Patriots veterans report to Gillette Stadium Wednesday to start training camp. In addition to more mundane things such as weigh-ins, they’ll be put through a challenging conditioning test, 20 sprints of 40 to 60 yards, depending on position, with minimal rest.
Once they pass, the real fun begins Thursday, when pads are strapped on for the first time. Under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, camp isn’t as grueling as it once was — for one thing, there can only be one full-pads practice per day. But this mental and physical grind still is the best way to get a team ready for the regular season.
So what questions will the Patriots face as camp dawns? Here are 10:
■ Will Wes Welker’s contract status affect him?
Now locked in to playing under the franchise tag after the sides weren’t able to bridge the gap on a long-term extension, Welker has shown his unabashed love for the game and his teammates this offseason. He signed his franchise tag in May, in part so he could take part in organized team activities and minicamp, and has also acknowledged that $9.515 million for one season is a lot of money — about half of what his initial five-year deal with the Patriots paid him. And it’s nothing new for Welker to bet on himself: He’s been doing it for years. If his numbers this season are anything like they’ve been over the last five, he’s confident someone will give him the multiyear deal.
■ Can Brandon Lloyd have the same impact that Randy Moss did in 2007?
Early signs point to yes. Although it would be hard to duplicate Moss’s early success — he had 31 receptions for 505 yards and seven touchdowns in his first four games as a Patriot — it would be a surprise to see Lloyd stumble out of the gate. The 31-year-old has had his best output with Josh McDaniels as his coach. The key to success in New England is picking up the playbook and developing a rapport with Tom Brady, and Lloyd arrived here with the first part down, and the early returns on the second part looked good as well.
■ What will happen with the left side of the offensive line?
There are a lot of questions facing just three positions. First is whether Nate Solder is ready to be the starter at left tackle with Matt Light retired, and that might be the one that causes the least concern. Logan Mankins is on the active/PUP list, and there’s no timetable for his return, which leads to another question: Who will play left guard? New England could slide Dan Connolly into that spot — he filled in well during Mankins’s contract dispute in 2010 — and have Dan Koppen at center. Or Connolly, whose play at center in Koppen’s stead last season earned him a three-year extension, could man the middle of the line and free agent pickup Robert Gallery could step in at left guard.
■ Can Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung, and Brandon Spikes play the entire season?
Three key players who have all struggled to stay on the field. When Vollmer started all 16 games at right tackle in 2010, he earned second-team All-Pro recognition, but he played in just six regular-season games last year as he dealt with ankle and back injuries, and starts camp on the active/PUP list. Chung is on the verge of becoming a star safety, but he missed half of last season with hand and foot injuries, and dealt with a knee injury in 2010. Spikes has missed time in each of his first two seasons, and like Vollmer is on the PUP list. When on the field, he’s a thumper at linebacker. For Vollmer and Chung, this is a contract year, so missing time will hurt them in more ways than one.
■ Will Rob Gronkowski have a letdown after a stellar 2011?
It’s hard to imagine Gronkowski could have a better season statistically than the record-breaking one he posted in 2011, but more than his numbers — 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns — he also brought an infectious joie de vivre. Although he did nothing illegal during the offseason, he appeared everywhere, from hosting pool parties in Las Vegas and a Hollywood gossip-type television show to a cover of ESPN the Magazine (wearing only cartoonishly-large hands) — a bevy of un-Patriot-like things. The natural suspicion is whether he’s let the fame and new contract go to his head, or if he can refocus now that he’s back in Foxborough.
■ Will first-round picks Chandler Jones or Dont’a Hightower — or any of the other rookies — have a big impact?
Although many draft observers were high on Jones’s potential, there are concerns the defensive end has to get stronger. Hightower is familiar with New England’s defense thanks to his time at Alabama with Bill Belichick friend Nick Saban. The concern is that the linebacker gained weight after the draft. Third-rounder Jake Bequette may be the most ready: Belichick noted on draft weekend that playing in the SEC with Arkansas, the defensive end has a lot of experience going against NFL-caliber players, and he succeeded.
■ Will Andre Carter return?
The Patriots have two open roster spots, but neither has been offered to Carter, who had a team-high 10 sacks last season and was the team’s most consistent pass-rusher. A league source said Tuesday night the Patriots haven’t contacted Carter. Given his on-field contribution and his professionalism in the locker room, his return would be a plus.
■ What new wrinkles might McDaniels bring to the offense?
Since his return to New England, McDaniels has been eagerly anticipating getting to work. He has a fondness for screen passes, which could mean an expanded role for Danny Woodhead, who had just 95 touches on offense last year after getting 131 in 2010. McDaniels’s offense could look similar to 2007, when he also made use of the fullback — the Patriots have two — Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta. That could help the Patriots generate a stronger ground game as well — last season, of their team-record 399 first downs, only 107 came by rush, the third-lowest ratio in the league.
■ Is there a strong kickoff returner on the roster? With such a high-powered offense, is it necessary to find one?
Belichick made no secret of the fact he didn’t like the rule change last year that moved the kickoffs to the 35-yard line. While the change did cause the number of touchbacks to soar, there are still a fair number of times when a kick can be returned. Woodhead showed little explosion in his chances last season. Stevan Ridley could be a good option, and Julian Edelman has proven elusive as a punt returner. Of course, even though the Patriots had an average kickoff return of 21.4 yards last year, they scored plenty, so maybe it’s not much of a concern.
■ Can this team go undefeated?
It is possible. With eight games against the largely-weak AFC South and NFC West, New England has the softest schedule — on paper — in the NFL. And considering they made it to the Super Bowl with arguably the worst defense of Belichick’s Patriots career last season and appear to have only gotten better on both sides of the ball, they are a formidable team.
But as 2007 taught us, 16-0 means little when it isn’t paired with a Super Bowl win.