The Patriots are reporting for training camp this week, with rookies due at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, veterans on Wednesday and the first practice of the season coming Thursday.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are back for a 20th season at the helm, but several familiar faces will be missing. Rob Gronkowski is retired. Chris Hogan is off to Carolina. Trey Flowers found riches in Detroit. A half-dozen coaches, including Brian Flores and most of the defensive staff, left for other opportunities.
But the Patriots choose not to lament about those who have moved on, of course.
“When you have change, you have two choices: You can sit and complain about what it’s not like, or you could sit there and say, ‘Man, this is kind of cool and fresh and new,’ ” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said in the spring. “It gives you another opportunity to share the foundation of our system, and the genesis of where things came from, that sometimes you don’t do if you’re together for a long time. This has been a great opportunity for us to get back to that.”
In recent years, Patriots training camp has become less about full-bore competition and more about injury maintenance for the veteran-laden team. Getting to the regular season healthy was the most important objective — and for seven straight years the Patriots have been in the AFC Championship game no matter what happens in August and September.
But this year’s camp has more intrigue than usual, thanks to the significant turnover on the roster and coaching staff over the last two years. Several starting jobs are wide open. The tight end mix is much different than what we’re used to seeing. And the coaching staff has a lot of new faces in new positions.
The Patriots may be the defending Super Bowl champs, but they’re returning a far different team.
“Training camp will be big for us this year in terms of evaluating what we have and the way we should play,” McDaniels said.
Let’s take a look at the top storylines:
1. N’Keal Harry. Brady will be working with a mostly new group of receivers this year, with Josh Gordon, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Hogan not with the team and Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett the only returners. The Patriots signed several free agents this spring, and will let the competition sort itself out in training camp. The group includes Demaryius Thomas, Dontrelle Inman, Maurice Harris, Braxton Berrios, and a trio of undrafted rookies, and if all goes well, one or two will make the team and carve a decent little role in the offense.
But Harry is a different story. He’s the one with superstar potential, the only receiver taken in the first round by Belichick in 20 years. Harry is the one drawing comparisons to a young Anquan Boldin and can hopefully be a future cornerstone of the Patriots’ offense.
And with Gronkowski gone, the Patriots need Harry to take on the role of physically dominant receiver — someone who can catch a jump ball in the end zone or break a few tackles over the middle. But the Patriots’ history with young receivers is spotty, and the offense is notoriously difficult to learn. They need to get it right with Harry, who should continue to get a ton of work in practice this training camp. In the spring, Harry took reps with the ones, twos, and threes, and got more hands-on coaching than any player on the field.
2. The tight end battle. The Patriots are never going to replace Gronk. And the way the offseason went, they may just de-emphasize the tight end position in the passing game, letting Edelman, Harry, James White, and Rex Burkhead lead the way.
But this August could determine whether the Patriots currently have enough at tight end, or if they need to find one (you may have heard rumors about Gronkowski possibly un-retiring).
Veteran Ben Watson should still have some football left in the tank, especially when he sits out the first four games with a PED suspension. Matt LaCosse only has one year of NFL production, but he might be one of these Belichick diamond-in-the-rough finds. Youngsters Ryan Izzo, Stephen Anderson, Andrew Beck, and Jakob Johnson are all fighting for a roster spot.
All eyes will be on this group — particularly Watson and LaCosse — to see if they can hold down the tight end position this year. If not, the Gronk rumors will heat up quickly.
3. Finding a left tackle. This marks the second straight year that the Patriots are replacing Brady’s blindside protector, with Nate Solder leaving for the Giants and now Trent Brown going to Oakland.
In a perfect world, Isaiah Wynn will return fully healed from the torn Achilles tendon suffered last August. He’ll regain his form, and slide perfectly into the left tackle spot that the Patriots envisioned when they drafted him 23rd overall in 2018.
Of course, there are concerns. Does Wynn have full function of his leg? Did he lose any technique or strength in the year he missed? And can he play left tackle in the NFL at an undersized 6 feet 3 inches?
The Patriots gave left guard Joe Thuney the reps at left tackle in the spring, so he’s one backup possibility. But the Patriots should probably sign another veteran, just in case Wynn isn’t quite ready to step in. The Patriots brought in Jared Veldheer in the spring, but he retired after one practice. A veteran free agent like Jermey Parnell or Donald Penn makes a lot of sense.
4. Figuring out the coaching staff. The offensive side of the coaching staff will at least have some continuity, with McDaniels, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, running backs coach Ivan Fears, and tight ends coach Nick Caley all returning. But there are a lot of new faces in new roles.
Joe Judge will perhaps be the first coach in NFL history with the title of special teams coordinator/wide receivers coach. It will be interesting to see how he manages his time with both units, and how he does for the first time on the offensive side of the ball. Mick Lombardi will now be in charge of coaching and working closely with the backups and young quarterbacks, taking over for Jerry Schuplinski. Can Lombardi help Jarrett Stidham develop into a serviceable NFL quarterback?
And the defensive side is almost entirely new. The Patriots have lost three defensive coordinators in two years — Matt Patricia, Brian Flores, and Greg Schiano — and may have to rely on a team effort to call the defensive plays this fall.
Belichick will likely have ultimate authority, but he also has a lot of other responsibilities on game day. He’ll get help from inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, who may be a first-time coach, but knows the defense backward and forward. Defensive line coach Bret Bielema and safeties coach Steve Belichick should help, as well. Training camp will be important for the coaches to work out the kinks.
5. Brady’s contract. Brady is entering the last year of his contract, and is ripe for an extension. His $27 million cap number is fourth-highest in the NFL, but his salary is only $15 million. That $12 million gap is the largest of any player in the NFL, and considering Brady still wants to play several more years, this represents an easy opportunity for the Patriots to restructure his deal and create cap space.
While the Pats don’t necessarily need the space for the 2019 season, NFL teams can carry over every dollar of unused cap space into 2020. There is literally no reason not to redo Brady’s deal to lower his cap hit, and not doing so would be an inefficient waste of cap dollars.
There’s every reason to believe that a deal will get done in training camp. A two-year extension in the $40-50 million range seems more than reasonable. Brady has never played out the final year of his contract, and it would be a shocking turn of events if he and the Patriots don’t work something out in August.