By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Summer is slowly starting to slip away, but there is an upside to fall being just around the corner.
Football is back in New England.
The Patriots will hold their first practice of training camp on Thursday at Gillette Stadium, ready to begin their Super Bowl defense. Of course the Super Bowl is the furthest thing from their minds. While the goal is the same, this is a new season with plenty of new faces on the roster to be incorporated into the system.
So as the Patriots hit the field for the first time for the new season, here are 10 players we'll be keeping a close eye on when the footballs start flying down at Gillette.
Brady has been at the top of his game in recent years, looking just as good now as he did a decade ago. But he's entering the danger zone for quarterbacks.
On August 3, Thomas Edward Brady will turn 40 years old, which is usually when guys who throw footballs for a living begin their descent off of that proverbial cliff. People have been predicting Brady's plunge for years, but he's always proven them wrong with MVP numbers. And just because he's turning into a 40-year-old quarterback doesn't mean he'll start throwing the football around like it's a bag of sand.
You can make fun of his crazy diet, or take aim at his questionable trainer Alex Guerrero, but Brady takes care of himself like no one else. He always bounces back from the biggest hits, and now he has to bounce back from one of the most exhausting and mentally draining seasons of his career. And he'll have to do it all as he enters his fifth decade on this earth.
Even after 17 years in the league and five Super Bowl titles, there's no doubt that Brady will bring the same fire and passion to the field and it's 99.9% certain he'll go out there and perform surgery during practice. And if he does have an off day, we'll see the usual eruptions from Mount Thomas.
That's just who Brady is, and boy is it fun to watch, no matter how old he may be.
We've seen receivers come in and struggle with the New England offense in the past, but Cooks should fit in just fine with the Patriots. He's already had some lovely catches from Brady during offseason workouts a few months ago, and it should be a fun sight to see the duo work on their touchdown connection during camp.
A back injury ended Gronkowski's season early, limiting him to just eight games, so this is a pretty big year for the 28-year-old tight end. He's a game-changer whenever he's on the field, but being on the field has always been a question mark with Gronk.
The Patriots are relying on the All-Pro to do his thing for 16 games this season (and hopefully three others when the calendar turns to 2018) with Dwayne Allen their only other option at tight end. It's a tall task with Gronk coming off his third back surgery, but he's proven in the past that he can bounce back and be the same old Gronk that gives opposing defenses nightmares.
The rookie had himself a solid first year in the NFL and a great Super Bowl, with five of his six receptions coming in the second half of New England's incredible comeback.
But Mitchell did not participate in spring practices and he has a history of knee injuries. The Pats managed his injuries in training camp last year, so we'll be keeping a close eye on Mitchell and his progress.
Lewis is one of New England's most dynamic offensive players, with the ability to make your jaw drop and break defenders knees with a single cut. Unfortunately, his knees could also break on that single cut, and one more injury could be the end of the 26-year-old running back.
Health has always been the biggest question for Lewis, and now he enters camp in a crowded running back group that includes newcomers Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead along with Super Bowl LI hero James White. His playmaking abilities make Lewis an unlikely training camp cut, but it could happen if he gets dinged up over the next month.
Butler wanted to receive a big payday this offseason, but as a restricted free agent that wasn't going to happen. Instead, the Patriots went outside the organization and gave Stephon Gilmore a five-year, $65 million deal, and Butler found himself involved in rampant trade talks.
Now Butler enters this season in a contract year, which is never a bad thing. Butler, who has busted his butt for the Pats no matter the circumstances, won't be distracted by his next contract and will say all the right things when he hits the field.
The defensive captain was signed to a four-year extension over the offseason, and the Pats will again count on him to be their leader on defense (along defensive quarterback with Devin McCourty).
But Hightower is starting camp on the physically unable to perform list with an undisclosed injury that kept him from participating in offseason workouts. He can come off the PUP at any time, which will hopefully happen sooner than later.
The Patriots got Ealy from the Panthers for a second-round pick in hopes of getting another piece to their pass rush puzzle. Ealy dazzled at times for the Panthers, but had them completely frustrated at others. We'll get a good feel on how he fits into the Pats' system over the next month.
Branch was a key cog along the defensive line last season, but didn't participate in offseason workouts. Now, the 32-year-old defensive tackle is starting camp on the PUP list with an undisclosed injury.
It's almost not fair that a player of Harris' caliber becomes available and only needs to get one phone call before making his decision on his next home. The 11-year veteran comes to New England to help solidify the linebacking corps after Hightower, eager to win a ring after spending over a decade with the New York Jets.
After a roller coast of a rookie season, one that contained more steep dives than sharp inclines, it'll be interesting to see how the corner/return man bounces back.
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