Enough talk about what this year's Patriots can be, might be, or should be. It's go time.
After six long months without real football, the Patriots hit the field this week as they open training camp. They'll finally put on the pads (starting Saturday), go full contact, and battle fiercely over the next five weeks for the 53 roster spots (plus 10 on the practice squad).
By our conservative count, 37 of the 53 spots already are accounted for, although injuries can ruin the best-laid plans. That leaves 16 roster spots for the 53 other players in camp (the offseason roster starts at 90). So the competitions at running back, offensive line, cornerback, and special teams will be fierce.
Some players deserve more attention than others during camp. Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are crucial pieces to the team's success, but their performance in training camp and preseason games doesn't matter as much. We already know what they can do under the bright lights.
But let's take a look at several other players who will be under an intense microscope over the next five weeks. And no, we're not counting Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jacoby Brissett. Obviously, everyone will obsess over how they split the quarterback reps (Brady should still get the majority) and how Garoppolo has developed over the last two years.
1. Pass rushers Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers. The Patriots took a gamble this offseason in trading Chandler Jones to Arizona, removing his 12½ sacks and four forced fumbles from the lineup. Their hope is that Jabaal Sheard, their best pass rusher on a per-snap basis last year, can have an even bigger impact this year with more playing time — Sheard played in 63 percent of the snaps in the 15 games he was active (including playoffs).
But for the Jones trade to pay off, the Patriots also need at least one of their second-year pass rushers to fill the void. Neither did much last year in what was essentially a redshirt season. Grissom, a third-round pick, had three tackles and one sack in 15 games (131 snaps all season), and Flowers, a fourth-round pick, was active for only one game and played just four snaps the entire year.
They've now spent a year learning the system and putting on weight, and it's time for them to produce. And since spring practices were non-contact, this training camp will be our first opportunity to see how much they have developed their bodies and pass-rushing skills.
2. Running back James White. White had mixed performances last year after taking over for an injured Dion Lewis.
The Patriots' fourth-round pick in 2014, White did score six touchdowns in the 2015 regular season, caught 40 passes for 410 yards in the regular season, and had a 100-yard receiving game against the Eagles.
But White didn't exactly shine when given his opportunity. He showed an inability to run between the tackles or gain yards after contact — he rushed for just 56 yards on 22 carries all season — and he came up small when the Patriots needed him most. The Patriots badly needed White to win his one-on-one matchups in the AFC Championship game, but he caught just 5 of 16 passes thrown his way, including only 2 of 9 in the fourth quarter.
Now Lewis is back, and the Patriots brought in veteran running back Donald Brown and intriguing rookie D.J. Foster for competition. If White doesn't show a better ability to win one-on-one battles, he might not make the squad.
3. Center/guard Bryan Stork. Stork anchored the offensive line as a rookie during the 2014 Super Bowl season, but his roster spot is hardly guaranteed as he enters his third training camp. He split reps pretty evenly with second-year pro David Andrews in the spring, and third-round pick Joe Thuney has some experience at center, as well. Plus, Stork has a fairly significant concussion history, which needs to be monitored this camp. With nine players battling for four or five interior spots, Stork needs to have a productive and healthy August to cement his roster spot.
4. Cornerback/punt returner Cyrus Jones. The Patriots don't have great depth at cornerback behind Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, which is why they used their highest draft pick this spring on Jones, a talented cornerback from Alabama. Since the nickel defense has essentially become the base defense in the NFL, the Patriots will be counting on Jones to play significant snaps from the start, so his quick development and adjustment to the speed and intensity of the pro game is crucial.
He also has to prove to Bill Belichick that he can handle punt return duties — not just the ability to score touchdowns, but more importantly to make smart decisions when the ball is in the air.
The Patriots would like to reduce Edelman's and Danny Amendola's role in the punt return game to limit the wear and tear on their bodies, but trusting a rookie at punt returner is asking a lot.
5. Wide receiver Aaron Dobson. If all of the receivers stay healthy during training camp, then Dobson's fate likely is sealed, and not in a good way. Edelman, Amendola, and Chris Hogan will be the top three receivers, and fourth-round pick Malcolm Mitchell and veteran speedster Keshawn Martin ($600,000 signing bonus on his new deal signed in January) have the inside track for the fourth and fifth spots.
Dobson, a 2013 second-round pick who arrived in New England with a lot of hype, has been a bust so far, with just 53 catches for 698 yards and four touchdowns, but only 12 games and no touchdowns the last two years. Now he must compete with six other receivers for two or maybe three roster spots, and Dobson doesn't play special teams. Unless he has a spectacular camp, Dobson likely isn't long for New England.