The Patriots, and the rest of the NFL, are on summer recess, and there will be no team activities — organized or otherwise — until late next month.
There will be no shortage of story lines when camp commences, and here are the top five that bear watching as New England aims for a third straight trip to the big game and an NFL-record-tying sixth Super Bowl title.
1. Who has Tom Brady’s back?
We’re talking in the literal sense here. Losing left tackle Nate Solder was a big blow, and replacing the guy who walled off Brady’s blind side will be no easy task. The good news is there are plenty of candidates.
Trent Brown is a mountain of a man at 6 feet 8 inches, 320 pounds (that’s likely low), and he has NFL experience at both tackle spots. If Dante Scarnecchia can get him plugged in and up to speed, he’s the favorite.
Other possibilities include LaAdrian Waddle (he was solid filling in on the right side in 2017); Ulrick John (five years of experience); Matt Tobin (six seasons); and first-round pick Isaiah Wynn.
2. Who emerges as the top corners behind Stephon Gilmore?
Malcolm Butler’s old job is up for grabs, and similar to the left tackle spot, there is an abundance of guys looking to seize the position. Eric Rowe is in the mix, but if he bumps outside, that creates a vacancy at slot corner.
Jason McCourty would seem to be the logical replacement for Butler on the perimeter. He has size, quickness, and experience in a variety of defenses. It was a bit perplexing that he didn’t participate in team drills at minicamp, but perhaps that was to give the younger guys the reps. If McCourty wins the job in camp, Rowe likely stays as the nickel.
Second-year player Ryan Lewis (6 feet, 200 pounds) has excellent size and speed. He’s a comer.
Rookies Keion Crossen (during OTAs), J.C. Jackson (during minicamp), and Duke Dawson (during both) shined this spring. It’s possible all three could have a say in things if they continue their strong play when the dog days arrive.
Third-year players Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones both are coming off injuries and could be factors if fully healthy for camp. Both are solid special teamers.
3. When will we see Malcolm Mitchell?
The receiver is coming off a lost season, after coming on like gangbusters at the end of his rookie year. His late-season rapport with Brady was remarkable and he was vital to the comeback win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
Mitchell has had chronic knee woes and was spotted only once during minicamp, and that was on the lower field where players rehab and do individual work. If Mitchell can come back and be a consistent contributor, it would help take the sting out of losing Julian Edelman for the first four games.
This is a deep receiving group with the potential to be one of Brady’s best, and having Mitchell in place ould be a good start.
4. Can Dont’a Hightower stay healthy?
Because he is the linchpin of the Patriots’ front seven, Hightower’s absence last season with a torn pectoral was a tough blow. He also has dealt with knee issues, so keeping him on a pitch count in both practices and games is the way to go.
Hightower is exceptionally versatile and clutch. You can plop him anywhere and he’s going to affect the offense’s thinking. Everything just runs smoother when 54 is on the field.
5. What can we expect from Sony Michel?
The rookie running back is a beast. He’s fast and strong and has excellent body control. Michel won’t be asked to carry the mail by himself, but he certainly has the skills to be a featured back at this level.
The Patriots have a nice grouping at running back, so Michel can work his way into the rotation slowly. After watching him run and catch during minicamp, it should be fun to see him develop when the pads come on. If he shows that he can pass protect and pick up the blitz, his snaps will increase steadily.