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What challenges await Patriots in first four games?

Bill Belichick looked at the playbook during Friday’s game.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Bill Belichick has plenty on his plate these days. His team just wrapped up its third preseason game against the Panthers and has its final preseason game in just four days against the Giants. He and his staff have to finalize their player evaluations and pick a 53-man roster by this Saturday. And Belichick’s trusty henchmen need to sift through the rosters of the other 31 teams to determine which players might be released and a fit for the Patriots.

“The wheel is spinning pretty fast this time of year,” Belichick said.

And we didn’t even mention one other small item on Belichick’s list — you know, actually getting ready for the regular season.


The Patriots’ opening date with the Cardinals is just two weeks away.

“We definitely have an eye on them,” Belichick said on Tuesday. “We’ll tighten the focus going forward, but we’re certainly aware that is where we’re headed on opening day.”

The Patriots’ opening stretch won’t be easy. They’ll be using an untested quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, and they will face a couple of coaching staffs that Belichick has never faced before — Bruce Arians and the Cardinals, and Adam Gase and the Dolphins in Week 2. Then the Texans and Bills come to town, both armed with a ferocious pass rush who want nothing more than to ruin Garoppolo’s four-week debut.

So as training camp winds down, let’s take a look at the Patriots’ first four opponents and where they stand at the end of the preseason:

Cardinals: Garoppolo will get tested right away by the Arizona defense, which over the past three years has finished first or second in blitz percentage, sending extra rushers on at least 40 percent of snaps. The Cardinals don’t have a signature edge rusher, per se, but Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell, and rookie Robert Nkemdiche should give them a formidable pass rush in addition to the opportunities they create with their blitzes.


And the Cardinals are getting healthy as the regular season approaches. Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, defensive tackle Frostee Rucker, cornerback Justin Bethel, and Nkemdiche all returned to the practice field last week for the first time.

The question is whether they will be able to contribute against the Patriots in Week 1 — particularly Mathieu, returning from a torn ACL suffered in December, and Bethel, who had foot surgery in April. Bethel was re-signed in the offseason to be a starting cornerback, but rookie third-round pick Brandon Williams has been holding that position throughout training camp. Mathieu is a dominant, game-changing defensive back, but the Cardinals likely need to work him back into the lineup slowly.

Dolphins: The Patriots better do their scouting this preseason, because the Dolphins have a lot of new faces and schemes. Mario Williams will now be lining up next to Ndomukong Suh, and Cameron Wake made his preseason debut on Thursday in his return from a torn Achilles’. Jay Ajayi and Arian Foster are running the football now. Linebacker Kiko Alonso is the new quarterback of the defense. And of course, the Patriots have no idea what to expect in terms of scheme and play-calling from Gase, a bright offensive mind who learned at the foot of Josh McDaniels and, by extension, Belichick.

But the most impressive newcomer may be offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, the first-round pick who slid all the way to the 13th pick. Tunsil, a left tackle in college, has been inserted as left guard, and has yet to allow a pressure or a sack in 142 preseason snaps.


Texans: The Patriots certainly are familiar with their Week 3 opponent, welcoming Bill O’Brien, Vince Wilfork, and the Texans to Gillette Stadium for a Thursday night showdown. The Patriots also faced new Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler last year when he was with the Broncos.

The Texans have surrounded Osweiler and star receiver DeAndre Hopkins with a lot of shiny new toys — running back Lamar Miller and receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller — but their offensive line is still in flux as training camp nears the end.

Left tackle Duane Brown is still on the physically unable to perform list in his return from a torn quad. Brown might not be ready to play in Week 1 and could still be rusty by Week 3. The Texans also just lost center Nick Martin, their second-round pick, to a season-ending ankle injury (good thing the Patriots just traded Bryan Stork to Washington).

And of course, all eyes are on J.J. Watt as he returns from back surgery. He is still on PUP and expects to practice for the first time this week, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the Week 1 lineup. But will Watt be the same dominant player early in the season?

Bills: Buffalo’s defense has been stingy in the preseason, holding the Colts to 1.3 yards per carry and earning the highest grade in the NFL from the website Pro Football Focus. They won’t have dominant tackle Marcell Dareus against the Patriots as he finishes up his four-game suspension, and in his place will be rookie second-round pick Adolphus Washington.


Star receiver Sammy Watkins made his preseason debut Friday night as he returns from offseason foot surgery, and his injury as well as his conditioning are two areas to monitor early in the season. And although the Bills released troubled running back Karlos Williams last week, they have plenty of speed on offense with Reggie Bush joining LeSean McCoy, Watkins, tight end Charles Clay, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor.


Rookie kicker gets rough treatment

Roberto Aguayo.Associated Press

If you’re looking for a new player to root for this season, Buccaneers kicker Roberto Aguayo could certainly use your positive support.

Aguayo is statistically the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, and never missed a field goal from less than 40 yards in three seasons at Florida State. In April, the Bucs took Aguayo with the 59th overall pick, making him just the third kicker in the last 20 years to be selected in the first two rounds of the draft (Sebastian Janikowski, Mike Nugent). The draft pick earned Bucs general manager Jason Licht a lot of criticism, and poor Aguayo is having a tough time handling the expectations in his first training camp. In the Bucs’ first two preseason games, Aguayo missed an extra point and two field goals (32 and 49 yards).


It got worse for him last week. He missed three field goal attempts on Tuesday in a joint practice with the Browns, including one that was shanked so badly that some of the local media compared Aguayo to Charlie Brown. The Bucs fans even booed Aguayo during Tuesday’s practice. On Wednesday, the final training camp practice that was open to the public, Aguayo didn’t attempt any kicks.

Aguayo admitted to local reporters that he’s already sought out a kicking coach and a mental coach to help him sort through his early struggles.

“I’m just focusing on relaxing and sometimes not thinking about it too much,’’ Aguayo said, via 620 WDAE. “When you’re overthinking like, ‘OK, I have to do this and this and this,’ you get too many thoughts in your head. Sometimes you have to sit back and relax and just kick it.”

The kicker position has never been more important given the rules moving the extra point back to a 33-yard kick, and the new touchback rules that place a premium on accurate kickoffs. The website Pewter Report wrote last week that Licht actually had a first-round grade on Aguayo, but former NFL kicker Jay Feely said last week that the Bucs never should have taken Aguayo that high in the draft

“The difference [between] an average kicker and the best kicker in the NFL is probably about 15 points in a season,” Feely said. “You can go and you can find kickers that are very good, very talented, as free agents.”

It’s certainly not Aguayo’s fault that the Bucs drafted him in the second round. And he bounced back on Friday night, connecting on all six of his kicks against Cleveland. Here’s hoping the poor kid is just going through some temporary struggles and can overcome the pressure and expectations placed on him.


League falls short in Brown ruling

On Dec. 10, 2014, the NFL announced via press release it “unanimously endorsed a revised and strengthened Personal Conduct Policy” that included “[a] baseline suspension of six games without pay for violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse, other forms of family violence, or sexual assault, with consideration given to possible mitigating or aggravating circumstances.”

Less than two years later, the NFL had its first opportunity this month to demonstrate the teeth of its new policy with Giants kicker Josh Brown, who was arrested in 2015 on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence after an altercation with his then-wife.

And apparently for the NFL, “possible mitigating or aggravating circumstances” means “we didn’t have a video of the incident like we did with Ray Rice.”

The charge against Brown was dropped five days later and he is in good legal standing. Still, the league office handed Brown a one-game suspension to start the 2016 season for violating the personal conduct policy.

But what happened to that “baseline six-game suspension” the NFL touted? How did the league determine that Brown’s offense deserved only 1/6th of the baseline punishment?

No question that domestic violence incidents are “very rarely black and white,” as Giants owner John Mara said last week. In justifying its punishment, the NFL released a statement explaining that Brown’s ex-wife declined to speak with the league’s investigators, and that local law enforcement didn’t cooperate with the NFL, either.

This has been a struggle for the NFL since it hired former New York City sex crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel to head its investigative unit. Last year, Friel’s department admitted in an internal NFL memo that it was having trouble getting cooperation from victims.

“The league is constrained by the fact that it is not a law enforcement agency and lacks subpoena power or other authority to secure an interview or other physical evidence without cooperation,” it wrote.

All true. However, nothing stopped the New York media from discovering that Brown’s ex-wife told a detective the day after Brown’s charge was dropped that he had been physically violent numerous times in their marriage, alleging more than 20 instances of domestic violence.

Did Friel and her department really conduct full diligence into the investigation? Was the investigation affected by the fact that Friel is a devoted Giants season ticket-holder whose basement “is a blue-and-red shrine to the Jints,” according to the New York Times?

The NFL has to come up with a better explanation than “we tried, but no one cooperated” for its policies on domestic violence to be taken seriously.


Union faces tough odds in next deal

From the “We’ll Believe It When We See It” file, Steelers union representative Ramon Foster urged his fellow players last week to start saving up for a potential lockout or strike in 2021 when the current collective bargaining agreement expires.

“We have to be the type of players and union that’s not borrowing money from banks and stuff like that to survive a lockout, a strike,” Foster said. “We have to be smarter this time around.”

He’s 100 percent right, but good luck. The majority of NFL players don’t make enough money to build up a war chest, or don’t have the financial discipline to do so. Not to mention, how many players currently in the NFL will still be in the league in 2021 — half? Less?

The players were happy to skip offseason workouts last time around in 2011, but once real football began in July, they caved quickly and accepted a CBA that transferred millions of dollars back to the owners and put significant financial constraints on rookie contracts (the Steelers, coincidentally, were the only team whose players did not sign off on the CBA).

Foster and his fellow players should certainly start preparing for a labor battle now. But a lot of the players who will be affected by this lockout are currently in college and high school.

Extra points

With Danny Amendola still on PUP and not doing much conditioning during practice, it’s looking more and more like he’ll stay on PUP and miss at least the first six games of the regular season. And the Patriots seemed to account for this in the contract Amendola signed this summer. He will make $25,000 for every game he is active this year, but only for a maximum of 10 games, as stipulated in his contract . . . As roster cuts near, it’s important to remember that “vested veterans” — those with four or more years of NFL service — get their entire 2016 salary fully guaranteed if they are on the Week 1 roster. While this is great for veterans who make their teams, it also works against those who are on the roster bubble. And in New England, Chris Long will earn a $250,000 bonus if he makes the team, while Brandon Bolden will earn a $50,000 bonus . . . How badly did the Browns want to get rid of linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the No. 6 overall pick in 2013? They traded him to New England for a fifth-round pick on Thursday less than four weeks after paying him a $1,959,137 roster bonus. The Patriots only owe Mingo his minimum base salary of $675,000 this season, which is fully guaranteed whether or not he makes the team . . . Headline on Friday: “NFL forms new owners’ committee of Roger Goodell’s closest advisors.” Yup, Robert Kraft is one of five owners on that list. It’s not a formal committee, but Kraft, Art Rooney, John Mara, Bob McNair, and Clark Hunt will help advise Goodell on a number of league issues . . . Bruce Arians, John Elway, and Tom Coughlin were added to the competition committee. Rams coach Jeff Fisher is taking a break from the committee as his team adjusts to Los Angeles . . . Speaking of Fisher, this year’s “Hard Knocks” program featuring the Rams is quite a snooze. We’re not getting a whole lot of insight into how the team is doing on the field, but at least we get five minutes of players riding roller coasters at Disneyland. The last few years, “Hard Knocks” has morphed from a reality show into an infomercial for whichever team is featured. Hope the Rams are selling a few more Jared Goff jerseys.

The Dolphins are battling an unexpected opponent right now — the Zika virus. They are aggressively spraying EPA-approved chemicals around their 285-acre stadium, using backpack foggers every two weeks and targeting areas such as trash cans, standing water, and other areas where mosquitoes breed.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.