BOSTON (CBS) — Football is back. Sort of.
We’re still six full weeks away from meaningful games, when inactive lists, point spreads and fantasy lineups will consume our Sundays (and Thursdays and Saturdays and Mondays). But it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is training camp.
The New England Patriots kick off their quest for another championship with their first full-squad workout behind Gillette Stadium on Thursday. Bill Belichick is still in charge and Tom Brady will still be slinging the footballs, but it was an interesting offseason for the defending champs, one that saw them lose a key contributor on both sides of the ball.
But that’s nothing the Patriots haven’t dealt with over the last 20 years, and one of the many storylines we’ll be following throughout all the practices and preseason games leading up to Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 8. Here’s everything else we’ll be watching with Patriots training camp getting underway.
42-Year-Old Tom Brady
Brady is taking the field for his 20th training camp in New England. He’ll turn 42 next week. People will sing to him and there may even be a massive cake down at Gillette. In terms of 42-year-old quarterbacks having success in the NFL, Brady doesn’t have to do much to set a new bar.
Brady has been re-writing the history books in each of the last three seasons, but what can we expect this season? He actually looked somewhat human for much of last year, and common sense says his play will dip a little bit more this season. He is still better than 95 percent of other quarterbacks in the NFL thanks to his quick decision-making, and that could be an even bigger factor this season.
People have been calling for Brady to fall off that proverbial cliff for the better part of a decade, but he keeps proving them wrong. Father Time will eventually catch up with him, and no one would be surprised if it came this year, especially with the loss of Rob Gronkowski in the offense.
But in that same light, Brady has been proving people (and logic) wrong for years, so no one would be surprised if it went the other way either. No one would be shocked anymore if Brady tells Father Time to go pound sand for at least one more year.
Who Does Tom Throw To?
You may have heard that Rob Gronkowski is now retired, shedding pounds and trying to become a pool boy or something like that. The Patriots have about 120 tight ends on their depth chart at the moment, but even if you took the best of each one of them and combined it into one player in some kind of weird science project, you still wouldn’t have anything close to resembling Gronk.
So you can basically rule out any tight end having a major impact in the passing game (pass-blocking not included.) And that puts a lot of pressure on Brady’s receiving corps.
And that’s a group that carries plenty of question marks into the new season. No one knows if Josh Gordon will be allowed to play this season, and Julian Edelman will be sidelined for most of training camp. It’s never good news to have a 33-year-old receiver on the shelf, but Edelman’s absence in camp may actually help the rest of New England’s receivers. Of all the other receivers on the depth chart, only Phillip Dorsett has caught a pass in a Patriots uniform. Brady won’t be able to go to his safety blanket for much of camp or the preseason, and that will force him to turn elsewhere.
That’s great news for rookie N’Keal Harry, who should get a steady diet of work from Brady. (And probably lots of kale and avocados.) Rookie wide receivers haven’t had the best track record in New England, but the 6-foot-4 Harry will have plenty of opportunity to provide Brady with a big target in the passing game. He may not put up monster numbers, but Harry could find himself making a major impact on the New England offense.
Veterans Dontrelle Inman and Maurice Harris also have a chance to fill out the depth chart, and Braxton Berrios could find himself making an impact after missing his rookie season. That, or they’ll be cut by September.
Whatever path they take, it all starts in training camp.
Does Demaryius Thomas Have Anything Left?
Did you forget that Demaryius Thomas was on the Patriots? New England signed the veteran wideout back in April, but he’ll be starting camp on the PUP with a lingering Achilles injury that ended his 2018 season early.
It’s safe to wonder what a 31-year-old coming back from an Achilles injury has left in the tank, especially when he had already lost a step or two ahead of the injury. Thomas had just 59 receptions, 677 receiving yards and five touchdowns with the Broncos and Texans last season, the lowest output of his career since his breakout season in Denver in 2012.
Can Thomas find his form again in New England? We’ll find out soon.
Who Takes The Lead At Running Back?
New England’s offensive attack was geared more toward the ground than through the air last season, and with question marks all over Brady’s arsenal, that trend is expected to continue in 2019.
Sony Michel got better as his rookie season went on and helped the Patriots run to a Super Bowl LIII crown. But he may actually see a decrease in carries in his second NFL season, which should help preserve his legs for the long haul. (Michel is also starting camp on PUP, but his knee injury isn’t considered serious.)
Drafting Michel in the first-round last year raised some eyebrows. Those eyebrows were raised again when Belichick used a third-round pick on Alabama running back Damien Harris in April. The Patriots now boast a backfield that includes Michel, Harris, James White, Rex Burkhead and, occasionally, special-teamer Brandon Bolden.
White will be his usual self as Brady’s go-to receiving back. But given Michel’s health concerns, Harris may find himself as New England’s lead back throughout the regular season, with some help from Burkhead (if healthy) along the way.
Protecting Brady’s Blind Side
Trent Brown got paid by the Raiders over the offseason, so it’s up Isaiah Wynn to protect Tom Brady’s blind side this season. That’s a heavy order, with Wynn missing his entire rookie season after suffering an Achilles injury during the preseason. But the Patriots don’t really have anyone else to play left tackle this season. Joe Thuney played some LT during minicamp, but he’s spent every game in his NFL career at left guard.
Rookies Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt are a few other potential blind spot protectors on the roster, though Cajuste is a little behind after failing his physical earlier this week. But heading into the season, one of the most important positions on offense is also one of the biggest question marks for the Patriots.
Getting After The QB
Trey Flowers will be chasing quarterbacks for Matt Patricia in Detroit, leaving the Patriots without their sack leader from the last three seasons. But it’s a spot they’re used to filling, seeing how Flowers was the one to replace Chandler Jones three years ago at this time.
The Patriots aren’t known for opening the floodgates when it comes to getting after the quarterback, but they have plenty of candidates to help fill the void left by Flowers’ departure. Michael Bennett, even at 33, can still make life miserable for quarterbacks. He had nine sacks for Philadelphia last season, following up an 8.5-sack season for Seattle the season prior.
Deatrich Wise Jr. (4.5 sacks in 2018) and Kyle Van Noy (3.5 sacks) can both give chase, and Derek Rivers is still waiting for his chance after injuries have limited him to just six games over his two NFL seasons. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower may find himself setting his sights on the QB more often this season as well thanks to a little more depth at the linebacker position.
Depth At Linebacker
This has been a big area of concern the last few seasons, and most of that centered around the Patriots needing Hightower to play all 16 games. Some of that pressure will be off of No. 54 this season.
Belichick has welcomed Jamie Collins back on a prove-it deal. Collins made his money in Cleveland and is coming off a solid year, totaling 104 tackles and four sacks last season. Now he’ll need to prove that he can play in Belichick’s defensive system, something he had trouble with at the end of his first stint in New England. Doing so could earn him another big payday next offseason.
Even more intriguing than the return of Collins though is what second-year linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam can bring to the mix. Both had their rookie seasons shortened due to injuries, and will be eager to show they are more than just depth players in camp.
Any Questions In Secondary?
Nope. None. New England’s secondary is going to be one of their strongest groups this season.
The only real questions are how much better J.C. Jackson will be in Year 2, who rookie Joejuan Williams will hit the hardest, and what Duke Dawson can bring to the table after missing all of his rookie season. Otherwise, there are few concerns with Stephon Gilmore, the McCourty Twins and Patrick Chung locking down opposing offenses.
Punter Battle Part 2
We thought we were in for a punter battle last year when the Patriots brought in Corey Bojorquez. That never happened, as Ryan Allen’s left leg easily held on to his job. It worked out well for the Patriots, as Allen had an MVP-like performance against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
Still, the Patriots added another punter this offseason. And they didn’t just go out and sign a punter, they actually drafted one. Heck, they actually traded up to draft Jake Bailey out of Stanford in the fifth round.
That should mean that this time around, we get a real and spectacular battle of Patriots punters during training camp. Buckle up, folks.
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