For the New England Patriots, questions abound as they enter training camp. Their championship window grows smaller with each passing year and now they must endure a complete overhaul at wide receiver while their best offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski, recovers from back surgery.
They're more vulnerable than they've been in years and that was before they were forced to cut ties with tight end Aaron Hernandez.
The offseason has not been kind to them and their image has taken quite a beating. Wes Welker's unceremonious departure left a sour taste in the mouths of some fans, and though the team signed Danny Amendola, it remains to be seen if he can stay healthy, let alone match Welker's production.
The Patriots are still the AFC East champs, though, and will remain so until somebody knocks them off their perch.
To continue their dominance, however, they need to address several roster issues and get their house in order. Training camp is the perfect time to do that.
Here are the five biggest storylines to follow as the Patriots sift through their roster and lay the foundation for what they hope will be another trip to the postseason.
Ever since the Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship, many different players have dominated the offseason headlines.
Early on, fans were waiting to find out whether Wes Welker had a future in Foxboro. Cornerback Aqib Talib and tackle Sebastian Vollmer stole a few headlines of their own by re-signing and helping fill two major holes. Tom Brady even got in on the act by renegotiating his contract to save the Patriots millions of dollars in cap space.
Through it all, Rob Gronkowski was a constant presence atop news feeds. Whether practicing wrestling moves on a Las Vegas stage, apologizing via t-shirt for his frivolities or having one surgery after another...after another...after another, Gronk has dominated the spotlight all offseason.
Expect training camp to be no different.
The NFL’s most dominant tight end won’t participate in training camp thanks to his most recent back surgery, but his absence won’t keep him out of the news. All across New England fans eagerly await any indication of when he could potentially return to the field.
The Patriots haven’t made any announcements about his regular-season availability, but by carrying five other tight ends into camp, they seem to suspect he will miss at least the first few weeks. If that is indeed the case, a stint on the physically unable to perform list is a real possibility.
If Gronk lands on the PUP list, the earliest fans would see him on the field would be Week 7.
With so much turnover on New England’s offense this season, getting a fully healthy Gronkowski back on the field will be paramount to the team’s success. As he spends more time around the team during camp, we should finally get a better idea of exactly when that might happen.
As if the Patriots didn’t have enough off-the-field concerns to contend with, second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard went and got himself arrested in Lincoln, Nebraska last Thursday for suspicion of DUI.
In the wake of a tumultuous offseason, the Patriots probably won’t have any patience for legal shenanigans. Dennard already got off easy once this offseason when he was sentenced to a mere 30 days in jail for assaulting a police officer prior to last year’s draft. Since the incident happened before he entered the league, he also avoided any suspension from the NFL.
He might not be so lucky this time.
Image-conscious NFL commissioner Roger Goodell dispenses suspensions like a piñata does candy, so if Dennard is found to have committed any wrongdoing, look for him to earn an unpaid vacation.
Even if he avoids discipline from the commissioner’s office, the Patriots may want to take action against Dennard themselves. With the avalanche of bad publicity surrounding the team this offseason, players should be on their best behavior; not getting arrested and certainly not drinking and driving.
Now, there are reports that Dennard passed a field sobriety test, which is why he was booked on suspicion of DUI and not for a flat-out DUI. Still any arrest is not the sort of attention the Patriots want their players attracting. Oh yeah, and he's on probation as part of his sentencing in the assault case. That probation may now be revoked.
Do the Patriots enact a zero-tolerance policy and cut ties with Dennard? It’s possible, but I doubt it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they suspend him though. He’s an integral part of their secondary, and they can’t afford to have him land in the commissioner’s doghouse, or worse, in jail. They need to nip this type of behavior in the bud and a multi-game suspension would get that point across nicely.
Then again, they need to win games, so maybe Mr. Kraft will just sit him down for a stern lecture.
Whatever course of action the Patriots take, it will be interesting to see how the team and Dennard himself respond to yet another legal entanglement for the talented cornerback.
One of the Patriots’ biggest storylines heading into the offseason was what the team would do with Wes Welker.
When news broke of Danny Amendola signing with the Patriots less than 24 hours later, a bull’s eye immediately formed on his back, one that will remain there all season.
Replacing a legend is never easy, especially in a major market like Boston. Every time Amendola drops a pass, fans, announcers, media and possibly even Tom Brady himself will wonder if Welker might have caught it. When Brady throws an interception analysts will speculate as to whether Amendola made a bad read and caused the turnover by being in the wrong spot.
The best he can hope for in terms of public perception is to simply not mess up. When he makes a great play, we’ll give him his due, but at the end of the day we won’t be impressed. As the man replacing Welker, Amendola will be measured against an impossibly high expectations.
He’ll get his first taste of those expectations during training camp.
When he practices well, we’ll all read about how he looks Welker-ish. Reporters will say if they didn’t know any better they’d think Welker never left.
On his bad days they’ll write that the man acting as Welker’s replacement looks like anything but.
If he proves productive, Amendola will eventually emerge from Welker's shadow, but it will take time. With fans in attendance and the preseason just around the corner, training camp represents his first opportunity to do just that.
He’ll be one of the closest-watched players during camp as the New England area eagerly follows his progress in his quest to establish his own identity with the Patriots.
Amendola is locked in as the Patriots’ top receiver. Beyond that the entire depth chart is up for grabs.
Journeyman Michael Jenkins ran with the starters during OTAs, but for all his experience he doesn’t offer much upside. Second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson offers the highest ceiling of any receiver in the group, but the Patriots may wish to ease him into action as he acclimates to the NFL.
In a similar vein, rookie Josh Boyce has loads of talent and was very productive at TCU, but he’s coming off a foot injury and will need time to get up to full speed.
Speaking of injuries, the perpetually injured Julian Edelman has more experience in New England’s system than any of the other receivers, but health is always a concern with him. He has proven capable of producing when given the opportunity, though.
Veteran Donald Jones hasn’t provided much production during his career to this point. Kamar Aiken looked good during OTAs but hasn’t caught a pass during his two-year career.
Those, ladies and gentlemen, are New England’s candidates to start opposite Amendola.
All of them will likely see the field in some capacity, but the most pressing issue remains determining whom to pair with Amendola as Brady’s top targets. In fact, the issue is more pressing now than ever before.
With Gronkowski recovering from back and arm surgeries and Aaron Hernandez out of the picture, the Patriots face an overhaul the likes of which they haven’t seen since 2007. Of course, back then they added two potential hall of famers in Randy Moss and Wes Welker. They can’t expect this year’s crop of new faces to make the same impact.
This will be one of the most important position battles during camp and will bear watching all the way until the season starts.
With nine seasons of NFL experience, I’d say Jenkins has the early edge, although any one of wideouts could realistically claim a starting role across from Amendola with a standout camp and preseason. Dobson has an uphill battle thanks to the Patriots’ complex offensive scheme and his limited exposure to an NFL playbook, but talent usually wins out, so he should emerge more as the season progresses.
No matter who starts to begin the year, all of them will need to find ways to contribute while Gronkowski works his way back to full health. Otherwise it will be a very trying season for Brady and the Patriots.
Is the vaunted “Patriot Way” dead and gone?
I’m not the first columnist to type that question, and I won’t be the last.
Training camp won’t hold any answers, but the Patriots way of doing things will certainly be a hot topic as the season approaches. That time-tested approach isn’t dead yet, but the Patriots are at a crossroads. Their mythical modus operandi is on life support and their performance this season will either revive it or signal its death knell.
High-character centerpieces like Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown are long gone. While replacing players like them is nigh on impossible, the Patriots haven’t even tried, opting instead to take on one troubled athlete after another.
Recently-released tight end Aaron Hernandez had enough red flags coming out of Florida that some teams reportedly removed him from their draft boards altogether. To be fair, nobody could have predicted that he would one day stand accused of murder, but there were still signs of potential issues and the Patriots ignored them.
Second-year cornerback Alonzo Dennard was arrested for assaulting a police officer before the draft. The incident caused him to fall all the way to the seventh round where the Patriots felt comfortable gambling on his talent.
A seventh-round pick is a small price to pay for a player of Dennard’s ilk, but on the heels of another arrest—this time for suspicion of DUI—it’s fair to wonder if drafting him was another misguided gamble on the Patriots part.
It doesn’t stop there either. The Patriots are also relying on Aqib Talib to be their top cornerback despite his history of legal troubles.
On top of it all, Gronkowski and his party posse can’t stay out of the TMZ headlines for more than a few weeks and backup quarterback Tim Tebow carries his own set of media-generated issues.
In short, the Patriots have become something of a circus. Where once there were only football and tedious press conferences, we now find tabloid fodder, police reports and a media shark tank.
Bill Belichick has dealt with so-called problem children before. Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison and Randy Moss all had unsavory reputations before arriving in New England, but they helped lead the team to Super Bowls, so all was forgiven.
Maybe this will all blow over. Dennard will almost certainly face suspension from the NFL’s sheriff, Roger Goodell. But if Talib can keep his head on straight, Gronkowski makes a full recovery from an offseason of surgical and social mishaps and the Patriots can put the Hernandez situation firmly in the rear-view mirror, the team just might overcome this adversity like it has so many times before.
Or they could collapse as the entire football world watches the Patriot Way go the way of the dodo.