It's only May, and players aren't even in full workouts or donning pads, but Tom Brady is already set to go.
While his press conference today was full of training camp cliches, its a good sign for New England to see their leader jumping to get back into action. But how will the Patriots, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002, fare this fall?
While the questions surrounding Brady's health are some that will need to be answered, there are others as well. Keep in mind the Patriots went 11-5, sans Brady for all but one quarter of the 2008 season.
A delay in Brady's return, or even another injury, would hurt, but the Patriots have a solid offensive line and a deep pool of players at the skilled positions.If New England is going to return to the playoffs and capture their fourth Super Bowl of the decade, the defense is going to have to step up and match the panache of the offense.
New England's secondary is stocked with some much needed youth and talent in draft picks Patrick Chung and Darius Butler, which should help a team that is still trying to find a replacement for Asante Samuel. Veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs are steady players, but it will be interesting to see if the explosive Butler can push one of them for a starting spot.
Keep an eye on Vince Wilfork, too. The massive nose tackle is unhappy with his contract situation and did not report to a voluntary workout today. Granted, it's early, but him not showing up had to have sent a sign.
Wilfork is the anchor of the Patriots 3-4 defense and helps stuff the run. Rookie Ron Brace has potential, but it would be far too much to ask for him to fill Wilfork's spot right away in the season opener.
Should Wilfork hold out or demand a trade, his absence would allow teams to attack the Patriots both on the ground and through the air. With several youngsters potentially starting in the secondary, eliminating an opponent's run game could be key.
While New England is frugal with their cap space, they have shown the willingness to pony up for players they consider essential—especially lineman, as Bill Belichick believes games are won and lost in the trenches.
More likely then not, Wilfork will suit up as a Patriot next season.
If Wilfork returns, and linemate Richard Seymour can return to his previous form, the Patriots could have a dominating front line.
Couple this with a the emergence of a playmaker or two in the secondary, and New England's defense may be able to match the offense in its explosiveness.
Injuries, combined with the injection of new talent via the draft, make football one of the hardest sports to predict prior to the start of the season. But, it's safe to assume that the Patriots will be one of the eight teams playing deep into January. How far they'll go remains to be seen.
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