The long, curious offseason is finally just about over in Foxborough.
On July 26 the Patriots will open 2018 training camp on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.
Fans and media alike will convene on the lush green fields to see Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the rest prepare for yet another possible Super Bowl run.
Coming off last February’s Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles and after an offseason that saw plenty of key personnel departures, New England still remains a Lombardi favorite.
But, Belichick and his team also have plenty of questions to answer between now and a possible postseason run.
With 10 days to go till camp officially opens, here are 10 questions facing the 2018 Patriots.
1. Are they all in? – Gronk pondered retirement. Brady skipped voluntary OTAs. Josh McDaniels almost left for the Colts job. Plenty of Patriots key cogs seemingly had a lot to think about this offseason. Now, as they prepare to get back to work, are they all in for what it takes to build a championship team?
2. Who’s left? – Nate Solder cashed in on free agency and is being counted on to stabilize the Giants line. Now, it looks like massive veteran trade addition Trent Brown and undersized rookie top pick Isaiah Wynn will battle it out for the left tackle job. Brady’s blindside has been capably guarded for nearly two decades by Solder and Matt Light. This is the biggest question the key line position has faced in Belichick’s tenure.
3. Gilmore and …? – Stephon Gilmore was arguably New England’s best defender down the stretch last season. He’s now entrenched as the team’s No. 1 cornerback after Malcolm Butler moved on to Tennessee. That leaves a big hole opposite Gilmore – as well as questions in the slot – that will see competition from Eric Rowe, Jason McCourty and a litany of young players.
4. How do the depth receivers stack up? – Julian Edelman is going to miss the first month to suspension while recovering from a torn ACL. Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola take more than 120 combined catches with them to L.A. and Miami, respectively. That’s a lot of proven production that must be made up for, especially early in the season. Chris Hogan will need to take it to the next level, as it looked like he was doing before getting hurt last fall. Jordan Matthews is probably next in line to win a big role. Others from the group of Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios may need to carve out roles for themselves as well.
5. Can Hightower stay healthy? – Dont’a Hightower’s value to the Patriots as a leader and playmaker is without question. But the Pro Bowl veteran needs to prove he can stay on the field, which he said this offseason is his main focus in 2018. Without Hightower the linebacker position has a clear lack of depth and proven playmaking ability.
6. What does Flores do on D? – Most generally assume that New England’s defense is Belichick’s baby. But Matt Patricia had put a clear stamp on the unit over the years, building a relationship with his players and helping pull it all together pretty successfully even with a lack of talent at times. Brian Flores is going to take over the play calling on D this fall, even if he didn’t get the coordinator title. It will be interesting to see how the respected young coach handles his new role for a unit that has personnel questions and struggled mightily last time we saw it on Super Bowl Sunday.
7. What’s the rush? – New England’s defensive end/edge was grossly undermanned last year. That led to the trades for Kony Ealy and Cassius Marsh that turned out to be disasters. Free agent Adrian Clayborn should bring veteran stability. Trey Flowers is hitting his prime in a contract year. Deatrich Wise is a year…wiser. Derek Rivers may even add some punch coming back from a torn ACL. Optimistically, there could be more answers to questions about the pass rush this season.
8. Backfield roles? – With Jeremy Hill and first-round pick Sony Michel joining returnees James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee this has a chance to be the most impressive backfield committee the Patriots have had. Still, all need to prove they can stay healthy and be productive enough to overcome the loss of Dion Lewis. Michel was a committee guy at Georgia, but could the rookie end up being the top dog in his first season in New England?
9. Mo’ money, mo’ production? – Everyone has assumed that All-Pros Brady and Gronkowski will get new or tweaked contracts. So far, that hasn’t happened. It will be noteworthy to see if the star playmakers get raises or new deals, and what those contracts look like. If they don’t, what does that mean?
10. What’s Bill’s plan? – The Patriots won’t hold joint practices this preseason. Belichick has used those sessions effectively in recent years. He won’t have that option this year. That could change how he plans out his practice sessions as well as how he uses personnel – young and old – in preseason action. Will the lack of joint practices have an adverse effect on the team-building process?