With the opening of Patriots training camp 2013 now less than 24 hours away, it's time to put the incredibly tumultuous offseason in the books and turn the page to practice, roster competition and football.
Bill Belichick's team is coming off a 12-win season that included another AFC East title and resulted in a trip to the AFC title game. The squad was leading at halftime against Baltimore and appeared on its way to another Super Bowl when the bottom fell out last January.
But for a team that's been to the Super Bowl and the AFC Championship Game after winning a combined 25 games over the last two regular seasons there are a lot of questions surrounding the practice fields of Gillette Stadium this summer.
Offseason departures, injuries and potential distractions bring plenty of storylines to Foxborough as 90 men prepare to don helmets, battle for roster spots and begin laying the foundation for what will be the 2013 version of the New England Patriots.
With that in mind, here are three issues to keep an eye on as training camp heats up Friday morning.
1 – The passing game's scheme/personnel/production: Tom Brady's passing attack has been a presumed strength of the Patriots since the offensive overhaul led to a record breaking season in 2007. Those days are gone. Randy Moss is long gone. Wes Welker is in the Rocky Mountains. Aaron Hernandez is in jail. And Rob Gronkowski is on PUP coming back from arm and back surgeries. Josh McDaniels has a lot of transition to deal with on a unit that's scored 500-plus points four times since 2007. Can the Brady-led passing attack still be dominant? Are they better served turning more of the job over to the Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen-led backfield? Is the base set a two-tight end look? Three wide receivers? Two backs? Once the scheme is somewhat hashed out – as they will always be rather multiple and game plan-based – how will the personnel battles at tight end and wide receiver shake out? Once all that starts to come to some degree of clarity, which guys are going to make plays through the air and earn Brady's hard-to-gain trust? That's a lot to accomplish over the next month to be ready for the Bills on opening day. Things didn't look all that good this spring as the passing attack had a lot of balls hitting the ground in OTA and mini-camp work, even when going against air in shorts and helmets. The passing game is a work in progress. The question is, how much work will it take to make some progress?
2 – Edge rush from top to bottom: Rob Ninkovich has proven himself at this point as a productive, versatile playmaker on the edge. He's going to get his four to eight sacks with a few other big plays mixed in. But at the top of the depth chart at defensive end Chandler Jones needs to make a huge stride in his second season if this defense in New England is going to make a big leap this fall. Jones had a solid rookie season before injuries and maybe the length of season seemed to slow him. Jones faces huge expectations this season and it will be interesting to see if he looks bigger (he added 10 pounds this offseason) and faster or more productive as he takes advantage of his year of experience. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the less proven players need to step up to add depth on the edge. Jermaine Cunningham and Jake Bequette will be very much in a battle for reps and roster spots. Pass rush has always been a concern for the defense in recent years and that continues.
3 – Safety in numbers: There are a bunch of guys vying for time in the secondary, specifically at the safety spot. It looks as though Devin McCourty will be kept at free safety and likely bring stability to that position. But who will line up next to him and round out the safety depth chart? Adrian Wilson has a great resume, but word in Arizona was that he's lost a step. A lot of eyes will be watching for that in camp. Tavon Wilson looks the part of a modern safety, but now he must put it together on the field. Steve Gregory seems to have drawn a lot of criticism for his play a year ago from fans and media alike, but he did start 12 games. It might be a little early to write the obituary on his career in New England. Duron Harmon is also interesting as a somewhat controversial draft pick. There will probably be a couple different bodies who get a chance to play at safety over the course of the season, but how that starts to work itself out will be an area to watch in the back end early in camp and into preseason action.
What do you think of these three areas of concern heading into training camp? Are there other areas that you'll be more focused on? Let us know with a comment below!