There isn’t much of an offseason in the NFL anymore, and that’s just the way commissioner Roger Goodell likes it. After the Super Bowl is the ever-growing combine, which is followed by the coverage leading up to the draft. The league has even made the revealing of the coming season’s schedule into a prime-time television event.
But this week, real football — not the half-speed organized team activities and minicamp — returns to the fields behind Gillette Stadium. The Patriots open training camp on Thursday, with fans able to come for free and watch their first practice Friday morning.
It was an unprecedented offseason for New England, the nadir being the arrest of Aaron Hernandez for murder. But even before the tight end was released, there were plenty of questions facing the Patriots and their roster.
With training camp just hours from getting underway, here are 10 to consider:
Is Danny Amendola poised to be Wes Welker 2.0?
New England offered Welker a low-ball contract after six stellar seasons, knowing all the while that it was bringing in a younger, taller Texas Tech product.
Amendola looks like he has all the tools to be a top-level receiver, but there are two major concerns surrounding the 27-year-old: Can he stay healthy, and how quickly will he and Tom Brady get on the same wavelength? The former can’t be predicted: last year, Amendola missed five games to injury, and in 2011 he missed all but one. But he played in all 16 of St. Louis’s games in ’10, when he had 85 receptions with rookie Sam Bradford at quarterback.
As for the latter, if spring sessions are any indication, Brady and Amendola got off to a good start, which bodes well for training camp and beyond.
Outside of Amendola, which receivers and tight ends will step up and stand out?
This is where things get tricky, and where the Patriots could find themselves in the same spot they were last year, with Brady relying too much on one receiver. There were a whole lot of “nice to meet you” interactions in the rooms during the offseason, from Amendola to Donald Jones (already released), Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins to rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sudfeld, and Brandon Ford.
But which, if any, of those players can show both a firm grasp of the playbook and an understanding of what Brady wants? In particular there are high expectations for Dobson, the second-round pick from Marshall who is the first receiver New England took that high since Chad Jackson in 2006.
The Patriots’ offense doesn’t have to be a high-octane machine it’s been in recent years, but Brady has to be able to trust multiple guys to be in the right place at the right time for them to move the ball.
Will the offense look different?
It almost certainly will have to. None of the tight ends currently healthy look to be as talented as Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski, so the tight end focus of the previous three years stands to end, at least until Gronkowski returns from his injuries.
Another likely change? The no-huddle. The Patriots employed it for more than 20 percent of their offensive snaps in 2011 and ’12. But that requires familiarity, and an assurance that everyone understands the play, particularly since Brady often uses just one word at the line of scrimmage — and that single word contains all of the instructions for the players on the field. That comprehension doesn’t happen overnight.
Who are the defensive tackles?
New England released Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love during the same week in the offseason (Love after he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes). Currently Vince Wilfork and free agent signee Tommy Kelly are the only experienced tackles on the roster. Second-year lineman Justin Francis could be moved inside, and surprisingly, Jermaine Cunningham was at that spot on occasion last year. Newly signed Anthony White has a nose tackle’s frame, but reportedly showed up to Steelers’ rookie camp overweight and out of shape. Could the Patriots be going back to a three-man line, or perhaps getting creative with how players are moved around?
What will the safety rotation look like?
Last year, the Patriots signed Steve Gregory, drafted Tavon Wilson, and moved Devin McCourty to safety. This year, they signed hard-hitting veteran Adrian Wilson.
So how will those pieces work together? McCourty played more snaps than any other defensive player last season and is a strong communicator, so it’s expected he’ll be starting; if Tavon Wilson has made the progress it’s believed he has, he’s the favorite to be alongside McCourty in base sets. Adrian Wilson projects to play the big nickel role Rodney Harrison had.
The odd man out might be Gregory, who had his share of ups and downs.
Is the defense ready to help win games?
New England hasn’t lost many regular-season games in recent years, but a pattern has been established in that time: if the Patriots don’t have a big lead, it’s hard for them to win.
The seven regular-season games the team has dropped over the last two years were by a total of 26 points, or just over a field goal difference per. In four of those, the Patriots held the lead in the fourth quarter. Conversely, only four of their 25 wins were by six points or fewer. If the offense does have some problems, it won’t be putting up 31 or 28 points as it’s been doing on a regular basis, which means the defense will have to pull its weight.
The pass rush began showing signs of life last year, at least until Chandler Jones’s injuries left Rob Ninkovich as the only effective rusher. It appears that there could be some depth there now, which will go a long way toward making the defense better: the less time the secondary is asked to cover, the less it will be exposed. And that group looks to be improved as well.
The defense will be need to be stout, disruptive and the youngsters the Patriots have invested in need to show their growth.
Which rookie will be the first to stand out?
In a perfect world, the Patriots’ top two picks, second-rounders Jamie Collins and Dobson would rise to the top first, but things don’t always work out that way.
Collins jumped from safety to linebacker to defensive end at Southern Mississippi; he is undoubtedly athletic, which could mean he’ll be learning a couple of different roles, making his transition a bit tougher.
The difficulties New England has had developing young receivers over the last decade has been well-documented. Coach Bill Belichick talked up Dobson’s on-field intelligence (as well as that of Boyce), but if what’s past is prologue, he’s facing an uphill battle.
How will the run game shake out?
In 2012, Stevan Ridley had the best season for a Patriots’ running back since Corey Dillon in 2004, but before his midseason PEDs suspension, Brandon Bolden was pushing Ridley for carries in practice.
Though he was slowed by a sprained ankle suffered in preseason, Bolden may once again challenge Ridley. Shane Vereen got touches in the latter half of the season, once he was healthy and showed that he can be a versatile third-down back.
With the passing game a work in progress, the three will likely play a significant role.
Can Bill Belichick keep his team focused on football?
History says yes. Spygate entered our consciousness after Week 1 of the 2007 season, and the Belichick and his players adopted an us-against-the-world mentality during a 16-0 regular season.
Though the Hernandez situation is unprecedented, Belichick will address the full team on their first day together. He will stress that they must ignore the noise and that each man doing his job is integral to the success of the team.
But will it work? That leads us to our final question:
Is there an unquestioned leader (or leaders) who can keep the team together?
Last year’s captains — Brady, Wilfork, McCourty, Logan Mankins, Matthew Slater, and Jerod Mayo — are largely lead-by-example types. One former Patriots player talked this offseason about the influence and respect Richard Seymour commanded in the locker room, and had no problems with calling a teammate out if he wasn’t doing things the right way.
New England needs at least one of those players as they head into this season of uncertainty.