For the '09-'10 season, the Patriots have taken the unusual approach of having two practices a day, every day for the duration of the training camp period.
This approach can be attributed, mainly, to the unusual high rate of turnover experienced this past offseason, with 29 new players (as the roster count stands now) including free agents and those drafted, coming into, and learning an intricate system.
The high turnover includes the coaching staff (offensive coordinator, special teams), up to a very key position: vice-president of player personnel- a very misleading title, as its previous occupant, Scott Pioli, has been considered by many to be essentially Bill Belichick's right hand man.
The loss of Pioli, in contrast to what many people think, cannot fully be diagnosed until next season, because the draft selections and free agent acquisitions for this year, were evaluated during the previous football season, before Pioli left (with the exception of a few recent acquisition, such as Fred Taylor).
With that said, here are four things to look at, during training camp.
The situation at outside linebacker is not as unstable as most Patriots fans make it out to be. First, we have the return of Tully Banta-Cain, who languished in San Francisco as a full-downs linebacker. He returns to a specific position as a 1-2 down specialist in pass-rushing which is what he is best at.
Even with the oft-injured Shawn Crable on PUP, there are still a few free-agent signings that are being worked out. The easy and tempting move here is to make a big-splash signing or trade (e.g. Derrick Burgess) but this is not always the ideal solution; frequently a role player such as Pierre Wood, would work perfectly.
What most people forget is that we still have a monster on the other side, Adalius Thomas (on pace for 10 sacks before his arm injury, last year), who will dish out his share of offense-disrupting rushes, and in that regard, it is far better to have a no-nonsense role player who does his homework and goes where he's supposed to go, rather than a star player who cannot resist the temptation to ignore the game plan and cash out on his talents or athletic prowess.
RB and TE situation
Both the Running Back and the Tight End corps are stocked with five players each. It is my belief that the RB situation is not as tight as the TE situation is. Fred Taylor whose elusive style fits the Patriots rushing philosophy, arrives to fill in Lamont Jordan's position.
Both Fred Taylor and Lawrence Maroney have the injury moniker, and it has to be considered possible to see either one of them on PUP or IR in the coming season. Solid contributors from last season were Kevin Faulk, the shake-n-bake 3rd down specialist who has been so durable over the years, Sammy Morris the downhill runner, and BenJarvis Green-Ellis who filled in admirably for a few games and has a knack for the developing hole.
It is my belief that all five players will be kept on the active roster. With Pioli in Kansas and McDaniels in Denver constantly prowling, it will be impossible to sneak players onto the practice squad.
Tight Ends are another issue, with Belichick calling the competition at that position the best he has seen in years, with newly acquired Alex Smith, Chris Baker, coming to challenge Ben Watson, David Thomas, and Tyson DeVrees.
Upon initial impression, David Thomas seems to be the odd man out, after his disastrous unsportsmanlike conduct halted a key drive against the Colts last year and put him in the Belichick doghouse for the rest of the year. He, however has had a solid training camp, making key plays in the situational football scenarios Belichick has thrown out from time to time during camp, and which, for Belichick, is the litmus test of any player on the team.
This is predicated on Belichick's philosophy that it is "not about pedigree, or what you did last year, it's about what you do on the field today." All of the players have versatility and talent, so without inner knowledge of how each player is handling the offense or individual improvement, it is difficult to make a diagnosis on how the tight ends situation will work out.
Matt Cassel was the favorite target, the one poster you would find on a dartboard in New England when it came to discussing why the Patriots missed the playoffs last season. The offense was sputtering without the long toss, Cassel was holding onto the ball too long, and either telegraphed or didn't throw to protect his receivers.
Overlooked was the unusual under-performance of the defense, which continued to have trouble stopping red zone offense and consistent deep coverage. This problem has been around for longer than most people think- going back to at least '05 and being such an impediment that it contributed to the early playoff exit at Mile High Stadium that year. The key to containing red zone offense is solid defensive line containment, and solid pass-rushing, not so much a suffocating backfield.
The signing of Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs and the drafting of Pat Chung and Darius Butler appears to bolster the backfield, while the anchoring of Jerod Mayo and Tedy Bruschi (soon to be supplemented by Gary Guyton) with Thomas and Woods on either side, appears to return the backfield to a solid status, although without real game conditions to test them, it is hard to assess this.
I would rate the backfield the best improvement, with Chung and Butler being two great picks, and Bodden an excellent acquisition who flew largely under the radar because he did not fit well in Detroit's cover two scheme on the NFL's worst team. The previous year, however, he flourished in Crennel's system at Cleveland where he snared five picks. Crennel, as everyone knows, was the Patriots defensive coordinator.
On the front line, the return of the big three, Seymour, Wilfork, Green (backed up by Wright) remains solid, but the acquisition of Ron Brace, a pure zero-techique nose tackle gives the Patriots some cushion at nose tackle, probably the most important position in the 3-4 defense. The nose tackle must consistently command double-teams for the 3-4 to be at its best.
Tom Brady's return
With a year-long absence behind us, we can now observe what it is that makes Tom Brady so invaluable. Despite the fact that he is a three time Superbowl winner, with 8 season under his belt, his energy and enthusiasm for the game is still unflagged. He is often the first player out of stretching, and his practice mentality is the same as his game-time mentality.
He virtually makes no mistakes during practice. He continually diagnoses multiple fronts, packages and disguised rushes with ease in situational football, because he is attentive at all time and is very detail-oriented. One cannot underestimate the value of this and how this attitude affects the rest of the team and cascade all the way down to the unproven, undrafted rookie.
The big test for him is his return to professional football, and his mentality of playing on an injured knee. No matter how good a football player you are, you cannot expect to miss one year of professional football and not return without experiencing a breaking in period where you shake off the rust and get used to the speed and cadence of pro football.
Brady will also have to experience a collapsing pocket and getting hit on the knee before he is 100% comfortable playing, through understanding that his knee can hold up with hard contact. However, his mental toughness and enthusiastic energy/attitude makes him the ideal person to bounce back from such a devastating injury. If anyone can do it, he can.