The 2017 season can be an all-time great for the Patriots.
The roster is loaded, and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are back for their 18th season, fresh off their fifth championship. The Patriots have a chance to vault past the 49ers and Cowboys in Super Bowl titles and tie the Steelers for most in NFL history (six). They can distance themselves from the other dynasties and build on their own records of Super Bowl appearances (nine) and Lombardi trophies by a coach-quarterback combo (five).
Of course, we won’t hear Belichick mention any of that when he holds his first press conference of the week, when the Patriots open their 58th training camp in franchise history. And he sure as sugar won’t address it with his players.
No, his message almost certainly will go something like this:
“We’re at the bottom like everybody else in the league is, starting all over again,” Belichick said to kick off the 2016 season. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
“We’ll try to have a good day today and then try to have another one tomorrow and just string them along day by day,” Belichick said in 2015, fresh off his fourth Super Bowl.
“The treadmill is moving, we’re going to jump on, start running,” he said on opening day in 2013. “It’s going to be moving fast. We have a lot of ground to cover.”
Practice officially starts Wednesday, when the full 90-man roster is required to report to Gillette Stadium.
What’s the schedule?
■ Wednesday is reporting day — a day of physicals, meetings, classroom work, running, and conditioning, but no actual football drills, per the collective bargaining agreement. The Patriots usually hold a conditioning test on this day, and those who don’t pass can’t practice until they do (most pass it).
■ Thursday is the first official football practice of the season, beginning at 9 a.m. and free and open to the public. But the CBA requires all teams to hold non-contact, non-padded practices for the first two days, similar to all of the Patriots’ spring practices.
■ Saturday’s practice will be the first practice with full contact, and the first time the Patriots will wear full pads since Super Bowl LI. For the rest of training camp, the Patriots can hold two practices per day, but for a maximum of four hours, and only one practice can be with pads and full contact, and can last no more than three hours. The other practice must be a walk-through.
■ Only the first three weeks of practice are open to fans, and the last two weeks are closed to reporters as well except for stretching periods. Among their last open practices, the Patriots will host the Jaguars for joint practices on Aug. 7 and 8 before their preseason opener on Aug. 10. The Patriots will live in a hotel near Gillette for the first three weeks of camp, then return to their homes after the second preseason game.
■ There is only one roster cutdown date this year, from 90 to 53 players on Saturday, Sept. 2 (plus 10 practice squad spots). In previous years, teams were required to cut from 90 to 75 players after the third preseason game, but the NFL did away with that rule this offseason in order to give teams more available players for the final preseason game.
Where are the roster battles?
■ The Patriots don’t have many roster spots available. We counted 46 roster locks — 20 on offense, 23 on defense, and the three specialists. Included in our list of locks are the following: QB Jacoby Brissett, WR Danny Amendola, LT Nate Solder, LB Shea McClellin, LB Rob Ninkovich, DB Jonathan Jones, DB Cyrus Jones, ST Nate Ebner, and ST Brandon King. One or two of these players might end up being a surprise cut.
■ Not included in our roster locks: RB Dion Lewis, RB Brandon Bolden, CB Eric Rowe, WR Andrew Hawkins, OT Cam Fleming, OT Conor McDermott (sixth-round pick), and G/C Ted Karras.
■ Open position battles: We see the following spots being up for grabs: Two to three backup offensive linemen; the fourth running back spot between Lewis and Bolden; the fullback between James Develin and Glenn Gronkowski; one to two backup defensive end/outside linebackers; and one or two backup cornerback spots.
But injuries in training camp are inevitable and can change the complexion of the team quickly.
What are the top storylines?
■ How much work will the Patriots give Jimmy Garoppolo with the starters? Will the Patriots try to keep Tom Brady on any sort of pitch count? How about Rob Gronkowski, coming off his third back surgery? Can Brissett make the second-year leap? How much does new linebacker David Harris cut into playing time for Kyle Van Noy or Dont’a Hightower? Is Jonathan Jones primed to become the slot cornerback? Or can Cyrus Jones shake off a bad rookie season to win the job?
How much are they paid?
■ Regardless of their contracts, players all get paid the same in training camp. This year, veterans will receive $1,900 per week while rookies receive $1,075 per week (plus room and board for both). Players won’t receive their actual base salaries until Week 1 of the regular season.
■ A veteran player may see his experience work against him at cutdown time. Per the CBA, players with four or more years of service are essentially guaranteed their entire season’s pay if they make the Week 1 roster (it’s called “termination pay”). Teams often consider this when deciding whether to keep a young or older player for a roster spot. Sometimes teams will release a veteran before Week 1 but then bring him back at some point during the season, when they can pay the player on a week-to-week basis.
What is PUP?
■ Players who don’t pass their opening physicals Wednesday for injury reasons are placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list, which allows them to work with trainers but not participate in practice. These are players who usually are coming off a surgery that ended their previous season, or suffered an offseason injury.
■ A player can come off PUP at any time during camp, but can only go on the list if he hasn’t practiced yet, so teams are often liberal in putting players on PUP at the start of camp and judicious in taking them off the list. The PUP list only becomes a big deal if a player remains on it for the start of the regular season, as he then must miss at least the first six weeks of the season.
What happens to players that become injured?
■ The PUP list is not an option once a player participates in practice, so the team only has two options: Carry the injured player on the 90-man roster, or place him on injured reserve and free up the roster spot.
■ Players who go on IR still receive preseason pay and are owed their 2017 salary. But for minor injuries, players can be waived from IR with an injury settlement commensurate with the severity of the injury.
If a player suffers a significant injury like a torn ACL, he will remain on that team’s IR all season and earn his full salary.
But if a player breaks his hand and is deemed to have a six-week recovery that will force him to miss three regular-season games, the team can release him from IR with a settlement worth three weeks of his regular-season pay. That settlement usually has offset language, meaning if the player signs with another team before the three games are up, the original team is off the hook for the balance. A team can re-sign a player it released with an injury settlement, but only six weeks after the settlement expires (so after Week 9 in our example).
■ Many players, especially rookies, have a “split salary” in their contract that lowers their salary if they land on IR. For example, Running back Brandon Bolden’s salary this year is $775,000 if he makes the team ($45,588 per week) but drops to $443,000 ($26,058) if he lands on IR at any point during training camp or the regular season.
■ Teams must pay for all medical care and rehab involved with an injury, including second opinions. Players often use team doctors and trainers, but are free to choose their own, at the team’s cost.