Ten things to watch at Patriots camp
ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporters Mike Reiss, Mike Rodak and Field Yates detail 10 things they'll be looking for at training camp, which opens Thursday at Foxborough:
1. Waters' attendance
There was a point during this offseason when it seemed likely Brian Waters would return to the Patriots in 2012 after contemplating retirement shortly after Super Bowl XLVI. But he wasn't spotted during OTAs and was excused from the Patriots' mandatory minicamp. Definitive word on Waters' plans has not been announced, and his status will make for a lead storyline upon the commencement of camp. If he returns and plays at a level comparable to last season, the Patriots will have one of the league's top bargain performers. Should he opt for retirement, the Patriots could be without both of their starting guards from last year to begin camp. -- Field Yates[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Summer of Gronk now over, it will be interesting to see whether Rob Gronkowski is ready to hit the ground running at camp after offseason ankle surgery.
2. Gronkowski's ankle
Rob Gronkowski may have gotten the green light to start training camp on Monday as he was not placed on the active/physically unable to perform list. If he practices on Thursday, it will be a flashback to Super Bowl week: How well is Gronkowski moving? Does he appear limited by the injury at all? Is he wearing any protective footwear or wrap on his ankle? Does he begin camp full speed or will he be eased into action? Perhaps Gronk will make a big play early in camp and put an end to those questions. -- Mike Rodak
3. Health and alignment of the offensive line
With Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer opening camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, it shines the spotlight a bit brighter on veteran Robert Gallery, who was most often lining up at Mankins' left guard spot in offseason camps, and second-year man Marcus Cannon, who was at Vollmer's right tackle post. Nate Solder, the team's 2011 first-round draft choice, steps in at left tackle for the retired Matt Light, while all eyes will be on Waters' status at right guard. About the only certainty at this point is that one of last year's top centers, Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen, will be there again. A lot of changes and shifting to monitor. -- Mike Reiss
4. Early impact for Jones and Hightower?
Bill Belichick pulled the anti-Belichick draft move by trading up not just once, but twice in the first round. Presumably that means he saw something in both Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower that was simply too good to wait on. With that in mind, the question becomes if these two can immediately impact their new team. Hightower is viewed as a ready-made linebacker who could start alongside Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, while Jones was tagged as a developmental prospect by some, but one with major upside. -- Field Yates
5. Lloyd and the receiving corps
Expectations are high for Brandon Lloyd, who has thrived in Josh McDaniels' offense in both Denver and St. Louis. Lloyd looked the part during organized team activities, but will he live up to his billing on the practice field in training camp? The Patriots lacked a deep threat last season, and all eyes will be on Lloyd. Further down the depth chart, how will things shake out? Does Deion Branch still have a role in New England? Will Donte' Stallworth regain his old form? -- Mike Rodak
6. Who steps up at running back?
The days of the bell cow running back in New England have come to an end. It's highly unlikely we'll see another 2004-type split, when Corey Dillon had 345 carries and the next highest total was Kevin Faulk's 54, as Bill Belichick prefers the committee approach. The Patriots have a 40-percent playtime void between BenJarvus Green-Ellis (now in Cincinnati) and Faulk (free agent) not being on the roster, and the coaching staff is hoping second-year rushers Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen step up to fill it. Change-of-pace back Danny Woodhead (33 percent of the snaps last year), veteran Joseph Addai and rookie Brandon Bolden round out the depth chart. How does the committee come together? -- Mike Reiss[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Robert E. KleinWhere Ras-I Dowling fits into the secondary after a rookie season lost to injury will be something we're watching closely.
7. Dowling's development
Second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling returns to action after missing much of his rookie season, and if he regains his health and form from his college days, he could be an integral starter for the Patriots' secondary. Should he step into a starting role, the Patriots could use Kyle Arrington (7 INTs in 2011) as a slot cornerback on sub defenses, where he would match up with quicker, slippery receivers. Dowling stepped up in his sliver of action against Brandon Marshall in 2011, and consistent performances from him would prove a major boon for the entire Patriots defense, which looks to improve from last season. -- Field Yates
8. Makeup of safety position
The much-maligned safety position was revamped this offseason, but questions remain. At free safety, Steve Gregory is penciled in as the starter after receiving a three-year deal. But how much of an upgrade will Gregory offer after a nondescript stint with the Chargers? Another newcomer at the position, rookie Tavon Wilson, also bears watching. Many believe the Patriots reached in selecting him in the second round. Both Gregory and Wilson are virtual locks to make the roster, but James Ihedigbo, who started 12 games last season, could still make a run to keep his old job on defense. -- Mike Rodak
9. Fanene and his role along the defensive line
Of all the free agents the Patriots signed this offseason, the high-motor, hard-working Jonathan Fanene was one of their biggest-ticket items. The defensive end was hobbling around after one minicamp practice and didn't finish on-the-field offseason work, but it appears to be a promising sign that he wasn't placed on the active/physically unable to perform list on Monday. Assuming Fanene is on the field, where does he fit? And does he justify the aggressiveness the Patriots showed in pursuing him on the open market? -- Mike Reiss
10. Bolden a diamond in the rough?
The Patriots have the fewest rookies in the NFL this season (just 13), but don't discount the possibility of an undrafted player stepping up and making the active roster. When the pads come on, we'll see what the crop of six undrafted players is capable of, and keep an eye on Brandon Bolden, a running back from Ole Miss. As outlined in our Bold Predictions entry, Bolden is my bet to take the role of the Patriots' fourth running back, surpassing veteran Addai. Losing Green-Ellis to free agency opens up a number of carries; can Bolden make his case to earn some of them? -- Field Yates
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