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10 things to keep an eye on at Patriots training camp

07.22.14 at 6:00 am ET
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With the Patriots set to open camp this week in Foxboro, here are 10 things we’ll be keeping an eye on as things get underway:

1. How Darrelle Revis does as he continues to get acclimated to the Patriots system.

Revis is an elite defender — it’s a safe bet he’d be able to excel in just about any system. But with any new player on a new team, it takes some time to get used to new schemes, responsibilities and expectations. When it comes to Revis, it’s presumed he will act in much the same fashion as Aqib Talib did for the last year-plus — that is to say, he’ll be deployed most of the time in man coverage against the oppositions’ No. 1 option in the passing game. (Remember, Talib wasn’t necessarily utilized on wide receivers, as he also spent time shadowing tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Charles Clay.) It was clear Talib was going to have a pretty good 2013 when he first surfaced in camp and was shutting down anyone and everyone who dared to line up across from him. However, his real expertise was seen in the joint practices, when he was able to take his skills to the next level. Revis against Philly’s Jeremy Maclin and Washington’s DeSean Jackson will be fun to watch during the joint practices next month.

2. Tom Brady‘s relationship with his younger receivers.

To paraphrase Reggie Jackson, Brady remains the straw that stirs the drink. The quarterback, who turns 37 next month, went through a trying 2013 as he attempted to get on the same page with several new teammates on offense. While it was a rocky road at first, the passing game was able to road into form as the season went on. It will be interesting to see if the bonds that were forged between Brady and young receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins last season will pay off with big numbers in 2014. One thing that’s worth mentioning in this context — while Brady had absolutely zero continuity in the passing game between the 2012 and 2013 season, there’s no such concern this time around. The Patriots lost 305 catches between the 2012 and 2013 season — 75 percent of the output in the passing game. From a percentage standpoint, when comparing New England’€™s 2013 lineup with the 2014 roster, the Patriots have a retention rate of 97 percent when it comes to catches (370 of 380) and receiving yards (4,226 of 4,343), and 96 percent (24 of 25) when it comes to touchdown receptions.

3. The backup quarterback spot.

At this point, Ryan Mallett is expected to serve as the primary backup to Brady, while rookie Jimmy Garoppolo will work as the third stringer. (For what it’s worth, the last time the Patriots entered the regular season with three quarterbacks was 2011, when Brady, Mallett and Brian Hoyer were all kept around.) But the in-game progress of Garoppolo will certainly be worth monitoring as the preseason rolls along. Will this be the last summer in Foxboro for Mallett, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal?

4. The interior of the offensive line, specifically center and right guard.

Incumbent center Ryan Wendell has been near the top of the league in snaps played the last two seasons, and suffered some dropoff in 2013. Is it the start of a trend, or just because he’s been going up against the likes of Haloti N’gata on a regular basis? He’ll likely be challenged by rookie Bryan Stork, who did about a million laps for perceived infractions over the course of the spring workouts. (OK, so it wasn’t a million, but it sure seemed like every time we looked up, he was circling the field.) Stork arrives in Foxboro with an impressive resume, having won the Rimington Award as college football’s best center for a national championship team — he’s also got a beard that makes him look like Logan Mankins’ younger brother. As for starting right guard Dan Connolly, he could also be pushed by Jon Halapio, a sixth-rounder by way of Florida who put together an impressive college career with the Gators.

5. Rob Gronkowski.

The knee. The forearm. The back. All health issues that have dogged the big tight end over the last year-plus. When it comes to the 2014 season, you can look at it one of two ways: if you’re an optimist, you can point to the fact that it sounds like he won’t open training camp on the PUP list, as well as the fact that not too long ago, he was considered as durable as any tight end in the league. (He had a consecutive games played streak of 46 to open his professional career.) However, if you’re a pessimist, there’s the fact that he’s only played in nine of a possible 26 games since he his arm was crunched while blocking on that fateful extra-point attempt against the Colts in November 2012. He spent the spring sessions working with a rehab group in the corner of the field, and then retreated to the practice bubble to continue his attempt to get back to action sooner rather than later. He’s indicated a desire to play all 16 games in 2014, but if he can get back in time for Week 1, it would represent a seismic turnaround from a potentially devastating knee injury — maybe not as epic as Wes Welker‘s return in 2010, but not too far removed.

6. Who gets reps at tight end behind Gronkowski.

There remains some question as to the immediate availability of Gronkowski, and given the fact that Danny Amendola has played three more games (25 to 22) than Gronkowski has since the start of the 2012 season, that’s probably a fair question. If Gronkowski is unable to go, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams figure to get the bulk of the reps out of the gate, with Hoomanawanui having shown that he has a history with the offense. Williams was hobbled over the course of the spring, and wasn’t see much in the practices the media had access to. The recently acquired Nate Byham also remains a possibility, as well as Dustin Keller, who remains on the market as a free agent. Rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson also figure to be part of the mix, with the 6-foot-8, 274-pound Jones showing himself to be an intriguing prospect at minicamp and OTA’s. Of course, it will all be moot of Gronkowski is able to see the field from the start of camp, but it’s always good to have a backup plan in place.

7. Vince Wilfork.

Wilfork has always made for compelling theatre — our favorite training camp moments involving No. 75 have been when he’s gone head-to-head with Mankins in one-on-one drills in the corner of the practice field. But the perennial Pro Bowler is coming back from a season-ending Achilles’ injury that limited him to a career-low four games in 2013. He’s always been one to watch, but given the fact that he’s coming back from the first major injury of his career makes even more of a point of emphasis heading into training camp this summer.

8. James Anderson‘s ability to get up to speed as coverage linebacker.

The Patriots have been without a coverage linebacker the last few seasons, and the 30-year-old Anderson arrives in Foxboro with a rep as someone who runs well with tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder has carved out a nice niche as a steady, veteran presence with the Bears and Panthers, and is a tackling machine — he’s passed the century mark in three of the last four seasons, including 102 last season with the Bears. While he won’t be an every-down presence, if everything works according to plan, he would likely be on the field in place of someone like Dont’a Hightower on third downs and other passing situations, working as part of New England’s pass defense.

9. Who is getting reps at strong safety.

At this point, this is likely the spot that prevents the Patriots from walking away with the title of the Best Secondary In Football. While New England feels relatively secure at both corner positions, slot corner and free safety, the strong safety spot is still a bit of a question mark. Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson were let go in the offseason, and while the Patriots do have a couple of possibilities on the roster — including Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung — none of them necessarily strike fear into the hearts of opposing offensive coordinators. New England could utilize a combination of players at the position, one that could potentially include new linebacker Anderson. In terms of who might have the inside track at this point, it was hard not to notice the fact that Harmon spent a sizable portion of minicamps alongside Revis, Brandon Browner and Devin McCourty.

10. Kick returner.

Since LeGarrette Blount departed as a free agent, the position of kick returner is open. While there are a handful of candidates on the roster who have some experience at the NFL level, including Julian Edelman and McCourty. The Patriots tried several different players at the spot in the spring sessions that were open to the media, and some of the more intriguing possibilities included second-year wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, as well as rookie receiver Jeremy Gallon, who posted impressive numbers there as a collegian (he had 589 yards on 27 kick returns in 2010). If one of them can seize the mantle with a good performance this summer, it could also help solidify a roster spot, as things could get dicey for some of the younger receivers at the back end of the depth chart.

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