By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- July is not yet over, but it's already been a brutally long summer in New England. Every day is hot, it never rains, and our beautiful green lawns now look like worn-down patches of dirt in West Texas.
Yet for football fans, there is hope, and it begins this week, as Patriots training camp officially gets underway for the 2016 season.
While yes, training camp and the preseason can feel like an interminable process in and of itself as we all wait for real football to begin in September, the return of the team to the practice fields is always a welcome sight for fans -- particularly when the previous season ended a couple of weeks earlier than most of them would have preferred.
With that in mind, there is this, the reminder that what takes place over the next month-plus is ultimately just practice. Too much will be made about minor issues, some people will get entirely too excited about certain "spectacular" plays, and grand conclusions will be faultily reached based on little else but gut feelings and premature conclusions. But that's all part of the fun.
So as the sun rises on another football season in Foxboro, here's precisely what you need to focus your binoculars on when the team hits the practice field, beginning on Thursday.
The QB Conundrum
Perhaps you've heard by now, but Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is actually suspended for four games to start the year. Crazy, I know; you'd think it would've found its way into the newspapers or something.
Kidding aside, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are presented with a rather unique challenge this summer, as they have to decide how to properly divvy up the reps between Brady, who will be the team's quarterback for the majority of the season and into the playoffs, and Jimmy Garoppolo, who's never played a meaningful NFL snap in his brief career.
There's a lot to consider. Some questions Belichick and McDaniels will be considering:
How much will work in August really help Brady come October, when he has to miss a month in between?
It's a fair question, but considering the obsessive way that Brady has always approached practice, where he's often been unwilling to cede even one snap to a backup if he could help it, the quarterback will likely argue that the practice will indeed help.
What puts the team in best position to win in Weeks 1-4, and does it stand in contrast to what puts the team in best position to win in Weeks 5-17 and beyond?
Basically, while the need is obvious for Garoppolo to gain experience leading the team, is it more important to prioritize the team that will play the first four games of the year over the team that will ultimately be the 2016 Patriots? It's a question that has no real right answer, but seeing how the coaching staff attacks the practice plan and preseason game plan will provide quite a bit of insight.
When camp ends, it'll be Jim G's team. When the suspension ends, it'll be Brady's. (Right?!) (Yes, right.) Navigating the summer at the quarterback position will be quite the challenge for the coaching staff.
Offensive Line Battle
The Patriots failed to reach the Super Bowl last season because the offensive line was a train wreck in the AFC Championship Game. The reasons were numerous -- Nate Solder's season ended very early, Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming were in a bit over their heads, the interior line included multiple rookies for much of the year, the Broncos were teeing off on the Patriots' snap count, the Broncos also employed an absolutely ferocious pass rush, and so on. Really, it's a near-miracle they were able to come just a two-point conversion shy of forcing overtime when you look at plays like this one.
With the return of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, it's fair to assume that a number of jobs are going to be up for grabs. The tackles are presumably set with Solder on the left side and Sebastian Vollmer on the right, and Jonathan Cooper (acquired in the Chandler Jones trade) will more than likely be penciled in as a starter at the guard spot. But the other two positions may very well be up for grabs.
The Patriots won a Super Bowl with rookie Bryan Stork at the center position, but injuries cost him games and effectiveness last season. David Andrews played well in Stork's place to start last year, but then barely saw the field in the second half of the season. Josh Kline made major strides forward last season, but still can be seen as replaceable. The Patriots used draft picks to acquire Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason in 2015, but they just used two more picks in 2016 to add Joe Thuney and Ted Karras.
After a disappointing season on the O-line, and with the return of the fierce Scarnecchia, no lineman can take anything for granted entering camp. Expect a few more flare-ups from a group that's going to be pushed to be competitive throughout camp.
The New Guys
It may be forgotten by now, but there was a period this past offseason where Bill Belichick seemed intent on acquiring every single former first-round pick he possibly could. Jonathan Cooper. Chris Long. Donald Brown. Shea McClellin.
Hey, Bill, save some first-rounders for the rest of us.
Considering Belichick was not allowed to make a first-round selection this year because of a league-wide failure to grasp basic science, some saw the additions as no coincidence and more of a middle finger to a league full of owners who are seemingly intent on increasing the degree of difficulty for the Patriots whenever possible.
While Bill will never say whether that was indeed the case (it was), the fact is that is quite a bit of talent to add to a team that went 12-4, led the AFC in scoring and came just a few points shy of reaching the Super Bowl. How they fit in -- or don't fit in -- will be worth monitoring throughout camp.
Each player joins the Patriots with different back stories. Cooper was a No. 7 overall pick in 2013 but missed his rookie year due to injury. He's still trying to get back to being the player who warranted such a high pick. Chris Long was drafted second overall in 2008, and he had a solid career. But he played through knee and ankle injuries that greatly reduced his production over the past two seasons. Brown's seen his yards per carry drop from 4.3 from 2009-13 to 3.1 over the last two years, with his carries per season dropping from 110 from '09-'13 to 72 over the past two seasons. And McClellin was seen as a player in Chicago who never could quite live up to expectations.
Add tight end Martellus Bennett, receiver Chris Hogan and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton into the mix, and there is a whole lot of talent for the coaching staff to try to seamlessly fit onto the roster. Certainly, not all of these players can fulfill all expectations, but seeing their usage throughout camp could hint at roles they will fill come September.
Ah, yes. An annual rite of summer, nothing makes media folks giddier than trying to forecast the surprise cuts from Belichick.
The retired Jerod Mayo is safe from the speculation this year, but few others are. Surely, all of those aforementioned new guys should rent instead of buy for their first year in New England, as no spot is guaranteed. Then, there are the veterans whose names will be questioned. It's already begun for LeGarrette Blount, and there's no doubt that someone from that crowded backfield has got to go (Brandon Bolden or James White, perhaps). Likewise, at least one of the five men who figure to compete for starting spots on the interior of the offensive line won't be with the team beyond the preseason.
And then you can try to speculate about the draft picks. Top pick Cyrus Jones figures to be safe, but who else? Everyone loves the Malcolm Mitchell story, but might it end abruptly and unceremoniously? Jacoby Brissett's drawn the requisite amount of attention just for being a quarterback, and the Brady suspension adds to his value, but how comfortable should he feel?
Of course, surprise cuts are surprises, so the names that are most discussed as possibilities can't really fit the bill. And we've seen some varying degrees of shockers over the years, from Tim Tebow to Reggie Wayne to Zoltan Mesko, to the IR placement on Adrian Wilson, to the trades of Logan Mankins and Richard Seymour. Each move was met with either surprise or out-and-out rage (people thought Belichick only cut Mesko to save money), and each serves to keep everyone -- players and spectators -- on their toes on the lookout for the next one.
It wouldn't be an NFL training camp without at least a little bit of dollar drama. And while the Patriots can easily survive this summer without making headlines about contracts, they might be wise to make a move of some sort.
Certainly, Malcolm Butler has generated some headlines this offseason (some of which was his own doing, others of which weren't quite), and he is without a doubt woefully underpaid. Perhaps locking up a young cornerback who's already at least top-10 in the league for a number of years would be a sound strategy for the Patriots, even though they hold quite a bit of leverage if Butler were to voice any discontent.
There's also the much-ballyhooed pickle of paying Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. The Chandler Jones trade likely helped clear the way for the Patriots to sign both players beyond 2016 if they so desire, so perhaps we might see a repeat of the 2012 summer, when the team locked up two key contributors to long-term deals. Those players were Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and while the latter turned out to be a horrific decision, the team is reaping the benefits of having Gronkowski under contract at a very fair price.
There won't be any holdouts, but there could be an extension or two signed this summer that figures to impact the franchise for years to come.
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