocking. After what T.J. Ward did to him, we’ve been apprehensive to the say the least about his abilities. But in camp, there’s no excuse.
2. Is the tight end position changing for the Patriots? — With so much uncertainty with Gronkowski, and a presumable lack of trust for others in his position group, it appears that the Patriots have an opportunity to refocus the offense and give more opportunities to the team’s wide receivers. We’ll learn a lot about the Patriots based upon the opportunities given to veterans Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams as well as rookies Asa Watson and Justin Jones in camp and during the preseason. It’ll be fairly obvious if no one other than Gronk is catching passes in 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills.
3. What will the Patriots do at wide receiver? — It’s a numbers game. The Patriots are invested in more than a few people with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson, Matthew Slater, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, and Jeremy Gallon because of their draft status, money, or outright talent. But with seven players who have an ability to contribute, and fewer roster spots expected available, training camp will tell us who is most deserving in a crowded group. Which brings us to our next question.
4. Who can we expect to improve most among the second-year receivers? — The wide receivers group is littered with young players, many of whom will be entering their second season in the league. So will Dobson, the Patriots second round draft choice last year, Thompkins, or Boyce improve enough to help the team? Last year’s rocky start will no longer be tolerable. And because of the numbers game, more than likely all three won’t make the 53-man roster. The competition at training camp will reveal quite a bit here.
5. Who will the Patriots give up on first? — Recent draft picks who haven’t contributed a great deal are prime for cutting. You can put defensive end Jake Bequette and safety Tavon Wilson in this group. But there could be surprises here. That’s what camp is for. We’re on the lookout.
6. How will the defensive tackle position work? — Depending upon the Patriots’ use of a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, the team will still have to sort through a pecking order of a huge slate of defensive tackles. Last year’s injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are no longer the concern, but the remnants of their absence are still lingering with a litany of younger players who were brought on to take their place, not to mention their top draft pick in 2014 Dominique Easley. Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Marcus Forston are all going to be competing for snaps and roster spots. The retirement of Armond Armstead did not ease what will arguably be the most wide open competition in camp.
7. Who will prevail among the defensive ends? — This position group is large enough to warrant its own entry as well. We know who will be at the top, though. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are penciled in as the two starting ends. But it’s who will back them up that will be determined in camp. Will Smith, the newly signed veteran, will certainly be in the plans. So the competition will boil down to the aforementioned Bequette, rookie Zach Moore, and Michael Buchanan.
8. Duron Harmon or Patrick Chung? — We could easily hand the starting strong safety position to Duron Harmon after the 2013 season. He performed well, missing only five tackles in 433 snaps on defense, or one missed tackle every 86.6 snaps. In comparison, Chung, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles last season and previously started at safety for the Patriots, missed 13 tackles in 815 snaps last season. That equated to one missed tackle every 62.69 snaps. But there is an allure to Chung that makes him an attractive option at safety. Outside of his experience in the defense, his speed and physicality is something the Patriots lack and could set him apart. Of course, any mental errors will certainly work in Harmon’s favor.
9. How will the secondary change? — We may not be able to answer this one until the start of the regular season. But the question should be posed now while the Patriots work to figure out what they can get away with because they have Darrelle Revis on the field. The veteran cornerback gives the Patriots options because of his ability to lock down his side of the field. Add in Brandon Browner (post his four-game suspension), and the Patriots have two top-notch press corners. So we may see some interesting combinations when the team holds joint practices with Washington and Philadelphia.
10. How far will the youngsters press the veterans? — You never want to put too much pressure on rookies, but you always want a team’s rookies to put pressure on its veterans. A number of the Patriots draft picks are positioned to keep their veteran counterparts on their toes in camp, including center Bryan Stork, guard Jon Halapio, and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. The interior offensive line and the defensive line needed a boost and the Patriots addressed that pretty well in the draft. So how soon does the transition process to this year’s draft class begin? And can veterans Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Tommy Kelly hold off the youngsters? Their development will be pivotal to the shape and mold of this team.