Mini-camps and OTAs are over, the coaches, front office and players of the NFL get a brief respite before the heavy lifting begins with the start of training camps at the end of July.
The New England Patriots will enter their camp with several key areas that bear watching. Bill Belichick and the staff have made many moves in the off-season, they will start the season as heavy favorites to repeat as AFC East champs but will face challenges from division opponents looking very different from ones they faced in 2012.
The Patriots will look like a very different team themselves, especially on offense in 2013 and this season’s training camp will feature some very interesting story lines. Among the more notable things to watch at camp this summer are:
Positional Battles- There promises to be a very fun to watch and important positional competition going on in training camp and it starts with the position everyone has been talking about all off-season
Wide Receiver: This position more than any other has had the greatest turnover, gone are Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch and Donte’ Stallworth. The only wide receiver on the roster that caught a pass from Quarterback Tom Brady is Julian Edelman. There are lots of new faces on the roster and the 11 players currently there are competing for perhaps 6 roster slots.
Amendola is a lock to make the roster, with Dobson and Boyce being close to that having just been drafted in the 2013 NFL Draft. After that, it’s a very fluid situation. Jenkins and Jones are veterans who came in during free agency. Edelman, who was coming into his own in the passing game in 2012 as well as with the punt return team before going down with yet another injury, is not a given. He has to remain on the field this summer or he could be gone.
Tight End: With Rob Gronkowski having back surgery, his availability for the beginning of the season is in doubt. Aaron Hernandez had off-season shoulder surgery but should be ready for training camp. This is a packed unit with plenty of depth.
The Patriots will keep the best four of this deep group, and given the injury and surgery to Gronkowski, should he be placed on the PUP List at the beginning of the season could open the door for another player to emerge. Keep your eye on this summer’s dark horse Sudfeld who had a very impressive spring and made the most of his reps.
Defensive End: Another unit with a lot of depth but with lots of faces fighting for reps and roster positions. The Patriots are looking for a big second year jump in play from Jones who added 10 pounds of muscle this off-season without sacrificing quickness.
After the top two of Ninkovich and Jones, this is another position that is wide open. Cunningham was a 2nd round pick in 2010, but hasn’t been able to put it together on the field. Francis flashed in play as a rookie, Bequette had a red-shirt rookie season with very little playing time. Vega was brought in from the CFL and Buchanan was drafted this spring.
Defensive Pieces, Does It Add Up?- The Patriots have some continuity in the secondary that they haven’t had in the past few years. Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard along with Kyle Arrington all return at cornerback. With that starting trio, the defense was much better in the 2nd half of the season.
Devin McCourty is firmly entrenched at the free safety position but the team signed veteran SS Adrian Wilson who fills a huge need as a physical, in-the-box presence that can take on and cover the tight ends, something that has been severely lacking the past few years. The Patriots linebackers had issues all season with pass coverage and with veteran Dane Fletcher returning from a knee injury and the addition of the team’s first draft pick OLB Jamie Collins, the Patriots hope that it will be a big step in alleviating those concerns.
The interior pass rush has also been an issue for the past several years, so the Patriots inked veteran Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead from the CFL. They felt comfortable enough with these two signings that they released veterans Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick.
The team need all of these pieces to work in conjunction with each other to return them to having a top defense. It’s been something that Bill Belichick has preached for some time. Will it be enough this season? Time will tell.
In Brady They Trust, But Who Earns His?- Quarterback Tom Brady will be entering the season with a new wide receiving corps and his trusted safety valve, Wes Welker in Denver. Brady is the only constant in the Patriots offense since becoming the starter in 2001, and still has a few years of elite quality play left in the tank but also a common factor in the Patriots passing game with him is trust.
When Brady trusts a wide receiver to be in the right place at the right time and make a timely catch he won’t hesitate to throw the ball in tight quarters to find him as he’s shown with Welker and Branch so many times in the past.
Without that trust, receivers won’t see the ball very much. And with a revamped group of WRs, the question is who will step up? So far, the answer is Amendola, who is showing all the tell-tale signs of quickly assuming the same place in the offense that Welker has enjoyed for so many seasons.
After Amendola however is a bunch of question marks, and training camp is a place where players can earn that trust and be an integral part of the offense. The team is undoubtedly hoping to see the two rookies (Dobson and Boyce) step up and be those players, but Boyce missed all of the spring workouts while recovering from a foot injury.
The Patriots will undoubtedly add a player or two getting close to the time camp begins but there should be plenty of interesting things for Patriots fans to watch once the gates open in July. We’ll be down there daily, so if anyone has any questions for us, shoot us a message on Twitter and we’ll do our best to answer all of them.
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