Sunday, August 8, 2010

New England Patriots Training Camp Questions

With the start of training camp comes the start of a new NFL season. It’s a bit cliché, but every team starts 0-0 and with optimism that they could pull everything together and win the Super Bowl.

Some teams can be more optimistic than others. The New England Patriots are one of them. The Patriots have the talent and organization to be set up to win now.

That said, they are far from a perfect squad. The team is undergoing a youth movement on the defensive side of the ball, have some early injury concerns, and still have some off-field business matters to take care of.

Here are some of the Patriots’ biggest questions that need to be answered for the team to have a successful season.

Who will start at cornerback opposite Leigh Bodden?

Leigh Bodden’s five interception season earned him a new contract with the Patriots, but who will the team partner with him?

The two leading candidates are second-year corner Darius Butler and first-round draft pick Devin McCourty.

Butler played in 14 games last season, registering 33 tackles and three interceptions, including returning one for a touchdown.

McCourty is extremely versatile and could play a big role on special teams as well as on defense.

Early expectations had the team bringing on McCourty slowly, but he has been taking a lot of reps with the first-team defense alongside Bodden, before Bodden was taken out because of injury.

With Bodden temporarily sidelined, McCourty and Butler will both start in the team’s first exhibition game, and will battle each other the entire preseason for the right to start.

One would think because of the way the Patriots handle their players that Butler has the edge because of his experience in the team’s system, but McCourty looks to be on the fast-track to playing time.

Both prospects have bright futures, and the competition will make them that much better. But right now, only one will get the nod to start.

Vince Wilfork got his money. Will he live up to his new contract?

Players in the last year of their contract typically play strongly, working to ensure a big payday in the offseason. The problem is that once they do get that new contract they aren’t as motivated and see a sharp decline in stats.

The perfect example is the previous big-name defensive tackle free agent before Wilfork: Albert Haynesworth.

In 2008, Haynesworth put up career-highs in games started (14), total tackles (41), sacks (8.5), and forced fumbles (3). He signed a contract with the Washington Redskins worth $100 million with $41 million guaranteed.

He then proceeded to go down in all those categories, starting only 12 games, registering 29 total tackles, eight sacks, and forcing zero fumbles.

This year he has had trouble even passing a conditioning test.

Wilfork did not have a career year in 2009. Still he was too important to the Patriots team and defense to let go, and he got his new contract. It wasn’t Haynesworth money, but it was certainly not table scraps.

The Patriots organization and coaching staff has done a good job bringing in quality players, both with football talent and locker room character, and Wilfork has been a vital part with strong winning teams, so it’s unlikely that he become complacent now that he has his money.

How will extra responsibility affect Bill Belichick?

The Patriots will enter the season without an offensive and defensive coordinator. Belichick will be the primary play-caller for both sides of the ball.

Belichick was already heavily involved with the defense, as that was his specialty coming into the league, but now he assumes more responsibility.

Belichick’s play calling on offense was heavily scrutinized when instead of punting on fourth down on their own 28-yard line with a six point lead and two minutes remaining against the Colts, they went for it. They failed to convert and gave the ball back to Indianapolis and Peyton Manning with plenty of time and little field left to win the game.

Considered one of, if not the best coach in the league, is Belichick taking on too much? Is his control of the team reaching too far?

When will Wes Welker be ready to play?

Welker tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the regular season finale against Houston and was expected to miss at least the first half of the season. He was placed on the physically unable to perform list, but showed up at camp.

Then he was removed from the PUP, and once removed a player cannot be put back on the list. This lead to speculation that Welker could be ready sooner than expected.

Welker has said he even hopes to be ready for Week 1 against the Bengals. He has not missed a day of camp and participated in full-contact drills.

Still, for a player that relies heavily on his route running and cutting, one has to wonder how affective Welker will be and when he will be at full strength, physically and mentally.

What does the future hold for Tom Brady?

Tom Brady’s contract situation has been the biggest story of the Patriots’ offseason.

The franchise quarterback is in the final year of his contract and the future isn’t so clear.

While he is the face of the team, the two sides have not been able to agree on an extension. Currently he is scheduled to make $6.5 million this season, well-below the price-tag of other elite quarterbacks. The biggest factor in extending Brady’s deal is the uncertainty of labor negotiations for next season and what contract stipulations and changes could come from a new collective bargaining agreement.

Another factor, although not nearly as pressing as the labor issues, is that Peyton Manning and Drew Brees’ deals are also set to expire and the New England brass could be waiting to see what the market price for the top-three quarterbacks in the league will be.

Still, Brady, most likely, isn’t going anywhere.

Owner Robert Kraft has said, “He’s going to be here.”

Brady himself has expressed that he wants to continue playing for a long time and that it’s every player’s desire to retire with the team that drafted the individual.

And if no extension is agreed on?

Brady is too much of a professional to allow it to become a distraction. He has yet to voice his displeasure. Also, players are known to have career years at the end of their deals, attempting to cash in on a strong campaign.

Photo Credits.
Tom Brady: AP Photo/Steven Senne
Devin McCourty: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Vince Wilfork: AP Photo/Stew Milne
Bill Belichick: AP Photo/Steven Senne
Wes Welker: AP Photo/Stew Milne

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