Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Training camp primer: 5 questions for the Patriots

Photo: Beth Hart, Flickr 

The Patriots are the obvious preseason favorites in the AFC East, but that doesn't mean they're taking their foot off the pedal. New England attacked its defensive weaknesses in the draft and bolstered its already-ridiculous passing attack via free agency.

Here's your five-question training camp primer for the Patriots:

How quickly do the early-round rookie front-seven defenders settle in?

New England took two linebackers -- Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower -- in the first round of the 2012 draft. Both are expected to make an immediate impact, with Jones more of a true pass-rusher from the perimeter and Hightower being a versatile, sound-tackling 'backer who can play inside or outside.

The Patriots also added an all-around front-seven defender in Jake Bequette, another good pass-rusher who could see plenty of time at defensive end. As bad as New England's defense was last season, expect all three to have every opportunity to etch themselves into the defense as impactful starters.

What impact will Lloyd have at receiver?

The NFL's leader in receptions from a season ago in Wes Welker will be back at least one more year, and the Patriots extended the league's best tight end in Rob Gronkowski. New England also re-signed receiver Deion Branch and acquired Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney, who were past Patriots before departing for other teams for a couple years.

However, recently-signed veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd is the most intriguing pass-catcher of Patriots training camp. Quarterback Tom Brady enjoyed throwing to Lloyd in OTAs, noting Lloyd's range in catching balls that aren't necessarily thrown in the perfect spot. The addition of Lloyd will likely mean the demise of one of the receivers on the latter part of the last paragraph.

Who, if anyone, becomes the primary running back?

The Patriots have two second-year backs they drafted in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen; both were limited last year behind the now-Bengal BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ridley is poised to take over the majority of the workload, as he was responsible for all of the team's rushes of more than 20 yards last season (five), while also racking up 441 yards on only 87 carries (5.2-yard average). - Sam

New England picked up veteran Joseph Addai earlier in the offseason but dropped him the first day of training camp. The Patriots also still have all-purpose back Danny Woodhead in the mix, as well as a pair of listed "fullbacks."

Where does recently-signed Shiancoe fit in?

At first glance, given the fact that Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are slated to see a ton of playing time as it is, you wonder why New England would bother to add a tight end of Visanthe Shiancoe's caliber, or why Shaincoe would want to become a Patriot under the circumstances. New England also has fifth-year tight end Daniel Fells, formerly of the Broncos and Rams, on its roster.

However, Fells is starting training camp on the PUP list, and Gronkowski is returning to the field this week for the first time this offseason since suffering an ankle injury. Plus, it's been speculated that Hernandez's role in 2012 will often resemble that of a receiver, and he's not the best run-blocker as it is. Shiancoe can run block.

What will the offensive line look like?

Longtime tackle Matt Light retired this offseason, opening the door for second-year tackle Nate Solder to step in. Also, veteran guard Brian Waters hasn't fully committed to returning to the team, and Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer won't be getting any early-camp work, as both are on the PUP list.

New England brought back centers Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen, both potential starters on the interior of the line, and the Patriots added veteran Robert Gallery to the mix while returning second-year tackle Marcus Cannon. There's a lot to sort out on New England's offensive front, though the Patriots typically boast one of the league's best units year-in, year-out, regardless of who is playing where.

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