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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Five major questions entering Patriots training camp

The reigning world champions will hold their first training camp practice in four days.

The New England Patriots will enter their 2017 training camp without having to worry about the major question mark of last year’s summer: Quarterback Tom Brady, who has been suspended for the first four weeks of the 2016 regular season due to his alleged role in the Deflategate farce. With Brady the undisputed starter come opening day, the Patriots will therefore be able to hold a "regular" training camp again.

Despite the coaching staff not having to worry about preparing two players as starting quarterback the next one-and-a-half months, there are still questions entering camp. Let's take a look at some of them.

1. How healthy will the Patriots be?

Last year, New England avoided any major injuries during training camp, the first under new strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera. While some players were shaken up – offensive linemen Shaq Mason (hand), Bryan Stork (concussion) and Jonathan Cooper (shoulder); defensive edge Rob Ninkovich (triceps) –, neither of the injuries was a long-term issue.

So far this offseason, the Patriots have been equally fortunate in terms of injuries as only two players had to be placed on reserve lists so far: rookie defensive edge Corey Vereen (torn ACL; injured reserve) and second-year interior offensive lineman Chase Farris (torn Achilles; non-football injury). New England has to hope that it continues to stay mostly healthy throughout the summer.

2. Will the team make use of the PUP list?

In 2016, the Patriots placed three players on the physically unable to perform list (PUP): offensive linemen Sebastian Vollmer (shoulder, back, knee) and Tre' Jackson (knee) as well as running back Dion Lewis (knee); only the latter of whom is still with the team. Neither transaction was a surprise at the time. This year, however, New England has no obvious candidates.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebacker Jonathan Freeny, who both ended 2016 on injured reserve, seem like the obvious choices. However, both participated in offseason workouts without visible limitations and therefore are not expected to start training camp on the sidelines. More realistic options are defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and offensive tackle Andrew Jelks, who were both no-shows at mandatory minicamp, as well as defensive tackle Josh Augusta, who struggled with conditioning during spring practices.

3. How will New England use Jimmy Garoppolo?

The last two training camps, the fallout of the Deflategate farce was hanging over the team: In 2015 and 2016, Brady was officially suspended for the first four weeks of the upcoming season. And while 2015's suspension was ultimately overturned, the team still had to prepare backup Jimmy Garoppolo in case he was forced into the starting role. The same happened last year, when it was already clear that Garoppolo was New England's day one starter.

Luckily for the team, this training camp will be different. With no suspension on the horizon, Brady will likely see the bulk of first team practice reps again. Garoppolo, however, is expected to still see plenty of opportunities himself. After all, a) he is the next in line in case disaster strikes and b) the Patriots have to make a decision on his future within the next seven months. Giving him as many opportunities as possible without hurting Brady or third-stringer Jacoby Brissett has to be imperative for the team.

4. Which position battles are projected to be the closest ones?

New England has arguably the deepest roster in the NFL. That does not mean, however, that some spots are not still open for competition. As things currently stand, the most intriguing ones are as follows:

Slot/3rd down wide receiver: Danny Amendola (incumbent) vs. Andrew Hawkins vs. Austin Carr

Given his experience within the system, his status as a member of Tom Brady's circle of trust as well as his recent contract restructure, Amendola is the favorite to win the battle for the final wide receiver spot. If he can build on his college career, Carr seems like a prime practice squad addition.

3rd tight end: Matt Lengel (incumbent) vs. James O'Shaughnessy vs. Jacob Hollister vs. Sam Cotton

Lengel has been serviceable in 2016 but the Patriots invested considerable resources into the position. And while O'Shaughnessy appears to be the favorite as of right now it would neither be a surprise to see someone else win the spot nor the to see the Patriots carry only two pure tight ends plus versatile fullback James Develin on the 53-man roster.

Backup offensive tackle: Cameron Fleming (incumbent) vs. LaAdrian Waddle (incumbent) vs. Conor McDermott vs. Max Rich vs. Andrew Jelks vs. Cole Croston

With three tackles locked in on the roster – Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Antonio Garcia – one spot appears to be open. The experienced Fleming and the high-upside McDermott are the favorites to win it.

Interior offensive line: Ted Karras (incumbent) vs. Jamil Douglas vs. James Ferentz vs. Jason King vs. Cole Croston

While Douglas offers upside, Ferentz experience, and Croston and King potential versatility, the top interior backup spot is Karras' to lose. The second-year pro has held the role last year and offers the versatility to back up both guard spots as well as the center position.

Defensive edge: Geneo Grissom (incumbent) vs. Deatrich Wise Jr.

The Patriots have four roster locks at the position in Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Kony Ealy and Derek Rivers. The question therefore is who wins the potential final spot in case New England opts to go five-deep: core special teamer Grissom or high-upside rookie Wise Jr.?

Dime cornerback: Cyrus Jones vs. Jonathan Jones vs. Justin Coleman vs. Will Likely vs. D.J. Killings vs. Kenny Moore

The top of the depth chart is set, the bottom is in flux. Jonathan Jones appears to be a roster lock due to his special teams prowess but might also be an option on defense in case Cyrus Jones fails to overcome the mental errors that have plagued him in 2016. If he can do that, though, the former second round pick should be considered the frontrunner for a final spot at cornerback.

Strong safety: Jordan Richards (incumbent) vs. Dwayne Thomas vs. Jason Thompson vs. Damarius Travis

2014 second round draft pick Jordan Richards has to fight off a trio of undrafted rookies to make the team. Given last season, when Richards only saw marginal playing time on defense and special teams, it would not be a surprise to see the team go with one of the younger options – if it chooses to carry another backup behind Patrick Chung at all (together with special teams aces Nate Ebner and Brandon King).

5. Which rookies will stand out?

While the Patriots have a rather small rookie class when it comes to drafted players with four, the team has an additional 20 undrafted players on its roster. Still, as noted above, New England possibly has the deepest roster in the league and one that is experienced despite its relatively young age. Rookie contributions might therefore be limited over the course of training camp.

The Patriots' highest draft choice, Derek Rivers, is one candidate to see a lot of top practice reps as the projected fourth member of the defensive edge rotation alongside. Other potential rookie standouts might be tight end Jacob Hollister and linebacker Harvey Langi due to the unsettled nature of their respective positions.