Today is one of the most significant days of the year on the football calendar. The start of training camp — which evokes a range of emotions varying from hatred to excitement — marks the unofficial beginning of the New England Patriots season.
With a continuous string of practices, meetings and film sessions that seem endless, training camp can become awfully monotonous. Through it all, though, the Patriots have to take off their training wheels and transform into a squad ready for the regular season. So, let’s take a look at what it will take for the Patriots to consider this a successful camp.
Get Brady ready: In the broadest sense, the next three weeks are necessary to get everyone up and going, but it’s obvious that the most important member of the group is quarterback Tom Brady, who famously hasn’t played in a game since September. It’s vital for him to shake off the rust through practice and preseason action, particularly because the Patriots’ first two regular-season games are against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. Brady moved around with ease throughout the Pats’ organized team activities and minicamp, but he didn’t always deliver the ball in the most accurate fashion. This is all to be expected from a guy who is shaking off a torn-up left knee, so it might be a good idea to get him a few more snaps than normal in August.
Nail down the corner: The Patriots are fortunate to know a majority of the names that will fill out their starting lineup, but it looks like there will be an open competition for the two cornerback spots. Shawn Springs should lock down one side of the field, but Leigh Bodden, Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite are capable as well. Plus, rookie Darius Butler is talented enough to grab some playing time and could find himself with a more prominent role as the season moves along. For now, stability is the primary concern.
Role play with the tight ends: The tight ends have a similar situation as the cornerbacks, although Chris Baker figures to be the team’s starter. Beyond that, the Patriots have a talented cast at this position, but each player has a unique set of skills. Baker is the most well-rounded of the bunch, both as a blocker and receiver. Ben Watson, though, can be more of a weapon in the spread offense (yes, you’ve heard that before). Even if Watson hasn’t developed into a dominant pass-catching tight end, defenses can’t simply ignore his physical skills and allow him to roam freely. And then there is Alex Smith, who is a little more consistent in each area and is definitely the most underrated player of the bunch. All three have starting potential, so they’ll earn their playing time based on game situations. Head coach Bill Belichick has to be salivating over this versatility, and that will get situated a lot more over the next three weeks.
Into the Woods: The most high-profile position battle is for Mike Vrabel’s former spot at left outside linebacker, and Pierre Woods needs to prove he is ready for the opportunity. (It’s unrealistic to think anyone can truly replace Vrabel, but the outside linebacker position isn’t as dire as some might believe.) Woods started three games last year in place of the injured Adalius Thomas, and the three-year veteran should have the edge over fellow Michigan product Shawn Crable. If Woods rises to the challenge — and I believe he will — the Patriots will be in a great position. If not, don’t be surprised to see them make a trade. Since they’ve already reportedly had discussions with the Oakland Raiders about acquiring Derrick Burgess, we know the Pats are exploring outside options. But in their perfect world, Vrabel’s replacement is already in New England.
Stay healthy: OK, so that is painfully obvious (pardon the pun), and injuries are impossible to guard against. But if you’re looking for a successful training camp, it’d be nice to keep all of your contributors out of the medical ward before the start of the regular season. The Patriots already lost linebacker Tyrone McKenzie for the year after he went down during the team’s rookie camp. Tank Williams, who is back with the team in 2009, was seriously injured in the Patriots’ 2008 camp — and the list can go on and on for every team across the board. Belichick can’t do anything but cross his fingers with this one.
Note for the fans: Training camp practices are open to the public through Aug. 18. Parking and admission are free. If you plan to attend, the Patriots are asking fans to keep up to speed with the practice schedule at http://www.patriots.com or by calling the training camp hotline at 508-549-0001, which I recommend. If the Patriots move practice inside due to weather issues, practice will be closed to the public, and the hotline provides up-to-the-minute updates.
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