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New England Patriots Training Camp: 5 things to watch for

Like, has this been the longest off season or what?  Like, fer shure, like, ya know?  Like, O...M...G!!!!

Sorry, I went into "teenage daughter with teenage niece" mode.  But, it has felt like the longest off season I can remember.  With rookies arriving Sunday, 7/26/09 and veterans arriving this coming Wednesday, Training Camp starts this Thursday.  To say I'm just about crawling out of my skin is an understatement.  There will be plenty to write about, plenty to talk about, and games just around the corner.

With little more than mini-camps to keep us going, we've been forced to satisfy our appetites with what amounts to professional flag football.  Helmets, but no pads or contact worth noting.  Training Camp is where we get to see what's what.  300 pounders bashing into each other, full speed action, DE's bearing down on Tom Brady - it's all good, clean fun.  With that said, I started thinking about what it is I'm looking for in this year's camp and thought I'd share it with you.

  1. Tom Brady's knee - I know, I know, stop worrying; there's probably bigger things to get worked up about,  but I can't stop being concerned.  Peyton Manning showed visible problems and mobility issues a number of games into the 2008 season.  Yes, I know Tommy Terrific has had longer to recover and will be participating in training camp while Manning was basically watching film in his training camp dorm room, but Brady's ACL/MCL repair was more serious an operation than Manning's bursa sac procedure.  I want to see Brady jiving in the pocket with OLB's and DE's bearing down on him.  Even then, I'll most likely be nervous until a few games into the season.
  2. Defensive Backfield - Rated 11th by the NFL (yards per carry) and 16th by Football Outsiders' DVOA, the defensive passing game has got to improve.  Unfortunately, it's sliding.  Football Outsiders' ranked the Patriots 12th in 2007.  What's happened for 2009?  Hybrid safety/linebacker Tank Williams' is healthy, Patrick Chung was our first draftee, and there appears to be a battle at cornerback.  FA acquisitions Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden add veteran skills to the mix and are the likely starters.  Behind them are second year men Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, both having showed mettle and skills in 2008.  However, the one to watch is Darius Butler.  Apparently, he's got mad skills which includes a 43" vertical leap.  That's almost four feet off the ground, folks.  Suddenly, we're flush with talent, but can that translate to game time?
  3. Wide Receivers - There is no question in my mind: Randy Moss and Wes Welker are arguably the best wide receiver tandem in football today.  Watching the 2008 season, many said Moss checked out on occasion.  Hogwash.  That's because Matt Cassel never developed a long ball with Moss, so they started turning him inside.  He was a target, so he ducked a few hits rather than end his career.  At any rate, we know what those two can do.  What about Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis?  At 37, Galloway is certainly the oldest of the crew, but the questions for me are a) can he be productive when Moss is tied up and b) can he be an effective decoy?  What will Greg Lewis' role be?  Will he roam the middle or maybe act as another slant guy?
  4. Running backs - I got into hot water when I put the Patriots first in Around the AFC East: Running Back Rankings.  Well, I learned something while interacting with rival AFC East fans: I think of Patriots running backs as a whole, not as individuals.  It's "backfield by committee".  Some teams may have great success with a workhorse running back, but I think the Patriots have always done well with a few general purpose backs like Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, and Fred Taylor while adding a specialist like Kevin Faulk.  Different guys for different situations.  It seems to have worked; the Patriots posted the best 2008 running game in the AFC East.  The big question for me, however, is will Laurence Maroney live up to his potential?  He may not be a workhorse back like rivals think of, but can he be that young, steady, presence in our running game?  Maybe Fred Taylor is the kick in the pants who can help him along.
  5. Offensive Line - Last, but not least, we have the 300 pounders.  JHR taught me to keep an eye on these guys, that games are won and lost in the trenches.  One of my biggest concerns, other than Tom's knee, is the sturdiness of our offensive line.  Having drafted three offensive linemen (Sebastian Vollmer, Rich Ohrnberger, George Bussey), I think Belichick's worried about it, too.  2007 saw them simply wear down towards the end of the season.  But, can the added youth come up-to-speed to add value?  Do they have enough skills to contribute early?  Who survives the roster cuts?

That's my list of 5 things to watch for.  What's your list?  What are you interested in seeing?  Is there anything you're particularly worried about or is everything OK?  Fire away, sports fans.  And yes, I'd love to see a rival fan's perspective, too.