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View from Above: Training Camp primer - What 2 Watch 4

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It's here.  

ESPN's Field Yates already tweeted this week - "This is the final week without an NFL or college football game until after the Super Bowl. A win for all of us." 

Correct, he is. But now that it's here, where is the actual focus - on or off the field?

While some may choose to explore the middle school-like route of "did you hear, so-and-so doesn't like so-and-so," let's instead take a moment to look at how the 2018 Patriots might actually take shape on the field, and leave the soap opera-ish, sideshow shenanigans to social media and talk show stalwarts?

There are several areas of interest to follow at this early stage of the game, no question. These Patriots have question marks in just about every department, despite the fact they won the AFC in 2017, and reached the Super Bowl for the 3rd time in the last four years. 

Yes, they're early favorites to return again next February. Sorry Coach Belichick, it is what it is.

But, we all have eyes. We know where the 2017 Patriots were lacking. We also know where they excelled. Every aspect of this year's team will be made over in some form or fashion, yet in a few places, there's no need to re-invent the wheel, either.  

Coach Belichick might say here "we haven't won anything yet." And right, he would be. You undoubtedly have your own areas of interest or concern, and you wouldn't be wrong about them. With this in mind, here are three spots on the 2018 Patriots' depth chart that deserve some scrutiny going into Training Camp.

Coach will be coaching, and I'll be watching. Will you?

Defensive Backfield

Stephon Gilmore, who had his good moments and a few not-so-good early last season returns as an incumbent at one cornerback spot.  

Who ultimately finds the field as the starter at the other spot is one of the major issues surrounding New England heading into this year.

You'll recall Devin McCourty's twin brother, Jason, was signed in the off season to potentially man the spot and provide additional veteran leadership in the defensive backfield. That may yet happen, but don't count out Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones or even Cyrus Jones from making an impact in camp.

Rookie Duke Dawson is also likely to receive a long look in several situational places, but his role could eventually come from the slot corner or nickel positions. As the Patriots have a recent positive history with undrafted free agents ultimately making the roster, J.C. Jackson is one of those who could shine and earn himself a spot here as well, after a strong spring.

The safety spots are capably manned by Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. The competition there could become interesting with Damarius Travis and reportedly-signed newcomer Eddie Pleasant (known as a strong tackler in Houston) fighting for time along with Jordan Richards.

Bottom line:The starter opposite Gilmore likely comes from either J. McCourty, Rowe or J. Jones, pending injuries in camp and the preseason. But the door is definitely open for a rookie or newcomer to leave a lasting impression, one that could result in a lot of playing time.

Offensive Line

No more Nate Solder. Protecting the blind side of your MVP, nearly 41-year-old quarterback isn't just important.

It's imperative.  

The right side of the line looks to be set, again pending injury, with Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. The Patriots love versatility along the line as you may be aware, so LaAdrian Waddle and even Trent Brown (who played on the right side in San Francisco) could figure into some mixing and matching as you watch the positional battles unfold.

David Andrews has earned his role at center and should continue as the starter barring injury.

The left side is the question mark. Guard Joe Thuney is coming off of foot surgery. Waddle, Brown and rookie top draft pick Isaiah Wynn figure to be the combatants for the starting role of protecting Tom Brady's blind side. Does the rookie earn the nod in camp or in the preseason, or does one of the veteran players begin with the job? Wynn can also figure into the guard spot, pending Thuney's recovery.

Bottom line: You'll see OL coach Dante Scarnecchia mixing and matching the combinations early and often in practices and in the preseason, so it may be difficult to get a real read on potential season starters. But versatility is still the key here. Longevity and health may be, too, as Mason is heading into a contract season, Thuney is questionable and Brown was hurt last season.

Wide Receiver

This position has been a strong suit for some time. Now?

No Julian Edelman for four weeks. Brandin Cooks earns a paycheck some place else. So does Danny Amendola.  

That's some serious turnover for a one-time position of strength. Newcomers are here to take the roles of the aforementioned, but the biggest question is - can they produce as the above three did?

In short, that's unlikely. It's no direct reflection on Kenny Britt, Jordan Matthews or Phillip Dorsett (who contributed little a year ago), but more a cold, slap in the face that football is a business, too. It's also a sport where opportunity abounds every season, and that's exactly what Britt, Matthews and Dorsett have before them.

If not from those three, Cordarrelle Patterson could figure into this mix. But it is likely he's used in spot situations rather than on a rotational basis. That could change, especially if the younger guys (like young vets Malcolm Mitchell, Riley McCarron and rookie Braxton Berrios) don't show much in the preseason. 

Or, if someone is traded, as several news sources are indicating Mitchell could be.

Chris Hogan hasn't yet been mentioned, but it's likely Hogan will be a go-to guy early and often in September. The question is, however, who else will Brady be able to target?

Bottom line: Whoever emerges from the group to contribute prior to Edelman's return will have one thing working for them - Rob Gronkowski draws plenty of attention, so if they're running the right routes, TB12 will find them. But if Hogan falls short of expectations (remember, he was out with an injured shoulder last year) for whatever reason(s), and one of the young guys doesn't step up, this is a potential trouble spot. Will JE11 return to his accustomed, productive role? An opposing defense could gang up on 87, making life a little bit tougher on everyone. Including the QB.

Yes, the season is here. There's a lot to watch on both sides of the ball.  

For us and the coach, too.

John Rooke, an author and award-winning broadcaster, is entering his 26th season as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for more than 30 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame and RI's Words Unlimited Hall of Fame.

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