Organized team activities are in the rearview for the New England Patriots and summer is underway.
But the next five weeks will go quickly, and by July 28, 90 players will be back in the shadows of Gillette Stadium for the first practice of training camp.
Here are 10 questions to ponder leading up to then.
1. Will Brady be available for first month of regular season?
It is the elephant in the room for the second consecutive summer. And with Tom Brady’s legal team awaiting patiently to learn whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will grant the quarterback’s petition for rehearing “en banc” of his reinstated four-game suspension, lead attorney Ted Olson and Co. also reportedly have their sights set on bringing the case to the Supreme Court. And if four of eight justices decide to take it on, that, too, would likely mean Brady could play through 2016. But in the meantime, Brady isn’t slated to make his regular-season return until Oct. 9 against the Cleveland Browns. Jimmy Garoppolo, entering his third year, is penciled in to hold down the fort. If the Patriots can make it out of that September stretch at 2-2, it would be a win.
2. Is the rushing stable in its final state?
The Patriots’ leading rusher from a year ago, LeGarrette Blount, was not on the field for the five practice sessions open to the media over the past month. And while Dion Lewis did make his return to the field just seven months removed from ACL surgery, the 5-foot-8, 195-pound sparkplug is from a different mold than Blount and cautioned that Week 1 is “a long way away.” It’s possible that by then, the Patriots will have another name to account for in the ground game. The current depth chart includes Blount, Lewis, James White, D.J. Foster, Donald Brown, Brandon Bolden, Joey Iosefa and Tyler Gaffney. Most of whom are cut out for more of a change-of-pace or receiving role than a between-the-tackles one.
3. Will an undrafted rookie earn a 53-man roster spot?
Eight undrafted rookies are in the fold, and from the onset it would appear that Fosterand cornerback Jonathan Jones have the best odds of cracking the 53 based on the attention they garnered as priority free agents – receiving $30,000 and $35,000 guaranteed, respectively – as well as the attention they garnered during non-pads practices. It is early, however, and when camp arrives so will full contact. The Patriots also have corners V’Angelo Bentley and Cre’Von Leblanc to account for in the secondary, linebacker C.J. Johnson on the second level, defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton up front, and tight ends Bryce Williams and Steven Sheu. Each of those position groups could have spots open.
4. Who is the fourth wide receiver?
Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan are the roster locks out wide, and the same can be said of fourth-round Georgia product Malcolm Mitchell. But while Mitchell is a virtual certainty to make the team, he may not necessarily be the fourth receiver on the depth chart. Mitchell will have to fend off the extended Keshawn Martin as well as former second-round pick Aaron Dobson, veteran Nate Washington, rookie seventh-rounder Devin Lucien and 2015 practice-squadder DeAndre Carter. Those latter five are fighting for their roster lives and perhaps only one spot. It’s a well-stocked depth chart, and one that head coach Belichick praised for its level of competition this spring.
5. Is the defensive front making a full-time transition?
One of the developments of note during offseason workouts was where Rob Ninkovich and Shea McClellin were seeing reps. Ninkovich, the strong-side starting defensive end since 2012, was working as an off-ball linebacker. And McClellin, who rushed the passer at Boise State and was tried anywhere from end to inside linebacker during his time with the Chicago Bears, was tested out off the edge. Might this signal a full-time shift back to a 3-4 defense? If so, that could mean New England won’t need to carry as many defensive tackles or pure hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends on the roster. Take it with a grain of salt, however, as Belichick and Co. have experimented with putting players in unfamiliar territory at this time of the year.
6. How does O-line versatility impact the interior?
When the Patriots invested the No. 78 overall pick in Joe Thuney, who played all five spots on the offensive line at North Carolina State, the war room did so with an interior role in mind. Thuney will factor in at guard and center for the Patriots, and his presence, along with the likes of former Arizona Cardinals No. 7 overall pick Jonathan Cooper, could lessen the roster value of a returning starter like Bryan Stork, David Andrews, Tre’ Jackson or Josh Kline. The Patriots may elect not to carry both Stork and Andrews at center if they feel confident in Thuney’s versatility, and it remains unclear just who’s starting at guard. Jackson and Shaq Mason were fourth-round selections last year, and Ted Karras arrived as a seventh-rounder this year.
7. Who will be the starting nickelback?
Justin Coleman appeared in 10 games and started two as an undrafted rookie in 2015, and his growth earned the praise of team captain and free safety Devin McCourty, whorecently said, “He’s going to be one of our better players. Last year, he played a ton of football for us and he’ll do the same this year.” But Coleman has company as he vies to retain his job as the No. 3 corner behind Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. Rookie second-rounder Cyrus Jones has gotten early run with Ryan not participating in the open workouts, and 2015 seventh-rounder Darryl Roberts is also a name to monitor after a season spent on injured reserve.
8. Will Cardona be cleared for the season?
The signing of long snapper Christian Yount in April reflected the unique situation the Patriots are facing with Joe Cardona, a 2015 fifth-rounder who appeared in every game as a rookie while fulfilling his service commitments at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I. Cardona went to training in Norfolk, Va., after the season before venturing up to Bath, Maine to board the USS Zumwalt. He was on leave from the Navy to attend the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp this June, but is stillawaiting full clearance for 2016.
9. Which rehabilitating players might open on a reserve list?
When the Patriots open camp, it is expected that a handful of players open on the physically unable to perform or non-football injury list. Edelman and Amendola underwent offseason procedures, as did Kline and Jackson. Blount is also among those rehabilitating after finishing 2015 on injured reserve, and offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer were not spotted during OTAs. Then there’s safety and core special-teamer Nate Ebner, who’s currently on leave as he trains for a spot on the U.S. rugby team in the Summer Olympics. If Ebner makes the 12-man squad, Ebner would be in Rio while the Patriots are well into camp.
10. Who is the third linebacker?
Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower stand prominently atop the off-ball linebacker depth chart for New England, and from last season, Jonathan Freeny is in the mix looking to remain the third option on the defense. But with Ninkovich seeing work in that jurisdiction, McClellin bringing his own experience there, and the likes of Ramon Humber, Kevin Snyder and third-day draft picks Kamu Grugier-Hill and Elandon Roberts also in the fold, it’s a wait and see. The rise of the nickel defense could play a part in what New England is looking for out of the back end of the linebacker group.