10 questions heading into training camp


Tom Brady is going to have to trust a lot of new people if this Patriots offense is going to click. (Charles Krupa / AP photo)

This Patriots offseason isn’t all about the misdeeds of Aaron Hernandez, Alfonzo Dennard, and the recovery of Rob Gronkowski. Although those three have dominated the headlines, and deservedly so, their stories are only pieces of what the 2013 season has in store.

With the team’s training camp just a week away, here’s a look at 10 burning questions we have about the team right now.

1. Is the circus over yet? – Can Patriots fans expect the dialogue to be only about football going into training camp? No, and they shouldn’t want as much. Bill Belichick has yet to speak out about any of the issues involving Hernandez or Dennard. His comments on these issues will help clarify what he understands of each situation and hopefully bring closure to this never-ending story. Belichick will be asked about both players in training camp and he’ll have the opportunity to either keep the conversation going, or end it once and for all. But it’s not just about him. The players, most notably Gronkowski, have all declined to talk about these off-field issues. They’ll be approached about it as well. Whether or not anyone says anything of substance is another matter entirely. All you need to know is that the circus is not over yet. There’s at least two more acts.


2. What will the Patriots do with Tim Tebow? – He’ll have his opportunity to get an extensive showing in camp and through the preseason. We’ll be able to see if he plays in a Wildcat role, which will indicate a willingness on the team’s behalf to cater to his unique skill set. We could also see him play another position. Who knows. How he plays will certainly affect teammate Ryan Mallett as well.

3. Can Shane Vereen step up? – Vereen has the opportunity to step into a pivotal role as the team’s third down and no-huddle running back. With all his talent and speed, the potential excitement he could bring to the game would be without limit. But he has to stay healthy and consistent. We’ll see if he can do that.

4. What will the wide receivers group look like in September? — The Patriots drafted two rookies, signed four veterans, and signed another two undrafted rookies this offseason. With eight new guys in camp, the Patriots will have tough decisions when it comes time to trim the roster. Veteran Michael Jenkins impressed in minicamp, a surprise in itself.
5. Can Tom Brady quickly find chemistry with an all-new cast? — The turnover the Patriots are going through may force Brady to be more trusting of his new group of wide receivers and tight ends. His top five targets from last season are gone this year or are going to miss time early on. That top five group accounted for 522 of the team’s 641 targets. So Brady will be looking at people like Danny Amendola, Jake Ballard, Aaron Dobson, and Shane Vereen to fill the holes. You expect things to run smoothly because it’s Brady, but we have to watch to see how his relationships develop.
6. How big of an impact will Adrian Wilson have in the secondary? — The veteran safety can be a game-changer for the team’s secondary, which has lacked a strong veteran presence for years. The 33-year old will be entering his 13 season in the league. He can certainly help a team that’s used its share of spare parts in the outfield.
7. How will the team integrate top draft choice Jamie Collins into the defensive rotation? – If the Patriots kept their linebacker rotations consistent, either Jerod Mayo or second-year pro Dont’a Hightower would have to see diminished snaps for Collins to really get an opportunity on the field. Or he could take away snaps from some of the team’s defensive ends, including Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis. We’ll see through training camp and the preseason how it all plays out.
8. When will Rob Gronkowski return? – He will reportedly begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list. But he is projected to return for the regular season. Whether that happens or not will be a subject of great interest in these parts. Coming off of his fifth surgical procedure, the star tight end could surely give the Patriots’ offense a boost with his presence, both as a receiver and blocker.
9. What is the strength of this team? – For the last 10 years, the Patriots offense has dominated the NFL thanks to the abilities of Brady and company. But we’ve reached a point here in this offseason in which there were so many departures, we began to wonder if the offense will continue to be the salve it has for so many years. Additionally, with so many defensive players on the roster having grown up in the Patriots system, I wonder if the scale will begin to tip toward the defense. We won’t know early on, but the identity of this 2013 team will eventually reveal itself.
10. Can the team depend on Ras-I Dowling? – We’re in Year 3 of the Dowling era, who was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. Dowling has logged all of nine games in two seasons. He started a pair of games for the Patriots his rookie season and appeared to be on his way to doing so again last season before injuries shut him down. He looked good in minicamp this season, too. But the bottom line for him is his health. He has to remain healthy in order to contribute and in order for him to be properly evaluated as a player. With the team in a possible cornerback crisis because of Dennard’s legal troubles, he could find himself needed once again. He has to seize the opportunity.


Tweet of the week
There were strong, yet measured reactions by the Patriots on Twitter last week after the trial of George Zimmerman concluded. It was in stark contrast with a number of high profile players, namely Roddy White and Victor Cruz, who decided to share that either the jurors should kill themselves or street justice would be meted out. I wish I were kidding. As you can see below, Donald Jones was much more level-headed, but clearly angry.

Jones wasn’t the only one to tweet about Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin on the Patriots. Others expressed their shock at the trial and sent their condolences to the Martin family. It was a far cry from the poor, instantaneous reactions across the NFL.


How much do teammates really know each other?
Most people tend to think that players form inseparable bonds in the locker room because of the camaraderie associated with playing sports. The idea is that for a football team there is nothing stronger than the pull of the locker room and the friendships that occur through the rigors and isolation of the job as a professional athlete.
But that really isn’t the case for most players. Or at least it doesn’t explain the whole story. For professionals, they strap on the pads, do their jobs, and then go home to their families (if they have them). Some may hang out afterward together, but it’s not as prevalent as maybe a college or high school team.
When looking specifically at the relationships surrounding Aaron Hernandez, it will be hard to go from one Patriots player to the next and ask what they knew of the tight end’s personality and alleged violent streak. They may not know much about him at all. Former Patriots linebacker and special teams standout Eric Alexander explained that the locker room dynamic is not necessarily representative of the totality of a person.
“We all live private lives outside of the locker room,” Alexander told me. “I mean, who we are in the locker room and who we are in real life and who we want to be in real life may not show up in the locker room.”
He added: “As far as I know, Hernandez was a team player and got along with people for the most part. It would be hard to say or to see [something else] from being a teammate.”
Basically, who you are at work and who you are at home are undoubtedly separate. Hernandez likely kept a double life from his teammates, as many other players do. It’s unfortunate because now his former teammates will be faced with questions about him that they will likely be ill-prepared to answer.

Input this
TommyJ243 wrote on Alfonzo Dennard faces probation hearing:

I love the way people are saying cut him, put him in jail yadda yadda. Imagine if everyone who ever got an OUI was fired from their job….there would be ALOT more unemployed people in this state. I don’t know the Nebraska laws, but in Mass failure to provide an adequate sample on the breath test is considered a refusal.

Let me use this opportunity to say I think Dennard should be cut. As a convicted felon, and someone who has a strong possibility of having his probation revoked for being pulled over for a DUI, I do not personally think that any one of his transgressions is worthy of the chopping block on their own. But add them together along with some incredibly poor timing, and you have a scandalous cocktail that the team shouldn’t have to swallow.
Dennard is only 23 years old. His felony conviction for assaulting a Lincoln, Neb., police officer can easily be seen as a defensive overreaction. (At least that was what he argued in court.) And while his DUI is troubling, it is not an uncommon occurrence. He should receive treatment and some schooling to get his life back on track. But this all comes on the heels of one of the worst calamities in Patriots history. The team would do well to protect its image. And if that means they’re short on talented cornerbacks next season, then so be it. We’ll know better July 31.



What’s to come
– Aaron Hernandez will be back in court on Wednesday, July 24.
– Patriots players report to training camp Thursday, July 25. This will be a day just for physicals. It won’t be open to the public or media for that matter.
– On Friday, July 26, training camp will officially open, with practice open to the public at 9 a.m.
– Tedy Bruschi and Gil Santos will be inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame at 5 p.m. on July 29 outside the Hall at Patriot Place. The ceremony will be followed by an in-stadium practice at 7 p.m. for season ticket holders.
– On July 31 Alfonzo Dennard will be back in a Nebraska courthouse for a probation hearing following his arrest on suspicion of DUI. The result of the hearing may determine his fate with the team.
– The Patriots will hold joint practices with the Eagles Aug. 6-7 at NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia ahead of the two teams’ first preseason game Friday Aug. 9.
– On Aug. 27, rosters will have to be trimmed from 90 players to 75. Teams will have to make final cuts to get rosters down to 53 players Aug. 31.
– The Patriots open the regular season Sunday Sept. 8, visiting the Buffalo Bills. We’re now 51 days away.
Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.

Loading Comments...