New England Patriots: The 5 Biggest Questions Heading into Training Camp 2012

Mike MattesContributor IIIJuly 27, 2012

New England Patriots: The 5 Biggest Questions Heading into Training Camp 2012

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    Thursday marked the day that the New England Patriots opened up their annual training camp and began preparing for the season that lies ahead.

    Like most NFL teams, the Patriots head into camp with a laundry list of questions and unfinished business to attend to, especially after their heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants in last season's Super Bowl.

    While there certainly is a great sense of optimism surrounding the team this season—and with the personnel they have, there is good reason for that—there are also many factors that could hinder its chances of reaching the Super Bowl once again.

    With most of Pats Nation expecting great things yet again this season, I'm here to play devil's advocate and highlight some of the key issues that the team may be forced to resolve before anyone can even begin thinking about another title run.

    Here are the five biggest questions facing the New England Patriots as they begin training camp.

How Will Bill Belichick Fix Last Season's Awful Defense?

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    It really is remarkable that the Patriots were able to come within minutes of winning their fourth Super Bowl championship last season considering how poorly their defense played all year.

    The team finished ranked 31st in total defense last season, and at times, it seemed as though a bunch of Pop Warner players were manning its sieve of a defensive backfield that allowed an average of 293.9 passing yards per game. Former standouts like cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Patrick Chung completely regressed last season—due to both injuries and poor play—and the team was left rummaging through the waiver wire and the practice squad at season's end in an attempt to salvage some severance of respectability for the unit.

    The team is hoping that both McCourty and Chung can rediscover their previous form, and it is also hoping that Kyle Arrington, who tied for the league lead in interceptions last season, will continue to improve upon his strong play. Ras-I Dowling is also expected to come in and help this year after the former second-round pick missed almost his entire rookie season last year due to injury. And the team also made what may turn out to be one of the best moves of the offseason when they signed free agent safety Steve Gregory—a solid player who could really surprise some people now that he has a chance to shine after spending most of his career as a backup in San Diego.

    Last year's AFC Championship hero, Sterling Moore, is on the depth chart as well along with veteran Will Allen and rookies Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard—that is, if they all even make the team. Still, the defensive backfield is in a state of disarray, and there is no guaranteeing that it will be fixed before the season kicks-off.

    Fortunately, their rushing defense ranked 17th in the league last season, which was about the only thing that saved the defense from being considered an unmitigated disaster.

    The defensive line is anchored by All-Pro nosetackle Vince Wilfork, and he is supported by a solid cast of role players including Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Gerard Warren and the newly signed Jonathan Fanene and Trevor Scott.

    As far as the linebackers go, Jerod Mayo will serve as the leader of this unit, along with a healthy Brandon Spikes, and the two should be helped immensely by the team's two first-round picks from this year's draft, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Along with Rob Ninkovich, the linebacking corp is undoubtedly the defense's strongest unit heading into camp.

    Still, many questions remain for the defense as a whole, and it seems as though the offense will once again have to carry this team if it has any hopes of making another Super Bowl run.

Who Will Emerge as the Lead Running Back?

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    Look, let's face it, the Patriots have not had a solid running back since the days of Corey Dillon.

    After Dillon's retirement in 2007, the team has used a myriad of running backs in an attempt to solidify a position that was once a strength—but this has been met with very limited success.

    They thought they had found their workhorse of the future in Laurence Maroney after drafting him with the 21st overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. Maroney split time with Dillon during his rookie season, but folded faster than Superman on laundry day (thanks, Jerry Seinfeld) when he was finally given the chance to start. Although he had a few decent seasons in New England, he was never able to cement his status as a true NFL starter and was traded for basically nothing before the start of the 2010 season—a season that would ultimately be his last in the NFL.

    Then the team thought that it had struck gold in 2010 when undrafted standout BenJarvus Green-Ellis became the first Patriot running back since Dillon to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. Yet this proved to be an aberration the very next year when the Law Firm could only muster up 667 rushing yards with a sub-par 3.7 yards per carry average. As a result, the team chose not to resign him this offseason, and he will try to prove his worth once more in Cincinnati this year after signing a three-year contract with the Bengals in March.

    Now the responsibility of taking over this position lies within the hands of two inexperienced—albeit very talented—second-year players in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.

    Both Ridley (third round) and Vereen (second round) were highly-touted rookies last season after being drafted within the team's top four picks of the 2011 NFL Draft, but only Ridley was able to see the field for a significant amount of time last season. Much of this had to do with the fact that Vereen was hindered by a nagging hamstring injury, but both will be responsible for shouldering basically the entire load for the Pats this season.

    Ridley showed flashes of brilliance last year—save for his frustrating fumble issues—and heads into training camp as the expected starter. But the lightning-quick Vereen is nothing to scoff at and could surprise many this year if he lives up to his lofty expectations.

    Regardless, both players have a lot to prove in 2012.

How Will Wes Welker Play After a Shaky Offseason?

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    There is no denying that the relationship between the Patriots and their star wide receiver is at a crossroads.

    Since arriving in 2007, Welker has caught more passes than anyone else in the NFL and has cemented his status in New England folklore forever with his scrappy and unrelenting style of play. Perhaps there is no other player, besides maybe Troy Brown, that has been able to capture the hearts of Patriots Nation so quickly and with such ease.

    But the NFL is a business, and this may be the last time we see Welker in a Patriots uniform.

    That is because Welker became a free agent for the first time this offseason, but was unable to secure a long-term deal due to concerns over his age, injury history, as well as a general disagreement over just how valuable he is to a team that is loaded with an arsenal of receiving weapons.

    At times, the contract negotiation process between Welker and the team got ugly, especially after Welker publicly complained about his frustration back in May.

    Fortunately, Welker decided to show class by signing his one-year, $9.5 million franchise tender shortly thereafter, and Patriots fans can take solace in the fact that they will have their beloved No. 83 on the field once again this season.

    Yet that does not mean that we will see the same old Welker that we have been so accustomed to.

    Even though there is no reason to believe that Welker is not capable of putting up All-Pro numbers this season—as evidenced by his league-leading 122 receptions last year—the fact of the matter is, the team has already made great strides in moving away from him as the focal point of the offense.

    Not only will perhaps the most incredible duo of tight ends in NFL history, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, continue to improve in their young careers, but the team has also brought in weapons such as Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney—one of Brady's all-time favorite targets—who should see a significant amount of balls thrown their way this season.

    All of those factors combined should lead to a decrease in production from Welker in 2012, and Pats fans should enjoy what little time he may have left in New England.

How Will the Offensive Line Look at the Start of the Regular Season?

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    What was once always a position of strength for the Patriots now has some serious questions heading into the 2012 season.

    Most of these questions have to do with the health of the team's expected starters, as only two of the positions along the line come with no injury concerns.

    For starters, All-Pro offensive guard Logan Mankins is coming off of an ACL injury that he suffered during the Super Bowl, and although many believe that he will be ready to start the season, he was placed on the PUP list on Monday.

    Unfortunately, he was not the only one.

    Fourth-year offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer was also placed on the PUP list on Monday, and it seems as though his nagging back injury may be more serious than initially though. After receiving what is being referred to as "minor" back surgery this offseason, many expected him to be completely ready to start camp on time.

    But perhaps it is not so surprising that this "minor" procedure was not the wonder solution that everyone had hoped. That is because this was actually his second back surgery within the last six years after receiving a major back operation during his sophomore season at the University of Houston in 2006.

    Both players are eligible to come off of the PUP list at any time during the preseason, but this does not mean that they will. And if Vollmer continues to have lingering back issues, his once-promising career could be in a sudden state of jeopardy.

    Furthermore, nobody seems to have even the slightest clue as to what Brian Waters' plans are for the upcoming season. The 35-year-old perennial Pro-Bowler was a force on the offensive line for the Patriots last season after coming over from Kansas City, and the team needs him to come back this year in order to help shore up an already shaky unit.

    Unfortunately, in typical Patriot fashion, the team has not given any indication as to what Waters will do, and this is all that we were left with after he was placed on the Did Not Report list on Wednesday: "I'm not really talking about it, you'll have to talk to the Patriots about it," Waters told the Boston Globe. "At this moment, I'm not really discussing the situation. Right now I'm just handling things between me and the team. If they want to talk to you, that's fine, but I'm not really talking about it."

    So there's that...

    Second-year offensive tackle Nate Solder is primed to take over for the incumbent Matt Light after a strong rookie season, and Dan Connolly is expected to retain his role as the starting center, although he may be pushed a bit by former starter Dan Koppen, who was surprisingly resigned this offseason.

    But those are pretty much the only two sure things for the offensive line as it stands right now.

    The team does have some nice depth along the line that has been built up throughout the last few seasons, but there are too many questions with the guys that matter most for anyone to feel comfortable about who gets to protect Tom Brady this season.

Will Rob Gronkowski Be Able to Stay Focused This Season?

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    Last season, Rob Gronkowski had the greatest season ever by a tight end when he hauled in 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns—absolutely astronomical numbers for someone at his position.

    Yet this recent success may not be such a good thing for the eccentric 23-year-old.

    Since the Patriots' heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl—a loss that had much to do with the fact that Gronkowski was unable to play due to injury—the young tight end has not seemed all that affected by the defeat. Instead of laying low and focusing on offseason workouts, Gronkowski has instead been caught up in a whirlwind of partying and debauchery that has been documented on various Internet sites and sleazy tabloids in recent months.

    Just during this offseason alone, Gronkowski has partied in the Caribbean, shot numerous viral videos, schmoozed with various Hollywood celebs, posed nude for an ESPN The Magazine cover and even spent time on a television dating show.

    Basically, it seems as though he is much more interested in the fame rather than the game at this point.

    There are even reports that the team has approached Gronkowski recently about his distasteful off-field behavior and demanded that he tone it down before the start of training camp.

    On a team that barely speaks to the media as it is, this type of behavior will quickly cause any player to fall out of favor, regardless of how incredibly talented they may be.

    Sure, many fans have fallen in love with "Gronk" and his cheeky offseason antics, but they may be singing quite a different tune if this behavior continues after the regular season games begin.