An overflow media crowd is expected for the start of New England Patriots training camp, as rookies reported Sunday and veterans are scheduled to report Thursday.
This marks the first time the team will be together since Aaron Hernandez's murder charge and Alfonzo Dennard's arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence, and there figure to be lots of questions posed to coach Bill Belichick and his players.
The first practice is scheduled for Friday at 9 a.m. ET, but some players are expected to be made available to reporters on Thursday. ESPNBoston.com will be there to chronicle it all, and here are the things we'll be watching most closely for:
1. Which pass catchers will emerge?
Tom Brady worked without his top five pass catchers from the 2012 season during OTAs and minicamp, three of whom -- Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd -- are no longer with the team. Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) and Julian Edelman (foot) were on the mend, and it's not certain when either will return to action. Based on offseason activities, Danny Amendola looks to be the surest thing at wide receiver right now, with a glut of others in the mix to earn reps. The team pared down its receiver depth just days in advance of the start of camp by releasing veteran Donald Jones, who was due to receive a $200,000 reporting bonus. That means rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins, as well as veterans Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins, will be among the new faces competing for a major role.
2. Jones, Hightower make second-year jump
Bill Belichick annually has made the point that the biggest jump for players often comes from the first to the second year, in part because the unknown is eliminated and the players have had a full year in the team's system and offseason program. The Patriots surely are hoping that is the case for 2012 first-round draft choices Chandler Jones (defensive end) and Dont'a Hightower (linebacker), both of whom contributed significantly as rookies. If the Patriots are to turn a more decisive corner on defense, even more is needed. Jones, who was listed last year at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, said that he has added 10 pounds of muscle in an offseason where developing more upper-body strength was a priority. Hightower played 51.7 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 and looks primed to become more of a three-down linebacker this year.
3. Gronkowski's return
Concerns surrounding the passing offense will be alleviated in part when Gronkowski makes his return to the field, but at this point we don't know when that will be. While a return in time for Week 1 of the regular season would be ideal, Gronkowski will be just more than 12 weeks removed from his June back surgery when the team travels to Buffalo. If he has any setbacks in his recovery or needs to work into "football shape," he could be forced to miss game action. As things currently stand, there's too little information available to accurately pinpoint when the prominent tight end will be back on the field. In his absence, the Patriots likely will rely on a trio of veterans -- Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard and Michael Hoomanawanui -- while undrafted rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford also figure to get a look.
4. New look on defense?
Gone are the days of a surplus of big, physical defensive linemen; in its place is an overflow of hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end types in the 250- to 270-pound range. This was highlighted by 2013 top draft pick Jamie Collins, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker/defensive end from Southern Mississippi, who was selected 52nd overall. What it all means remains to be seen, as the Patriots still could employ the 4-3 base defense that they mostly played last year, or perhaps there will be a shift to more of a 3-4 type of front to play to the strengths of the hybrid numbers on the roster. At the least, there should be more athleticism in the team's sub packages, and that's where more of the game is being played these days (57 percent for the Patriots in 2012). Scheme tweaks bear watching in camp.
5. How -- if at all -- will offense change?
It's certainly possible that the Patriots could tweak their offense given the substantial personnel turnover this offseason, especially with creative coordinator Josh McDaniels leading the way. Might the team rely less on the tight end position than seasons past? Or could a player such as running back Shane Vereen assume a more notable role with his versatile skill set and ability to impact both the rushing and passing attacks? Given the success of the up-tempo offense in 2012, which paced the NFL in scoring, the Patriots also may be inclined to plug players in and pick up where they left off. Amendola offers a Welker-esque skill set, while Ballard and Fells could be called upon to take on Gronkowski's job until he returns. Sudfeld, a receiving-type tight end, flashed this offseason, but we'll withhold hardline judgment until the pads come on.
6. Dennard trickle-down effect at cornerback
The Patriots hold their first practice July 26, while starting right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is due in court July 31 in Lincoln, Neb., for a hearing to determine if he violated his probation. Dennard could land in jail, and if he doesn't, an NFL suspension remains a possibility. So how the Patriots manage that spot shines a brighter spotlight on players such as Kyle Arrington, 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling and 2013 third-rounder Logan Ryan. In the perfect scenario, the Patriots prefer Arrington in the slot, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he lines up as the starter on the outside opposite Aqib Talib given the uncertainty surrounding Dennard. Dowling, who has had his first two NFL seasons cut short by injuries, had a strong spring and now must prove he can sustain that when the pads come on.
7. Sorting through crowded backfield
The Patriots did not retain Danny Woodhead this offseason, but other than that the backfield from 2012 remains virtually intact. Add in veterans Leon Washington and LeGarrette Blount and there are five players who project to be in the mix for carries this season. Stevan Ridley toted the heavy load during the 2012 season and figures to have a comparable role this year, while Vereen, as mentioned, could be in line for a jump in his snap total. Washington could become this year's version of Woodhead, while both Blount and second-year player Brandon Bolden bring between-the-tackles rushing ability. The Patriots opted not to keep a fullback on the roster for much of the 2012 season, a tactic that helped the team (from a roster construction standpoint) carry five running backs. Given the variety in skill sets of the five running backs mentioned, all could be in the mix to stick around beyond training camp.
8. Safety pairing with McCourty
The Patriots always could move Devin McCourty back to cornerback in a pinch, but after finishing 2012 strong at safety, the smart money has him staying in that spot to open the season. Who plays next to him? Veteran Adrian Wilson offers an intriguing blend of size (6-3, 230), physicality and experience, and Belichick said in the spring that he thought he was running well, which was a knock some had against him in Arizona last year. Teammates have nicknamed Wilson "the Incredible Hulk" because of his chiseled physique. Heady veteran Steve Gregory, who started 12 regular-season games last season, also returns but makes for the NFL's smallest safety corps when paired with McCourty. Tavon Wilson, the surprising 2012 second-round pick, looks like an understudy to Adrian Wilson.
9. Rookie receivers ready?
We touched on the rookie receivers earlier, but it's hard to overstate how critical they could be. The Patriots have struggled to find a reliable receiver in the draft in recent years, but both Dobson (second round) and Boyce (fourth round) appear to have a chance to compete for a significant role. If either or both can prove to be NFL-ready by the time camp concludes, the Patriots will be in a position to keep up their passing proficiency from recent seasons. Dobson has the frame (6-foot-3) and athleticism to impact the perimeter passing game, while Boyce was considered a polished product whose stock dropped because of a pre-draft injury. Thompkins and Sudfeld, while not drafted, were the two rookies who turned the most heads during offseason workouts. Each hopes to be the latest undrafted player to stick around on the Patriots' active roster.
10. Will Armstead's CFL success translate?
Last offseason, the Patriots targeted Bengals defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene as one of their top free agents, with the thinking that he could help improve their interior pass rush. Fanene never played a regular-season game for the Patriots. This year, former CFL star Armond Armstead has a golden opportunity to seize that type of role, and he's one of the more intriguing individual stories on the roster. Had a heart issue not knocked him off course at Southern Cal, some felt he would have been a high draft choice; instead, he went undrafted and played last season in Canada to show teams he was healthy and still a top talent. The Patriots courted him as a free agent and beat out other clubs that were vying for his services. If he stays healthy and regains his pre-injury form, he could be a steal.
11. Is there a legitimate punting competition?
Incumbent Zoltan Mesko enters the final year of his contract and is coming off a season in which he ranked 28th in the NFL in punting average (43.1) and 24th in net average (37.9). The Patriots signed two-time Ray Guy Award winner Ryan Allen of Louisiana Tech as a rookie free agent. Mesko is the favorite to keep the job, and his role as a holder on extra points and field goals further tilts things in his favor. When it comes to economics, Allen ($405,000 base salary) gets the nod over Mesko ($1.3 million). Often at training camp, specialists find themselves working on one field while the rest of the club is on another, and this year adds a little extra intrigue when focusing on the specialists. Consistency figures to be the No. 1 factor in determining which punter ultimately emerges with the job.