Patriots Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch
July 24 marks the first time that the 2014 iteration of the New England Patriots will take the practice field as part of training camp.
New free-agent acquisitions like Darrelle Revis and top draft picks like Dominique Easley are always in focus, but there are more nuanced storylines that deserve attention.
With the Patriots poised on the precipice of greatness—on paper anyway—heading into the 2014 season, here are five angles to follow during training camp.
Rob Gronkowski Wants to Play Entire Season
A healthy Rob Gronkowski is the linchpin of the New England Patriots offense. With him, defenses don't know whether to play in sub or base and Tom Brady can pick them apart pre-snap. Without him, Brady has to execute perfectly up and down the field.
After two seasons that saw Gronkowski miss multiple games, he is ready to play a full 16-game—or more—season. Mike Reiss from ESPN.com had the quote from the healing tight end:
Rob Gronkowski, who underwent surgery for a torn right ACL on Jan. 9, is optimistic enough about his progress to the point that playing in the regular-season opener is on his radar.
"I'm planning on playing the whole season this year," Gronkowski said Friday night during his Football 101 Women's Clinic at a local high school.
It will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick works Gronkowski back into the mix. Don't be surprised to see him start camp on a limited basis.
Tending the Wide Receiver Garden
Even if Gronkowski is able to play the entire season, Brady needs some secondary options. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are two, but second-year players Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce will need to produce as well.
Oliver Thomas from NE Patriots Draft summed it up well:
[Thompkins and Dobson] started at different places and made their presence felt in different ways, but they traced a similar trajectory. And while their 670 routes, 12 drops and even 69 receptions weren’t always the way it was drawn up, their maturation was visible with each passing week.
The growth of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins was forged out of necessity. Yet by the end of the season, they themselves were a necessity.
The health of the young receivers is worth tracking during training camp. The more reps they get, the better chemistry they'll have with Brady come Week 1.
Contract Years Loom for Running Backs
While it is tough to question the will, determination and effort of professional athletes competing at the highest level, playing in a contract year removes all doubts whether you will be giving it your all.
Mark Daniels from the Providence Journal mentioned 22 New England Patriots players on contract years, highlighting one position:
Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are in the final years of their deals. You could also add James Develin to the list, but it remains to be seen if he’s used more as a tight end than a fullback this season. But for Ridley and Vereen especially, this preseason and upcoming year is vital.
A year ago, Ridley looked like the future of the running back position for the Pats after rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. But ball security issues, combined with the performance of LeGarrette Blount, severely hindered his 2013 season, which saw him rush for 773 yards and seven touchdowns. Entering training camp, Ridley is certainly not guaranteed to get the bulk of the carries this year — especially if he can’t hold onto the ball.
With rookies James White, Stephen Houston and Roy Finch nipping at their heels, look for the veteran running backs to be incredibly focused during what could be their final training camp in New England. If they want that second contract, they'll need to impress.
Will Devin McCourty Be the Next Patriot Extended?
While Ridley and Vereen are looking to earn extensions with their play this season, they may have to take a number behind talented safety Devin McCourty. Reiss from ESPN.com touched on McCourty's situation in his weekly notes column:
Media reports last month that the Patriots had reached out to defensive back Devin McCourty regarding a contract extension might have sparked an expectation that a new pact could be in the offing, but nothing is imminent at this time.
I still think it’s more a matter of “when” it happens than “if,” but my sense is that the Patriots don’t feel a need to rush things. In the last year of his initial rookie contract, McCourty is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3.9 million and count $5.1 million against the salary cap.
McCourty is poised to have a big year in 2014, able to use his instincts and range behind the physical corners in front of him. If the New England Patriots dawdle in signing him to a long-term contract, they may end up paying a much higher price.
Don't be surprised to see Coach Belichick come to his senses and lock McCourty up before the end of training camp.
The Hope of a Region Lays in Tom Brady's Hands
After a stunning run featuring championships from the Boston Bruins, Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics over the last few years, a malaise has settled over the city. Only the New England Patriots can change that now. Christopher Gasper from The Boston Globe shows the type of scrutiny the Patriots will be under:
The Sox remain resolute they’re not ringing in 2015 in the Fens, but they’re in last place in the American League East, 9½ games back. They’re eight games and eight teams from the second wild card. The Sox would have to go 42-25 the rest of the way just to reach 85 wins.
The Celtics’ plan to acquire Kevin Love looks less likely by the day, and they appear ticketed for another season of lotto-ball. The Bruins lost 30-goal scorer Jarome Iginla, and manacled by the salary cap, haven’t made any major upgrades. [...]
The Hoodie and his team represent hope on the horizon.
The buzz surrounding this team harkens back to the halcyon days before the kickoff of the 2008 season. A narrow defeat in the Super Bowl—or AFC Championship Game last year—whetted the appetite for a championship, and the roster had the capability of delivering on that promise.
New England will not be satisfied with an 11-5 record and an unlikely playoff absence this time around.
Look for the veterans like Brady and Vince Wilfork to keep a light atmosphere—no sense psyching yourself out this early while remaining focused at training camp.