The Patriots open training camp this week in preparation for Bill Belichick’s 15th season leading the team and Tom Brady’s 14th season as the starting quarterback.
When we last saw them in game action six months ago, the Patriots were smarting from a 26-16 loss in Denver at the AFC Championship game. Since then, they’ve made significant changes to their roster. Let’s examine some questions about what we’ll see during training camp:
1. Who are the new faces? And who’s missing from last year’s team?
The biggest change is the addition of standout cornerback Darrelle Revis, who joined the Patriots after his one-year stop in Tampa. Revis, the ex-Jet, is the best cornerback the Patriots have had in about a decade, since Ty Law was still in his prime. He replaced the oft-injured Aqib Talib, New England’s best corner last season who fled for Denver as a free agent.
Last season’s workhorse running back, LeGarrette Blount, was not re-signed and joined the Steelers as a free agent. Another staple of the defense, linebacker Brandon Spikes, wasn’t really pursued by the Patriots in free agency and left for Buffalo. Also, Steve Gregory, who started 23 games at safety the past two seasons, was cut.
This will also mark the first Patriots training camp in more than 20 years without former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired. In his place the Patriots hired Dave DeGuglielmo.
2. When will Rob Gronkowski be back?
The Patriots aren’t going to tell us about Gronkowski’s status in his rehab from ACL surgery, but it appears the tight end has made steady progress and could be ready to play in September. Gronkowski said last week he plans to play “the whole season,” something he hasn’t done since 2011.
In June, Gronkowski was running and lightly participating during the on-field portion of the Patriots’ offseason workouts. That may not change much at the start of training camp. Gronkowski is a candidate to be placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. That won’t preclude him from playing Week 1 (the PUP list at the start of camp is separate from the PUP list at the start of the regular season, which sidelines a player for at least six weeks), but it would be a sign that the Patriots intend to have Gronkowski slowly return to action in camp.
Expect them to be cautious as they work Gronkowski back into the rotation. He has been limited to just 18 games over the past two seasons because of various injuries. The Patriots don’t want to trip up his recovery or expose him to a setback.
3. Is the Patriots secondary really among the NFL’s best?
The Patriots pass defense ranked 18th last season when it surrendered 239 yards per game. That may have ranked middle-of-the-road, but it was a huge improvement from the previous three seasons, when the Patriots ranked 30th, 31st, and 29th, respectively, in pass defense. Aqib Talib — in his first full season in New England last year — definitely was a factor in elevating the unit.
So if Talib helped lift the Patriots from 29 to 18, how far can Revis take them? And it’s not just him. Brandon Browner, part of the champion Seahawks last season, also joined the Patriots as a free agent cornerback (however, he must sit out the first four games on a suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy). Add Devin McCourty to that mix and the Patriots have three Pro Bowl-level members of the secondary, with Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington supporting them and Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan hoping to step into the mix.
They’re not as good as the Seahawks yet. But the revamped Patriots secondary should make the days when the unit was seen as a laughingstock a distant memory. The Patriots could even land among the top 10 pass defenses for the first time since 2007.
4. Whose recovery from injury should we follow in camp?
Gronkowski isn’t the only Patriots player on the mend. Among the other comebacks to watch:
• Vince Wilfork last played in September, when he tore his Achilles’ tendon against the Falcons. He participated in drills during minicamp, and is expected to be ready by the start of the season — even if he is slowly worked back into the rotation during training camp.
• Second-year receiver Aaron Dobson is also on the comeback trail following foot surgery in March. He sat out the offseason program while rehabbing. It’s uncertain if he’ll be ready at the start of camp, but it will be important for him to get back into a groove.
• Alfonzo Dennard, who served a 35-day prison stint (for assaulting a police officer) this spring in Nebraska, had surgery on his shoulder.
• Defensive captain Jerod Mayo missed the final 10 games last season with a torn pectoral muscle. While he didn’t pronounce himself 100 percent this spring, his participation in spring camp gave no indication he won’t be ready for Week 1.
• Veteran defensive lineman Tommy Kelly is back after a torn ACL ended his season in November. The 33-year-old participated in minicamp.
• Defensive lineman Will Smith, a veteran free agent pickup, is also recovering from an ACL tear. Smith, 33, is no lock to make the roster, and Belichick even said that his recovery will affect whether the Patriots keep him.
• Top draft pick Dominique Easley, also recovering from an ACL injury, was a limited participant in minicamp drills. The Patriots will have to balance wanting to see how he performs in his first training camp with easing him into a schedule that accommodates his rehabbed knees.
5. How will Blount’s yards be accounted for?
Blount was second on the Patriots with 772 rushing yards last season, and really provided a lift down the stretch as he scored four touchdowns in the final two games and ran for 189 yards in the finale. Replacing him will likely take a team effort.
Stevan Ridley, who had 1 more rushing yard than Blount last season, will have the chance to reclaim his role as the go-to tailback. Ridley is a dynamic threat, but his touches will largely depend on his ability to hold onto the ball. More fumbling problems would probably lead the Patriots to move on from Ridley, who will be a free agent after the season. The Patriots have been patient with Ridley and would like to see him thrive again as a 1,000-yard rusher and a ball-security specialist.
Shane Vereen’s speciality is as a pass-catching back, but he can run the ball when needed (as his 101-yard output in the season opener last year showed). He and rookie James White — also a pass-catching threat — will get touches.
Also in the mix will be Brandon Bolden, who will look to claim some of the bruising yards that Blount got last year, and two undrafted rookies from opposite ends of the physical spectrum — the diminutive (5-7, 180 pounds) Roy Finch and the lumbering Stephen Houston (6-0, 225 pounds).
6. Which rookies will play a big role?
One impact area for rookies may be along the offensive line. Start with center Bryan Stork, who was drafted 105th overall and will be given a big opportunity to compete with incumbent veteran Ryan Wendell. Fellow rookie linemen Cameron Fleming and Jon Halapio could also contribute, but neither has the clear opportunity to seize a starting role that Stork has.
Easley has to prove he’s healthy (he’s coming off a second ACL tear that cut his final college season short). But once he does, he has the potential to be a big presence along the defensive line.
And the running back position could offer some rookie surprises, whether it’s White becoming a Brady target or an undrafted player such as Finch or Houston running wild.
7. Who will return kicks?
Blount’s exit will also be felt on kickoffs since he was the Patriots’ leading returner last season.
The Patriots list Matthew Slater as their kick returner on the depth chart. But Slater returned only two kicks last year, and two the year before that, so he’s probably not their first option. McCourty is another fallback option. But relying on their stud safety to return kicks is probably not their preferred plan.
Finch, the undrafted rookie running back, is one player to watch here. He did some kick-returning during the spring camp, and was a returner last season at Oklahoma. Likewise, rookie receiver Jeremy Gallon may get a look returning kicks. Both players are toward the bottom of the depth chart at their respective positions, so leaping forward as a kick returner is a ticket to roster security.
Second-year receiver Josh Boyce is another option. He returned nine kicks last year, second on the team. And like Finch and Gallon, his spot on the roster isn’t secure. So returning kicks well would help his cause.
8. Which veterans could be at risk of not making the roster?
Wendell, being pushed by the rookie Stork, and his right-side companion Dan Connolly both need to have strong camps to avoid the cut list. Connolly may be especially vulnerable because of his salary. If he’s not giving the Patriots a lot more than the next man up on the depth chart, cutting him would represent a $3 million cap savings.
Patrick Chung rejoined the Patriots as a free agent after a one-year stop in Philadelphia. He brings a lot of institutional knowledge of the Patriots’ system, but he may face an uphill battle proving he can be a significant part of the revamped secondary.
There’s bound to be cuts among the receiving corps, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see a veteran on that list. Free agent addition Brandon LaFell said this spring he was working hard to pick up the Patriots’ system, and he’ll need to show in camp that he’s done that. Second-year receivers Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins may be in competition with each other for a spot.
Belichick often puts a surprising veteran name on the cut list. Kelly is the type of veteran who will need to work hard to avoid that fate, with young talent such as Easley behind him on the depth chart.
9. Who will be the backup QB?
Jimmy Garoppolo’s arrival was big news when he was drafted. But we shouldn’t expect much from him once the real games begin. The smart bet is that Garoppolo serves as the third-stringer behind Brady and Ryan Mallett this season. Then Mallett will probably move on as a free agent next year, and Garoppolo will ascend to the No. 2 position.
Bill Belichick has tended to retain just two quarterbacks in recent years. But there have been exceptions, such as in 2011 when he drafted Mallett, who served as No. 3 behind Brady and Brian Hoyer. The next summer, the Patriots cut Hoyer when they determined Mallett could handle the backup role.
Still, it would be a surprise if Garoppolo edged out Mallett as a rookie.
10. Who else is going camping in Foxborough?
The hottest trend around NFL training camps will again come to Gillette Stadium, as the Philadelphia Eagles visit for two joint workouts with the Patriots ahead of the teams’ Aug. 15 preseason game. The Patriots will also visit the Washington Redskins at their camp in Richmond for two days of workouts, marking the third straight year the Patriots have participated in joint practices with an opposing team.
Belichick loves the joint workouts. He even called a 2011 practice with the Saints “one of the most productive practices I think I’ve been a part of in my career.” The sessions with some unfamiliar faces help break up the monotony of the practice/film room grind that can set in during the six-week run-up to the regular-season opener.
So mark Aug. 12-13 on your calendar if you’d like to see how the Patriots match up in drills with Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, Malcolm Jenkins, and the rest of coach Chip Kelly’s squad.
But expect the Patriots to take some extra precautions with Brady during the joint workouts. They don’t want to have a repeat of the scare last year when Tampa’s Adrian Clayborn knocked Nate Solder into the quarterback, which sent Brady clutching for his knee and limping off the field.
11. When can you visit to do your own scouting of Patriots camp?
Fans can attend the practices on the fields behind Gillette Stadium — and admission and parking are free. The first workout is Thursday morning at 9:15 a.m., with workouts at the same time scheduled Friday through Sunday. Players sign autographs after each practice, and the Patriots host an interactive fan zone with football-themed activities adjacent to the practice fields.
The NFL no longer allows two-a-day workouts, so you’ll only have one opportunity per day. But the schedule is fluid. The open workouts continue through the first two weeks of August, and fans should check Patriots.com for updates on the schedule. Also, beware rain days, because the Patriots will cut off public access to practice if rain forces them into their indoor practice facility.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter @leahysean