FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots started their string of voluntary offseason activities on Monday, and they'll conduct a dozen of these spring practices over the next several weeks. It's a good way to get guys in a football mindset midway through the offseason.
Here's a six-pack of things to monitor during New England's OTA's (all are closed to the public, but four are open to the media):
1. Logan Mankins' attendance
The starting left guard, who has been New England's most consistent offensive lineman for the past few seasons, is unhappy with his contract, and it's unlikely he'll be in attendance for the Patriots' organized team activities. Mankins hasn’t been at Gillette Stadium since the majority of his teammates reported in March, and it doesn’t sound like he'll be around for any voluntary workouts. The Patriots don’t have any mandatory sessions until minicamp from June 15-17.
New England tendered Mankins, a restricted free agent, for a one-year, $3.268 million contract, but the left guard hasn’t signed it. If you're wondering what might make Mankins a happy man, check out the seven-year, $56.7 million contract recently signed by Saints guard Jahri Evans. Until the Patriots come to the table with that kind of cake, it's unclear when Mankins will pull up his seat.
2. The Brady-Moss connection
It's always been interesting watching Tom Brady work with Randy Moss at these practices. They've had a great rapport on and off the field, and it's been fun to see them sync up and get into a rhythm during these low-stress sessions. The two have also broken off on their own for plenty of one-on-one conversations while the team has focused on other aspects. However, with the uncertainty of Wes Welker's health, Brady might find it more beneficial to spend some extra time with Torry Holt, Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate.
3. Reps for the front seven
There are a ton of possibilities with the front seven due to the additions of defensive linemen Damione Lewis, Gerard Warren, Brandon Deaderick and Kade Weston, as well as linebackers Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham and (after losing his rookie season to a knee injury) Tyrone McKenzie. Couple that with the release of Adalius Thomas, and there promises to be a flurry of new combinations, both in the 3-4 and 4-3.
4. Cornerback competition
Leigh Bodden will be the Patriots' starter at right cornerback, and that’s one of the very few solidified positions on defense. (Think about it: With the positional battles and Bill Belichick's use of sub packages, Bodden, Brandon Meriweather, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and maybe Tully Banta-Cain are the Pats' only locked-in starters at this point.) Darius Butler, Devin McCourty and Jonathan Wilhite will vie for playing time on the right side, and it promises to be one of the best competitions over the next three months.
5. Brian Hoyer's improvement
The undrafted free agent had a shaky start to his Patriots career, but he was one of their most improved players throughout the course of the team's 2009 training camp and preseason. He overcame some great odds to beat out Matt Gutierrez, Kevin O'Connell and Andrew Walter to become Brady's lone backup, and Hoyer's talent seems to be held with high regard by the coaching staff. With a full year of NFL workouts under his belt and a true desire to continue improving, Hoyer's progress should be noticeable.
6. Return game
The Patriots were mediocre returning kicks last season. Their average of 22.7 yards ranked 15th in the NFL, and their longest kick return of 52 yards was fifth worst in the league. The short of it, they had no home-run potential, and that’s got to change in 2010. Butler should get a serious chance, but Edelman, Tate and McCourty will get their shot, too. Consider Monday as the beginning of an open tryout.