Commentary

Setting stage for Patriots minicamp

Updated: June 12, 2012, 8:54 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The New England Patriots hold their mandatory three-day minicamp Tuesday through Thursday at Gillette Stadium, which in many ways serves as the finish line for the team's offseason work.

While some players will remain in the area as part of the offseason program, with a focus on the weight room and other workouts, this will be it for team-based work. A successful OTA/minicamp season is one that builds momentum into the players' break before they return for the start of training camp in late July.

With this in mind, here are some of the things that will be on the radar over the three-day stretch:

Gauging the health of key players. Bill Belichick traditionally opens training camp with a handful of players on the active/physically unable to perform list, and the candidates this year will likely come from those who don't take part in the camp. Players who haven't practiced in recent weeks include guard Logan Mankins (ACL), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle), tight ends Rob Gronkowski (ankle), Daniel Fells (leg) and Aaron Hernandez (unknown), linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee), wide receiver Matthew Slater (unknown), offensive lineman Markus Zusevics (pectoral), defensive linemen Myron Pryor (shoulder in 2011) and Brandon Deaderick (unknown), and linebacker Tracy White (abdomen). Monitoring any progress from this group will be one of the most important parts of the next three days.

Brian Waters' presence. The veteran guard has not been present for voluntary organized team activities, which has been the norm for him over his 13-year career as he stays home in Texas with his family. While that is commonplace for Waters, it's a bit of a changeup for the Patriots, who traditionally have most veterans in town for the voluntary work (with Tom Brady setting the tone). This camp is mandatory and players are subject to fines if they are not present. Waters, the incumbent starting right guard, played well for the club in 2011 and is under contract for a bargain-level base salary of $1.4 million in 2012. He said at the Super Bowl that retirement could be a consideration, but a source later said that Waters was preparing to play. So Waters' presence, or absence, will be one of the more notable aspects of the camp.

Belichick's explanations. For the first time since the NFL draft, Belichick will hold a news conference with reporters and there is a lot of ground to cover. For example, this will be the first chance to hear Belichick's explanations for his coaching staff shakeup and additions, why the team cut receivers Anthony Gonzalez and Chad Ochocinco, if he expects Waters on the club, and what it means to have Gronkowski locked up through 2019, among other topics.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesWith Tom Brady getting older, more attention will be paid to backup QB Brian Hoyer.

Brady and the backup quarterbacks. These no-pads, non-contact practices have a heavy emphasis on the passing game, so naturally, the quarterbacks are the engine that make it all go. At one point last week, Brady's intensity skyrocketed when things weren't going well, which reflects how serious he takes his work, even though it's only June. To Brady, every time on the field is an opportunity to get better. With Brady showing no signs of slowing down, attention can also be paid to his backups, Brian Hoyer (fourth year) and Ryan Mallett (second year). Hoyer's command of the offense seems to be at a higher level than Mallett's, as one would expect based on their experience.

How's it coming together in the secondary? Over the last three weeks, a variety of combinations have been used in the defensive backfield. Devin McCourty, who played safety in sub packages late last season and in the playoffs, has been exclusively at cornerback, while second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling is back in the mix after playing just two games (both starts) last season because of a season-ending hip injury. The club looks like it has a lot more depth at cornerback and each practice gives the coaching staff a chance to assess the best fits. Ditto at safety, where Patrick Chung remains the constant, with free-agent signee Steve Gregory, rookie Tavon Wilson and veteran Will Allen showing up at different times in recent weeks.

Rookies and their retention. At this point, rookies have been with the club for six weeks and have had a lot thrown at them. This is the culmination, all the individual parts coming together over the three-day camp. How will they respond? This could be a good gauge to see how first-round draft choices Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, and their fellow rookies, are handling the jump from college to the NFL from a retention standpoint. The youngsters haven't looked out of place to this point.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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