FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With all the bickering about whether the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots should even talk about going undefeated, head coach Bill Belichick was probably thrilled when the yakking was replaced by a focus on tasks at hand when the improved roster reported here for training camp Wednesday (July 26).
For example, before the Patriots can even think about their first victory, let alone an undefeated season, they must tend to details, such as the battle for No. 3 cornerback.
That duo should be the foundation - along with high-level safety play from Pro Bowler Devin McCourty and returning vets Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon - for what may be one of the top defensive backfields in the NFL The biggest question in the group is with the No. 3 cornerback spot and, tangentially, who will play in the slot.
Yeah, mundane stuff for a team with such lofty ambitions, but the key to success for Belichick and the Patriots is to put a magnifying glass on the little things and get them right.
Eric Rowe was added via trade last season and evolved into a key force on the way to the Super Bowl, capping the season with a big day in the big game. But the former Eagles second-round pick is a bigger (6-foot-1, 205) matchup corner ill-suited for the inside. If he retains the third corner job he had last winter, it would likely mean Butler would move into the slot in nickel and dime packages.
Other options for the No. 3 job include 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones, who struggled mightily on both defense and special teams as a rookie. He was drafted out of Alabama with an eye on the slot corner job but as of yet hasn't shown the ability to fill the role in practice or limited game action. Fellow second-year player and former undrafted player Jonathan Jones got some starter reps this spring and he'll also battle third-year former undrafted corner Justin Coleman for rotational reps.
The No. 3 cornerback is essentially a starting job in the modern pass-happy NFL, so the battle for that role will be one to watch this summer in Foxborough. Or is it Foxboro? Belichick needs to fix that, too.
Newsworthy as the Patriots opened camp was the decision by wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, signed in the offseason as a free agent, to retire.
TRAINING CAMP: Gillette Stadium; Foxborough, Mass.
COACH: Bill Belichick
18th season with Patriots
226-80 overall; 25-9 postseason
23rd season as NFL head coach
263-125 overall; 26-10 postseason
2016 finish: 1st AFC East (14-2)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 386.3 (4th)
RUSHING: 117.0 (7th)
PASSING: 269.3 (4th)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 326.4 (8th)
RUSHING: 88.6 (T3rd)
PASSING: 237.9 (12th)
2017 PRESEASON SCHEDULE
All times Eastern
Aug. 10, JACKSONVILLE (Thu), 7:30
Aug. 19, at Houston (Sat), 8:00
Aug. 25, at Detroit (Fri), 7:00
Aug. 31, N.Y. GIANTS (Thu), 7:30
Brady will turn 40 in the second week of his 18th training camp, but the man picking up more G.O.A.T. votes each season shows no signs of slowing down. After missing the first four games of 2016 to his Deflategate suspension, Brady put forth an MVP-worthy regular season in which he threw 28 touchdowns with just two picks, completed 67 percent of his passes and a 112.2 passer rating that was the second best of his career. Oh, and he capped it all with a historic comeback in Super Bowl LI to earn his fifth ring and fourth Super Bowl MVP. New England's embarrassment of riches at the most important position in sports doesn't end with Brady, though, as the team reportedly passed up a number of trade offers for the fourth-year backup Garoppolo this spring that could have brought a first-round pick and then some to the draft coffers. Heck, the Patriots even have a second-year quarterback in Brissett, who cobbled together a win for the team in his own rookie debut last September.
It's not often that a team lets a franchise-record-setter from the previous season walk and feels like the position may actually end up an upgrade. But that's exactly what happened for the Patriots this spring as LeGarrette Blount and his NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns ran off in free agency to the Eagles while New England added former Bills restricted free agent Gillislee and versatile Bengals backup Burkhead to a new-look backfield committee. Gillislee clearly offers youthful upside going from the Bills' run-first attack to the benefits of playing in the Brady-led passing game in New England. Meanwhile, White returns as the top receiving back after a historic Super Bowl LI performance. After catching 60 passes last regular season, White had three touchdowns - including the game-winner in overtime - and a two-point play on the biggest stage that helped earn him an offseason contract extension. Lewis is now more than a full year removed from the torn ACL that cut short his 2015 campaign that saw him put forth an electric, breakout effort as both a runner and receiver in the first seven weeks. Burkhead is the wild card. He signed a contract worth $3 million this season, more than any Patriots back since Fred Taylor in 2010. That for a guy with one career start who was basically a special teamer until the final two-plus games last season in Cincinnati. Develin is a trusted fullback and special teamer who brings grit, physicality and leadership that's been lauded by his teammates and coaches alike.
Gronkowski proved two things in 2016: that he's the most dominant tight end in the game when healthy and that staying healthy remains a concern. The big man battled a hamstring injury to open the year and then landed on injured reserve on the way to his third career back surgery. He signed a contract restructure this offseason that will double his pay to more than $10 million if he can put up the elite numbers he's capable assuming he can stay on the field. While he's battling to return to his best, Allen arrives to try to fill the void of Martellus Bennett's departure. Allen has never put up huge reception numbers, but did have six touchdowns in two of the last three years in Indianapolis and should benefit from playing with Gronkowski as a complementary weapon working with Brady. O'Shaughnessy also arrives via trade, coming from Kansas City where he was primarily a special teams contributor. He'll compete with Lengel, who was signed off the Bengals practice squad last fall to fill in after Gronkowski's injury and hauled in his first career touchdown among his two catches.
Brady has never had a more trusted, proven, versatile receiving corps than the one he'll work with in New England in 2017. Edelman returns to his role as a slot machine with a nice new contract extension after a healthy season in which he notched 98 catches for 1,106 yards and three touchdowns. As long as he's on the field, he'll be one of Brady's top go-to guys. But there is no doubt Cooks arrives from New Orleans with a chance to spice up a passing game that already ranked No. 4 in the NFL last fall. Cooks had 78 catches for 1,173 yards - a career-best 15.0-yard average - and eight touchdowns for Drew Brees' Saints last fall. While Cooks is expected to be the unit's big-play force, the group actually returns Hogan on the outside after he tied for the NFL lead with a 17.9-yard average in his first fall in Foxborough. Amendola isn't an every-down option by any means at this point in his career, but he's proven himself a clutch performer over his time in New England, as he did once again last postseason. Mitchell was an impressive rookie who swiftly worked his way into Brady's so-called circle of trust with 32 receptions as a fourth-round pick, as well as six catches in Super Bowl LI. Slater is a receiver on the roster only, earning his keep on special teams with an occasional blocking rep or go-route his only contributions on offense.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Nate Solder, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT Marcus Cannon. Backups - C/G Ted Karras, T Tony Garcia, T Conor McDermott, T Cameron Fleming, T LaAdrian Waddle, OL Chase Farris, OL Jamil Douglas, T Andrew Jelks, C/G James Ferentz, OL Max Rich, OL Jason King, OL Cole Croston.
New England returns the entirety of its starting offensive line from last season's Super Bowl run. The unit struggled at times against the Falcons' speedy defense in the Super Bowl and though relatively young, there are some upside questions. Solder is the former first-round pick in a contract year as a middling left tackle, though a trusted veteran. Cannon inked a $30 million extension last fall when he put forth his best season, when he lost weight, got in better shape and benefited from the return from retirement of legendary line coach Dante Scarnecchia. While Cannon and Solder each have six years under their belts, the interior starters have just five years of combined experience. Mason is the best of the group, but heading into his third year the former fourth-round pick continues to struggle at times in pass protection. Andrews earned his own contract extension starting 27 games, including all 16 last fall, as a former undrafted rookie. He's undersized and solid, but far from dominant. Thuney is the biggest question after the third-round pick started 16 games as a rookie. He appeared to wear down as the season played out and there are questions about his potential for growth moving forward. Beyond the starters, the backup roles and roster spots are very much up for grabs. Waddle was a healthy inactive 14 times last fall and is unlikely to earn a spot. Fleming is another backup at tackle, but the addition of the third-round rookie Garcia and sixth-round selection McDermott increase the competition on the outside. Inside, Karras started the opener at guard as a rookie and is really the only potential backup at center.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Rob Ninkovich, DT Malcom Brown, DT Alan Branch, RDE Trey Flowers. Backups - DT Vincent Valentine, DE Kony Ealy, DE Derek Rivers, DL Lawrence Guy, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., DT Woodrow Hamilton, DT Darius Kilgo, DE Geneo Grissom, DL Adam Butler, DT Josh Augusta.
At end, Ninkovich is the trusted veteran even as his age has begun to show in recent years. He started the final 10 games last season after a four-game suspension, but his sack numbers and overall production have declined for three straight years. The other starting end job will likely go to Flowers, who broke out over the second half of 2016 to lead the team with 7.0 sacks and then was maybe New England's best defensive player with 2.5 sacks in Super Bowl LI. He'll be expected to carry an even larger load this fall with the likes of role players Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard having departed in free agency. The depth at end will come from trade addition Ealy and draft picks Rivers (third round) and Wise Jr. (fourth round). Ealy is in a contract year as a former second-round pick, but started just 15 games in three seasons in Carolina while notching 14 total sacks. Grissom is a third-year former third-round pick who has yet to find a way to get on the field on defense and shows no signs of doing so moving forward, meaning his roster spot is tenuous at best. The roles at tackle are a bit more defined. Branch was the best player at the spot last year and re-signed this spring, but the veteran missed offseason practice to an undisclosed injury and his status to open the season is very much in doubt. Brown will hold one of the starting jobs, even if the former 2015 first-round pick has been somewhat of a disappointment. Valentine was a nice role player as a third-round rookie last fall and will slide into the starting lineup if Branch isn't healthy. Hamilton saw spot duty as an undrafted rookie, while Guy signs on as a versatile backup who can play all over the defensive front. The veteran started a combined 16 games over the last two seasons in Baltimore and should be in line for a roster spot at the very least.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Dont'a Hightower, MLB David Harris, WLB Kyle Van Noy. Backups - OLB Shea McClellin, MLB Elandon Roberts, OLB Jonathan Freeny, MLB Harvey Langi, LB Trevor Bates, MLB Brooks Ellis.
Prior to the late offseason signing of Harris, the depth at linebacker was one of the bigger concerns in New England. But the former Jets mainstay has proven himself over the years against the Patriots and now pursues a ring on the other side of the Border War after a year in which he tallied 95 tackles despite missing his first game in eight seasons. More important than Harris' arrival, though, was New England's re-signing of the Pro Bowler and captain Hightower. The former first-round pick has durability issues - he missed at least three games in each of the last three years, something that hurt his value on the open market this spring - but is the key man on the front seven. Van Noy arrived last October via trade from the Lions and the former second-round pick carved out a solid role for himself. Though he only started two of the seven games he played, New England sees him as a starting-caliber option moving forward. Van Noy did have 27 tackles, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defensed in a reserve role, production he'll be very much expected to build on with more playing time in 2017. The former Bears first-round pick McClellin has settled into a role as an off-the-line linebacker at this point, not the rusher he was drafted to be. He'll battle with second-year player Roberts, who impressed with both his maturity and production as a sixth-round rookie, more of an early-down, run-first option. Freeny started the first four games last season and has strangely been a favorite of Belichick's in his time in New England, seen as a coverage linebacker. The veteran may be in a battle for a roster spot at this point, though.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Malcolm Butler, RCB Stephon Gilmore, SS Patrick Chung, FS Devin McCourty. Backups - FS Duron Harmon, CB Eric Rowe, SS Jordan Richards, CB Justin Coleman, CB Cyrus Jones, SS Nate Ebner, CB Jonathan Jones, SS Brandon King, S David Jones, CB D.J. Killings, CB Will Likely, CB Kenny Moore II, DB Dwayne Thomas, DB Jason Thompson, DB Damarius Travis.
Though Butler's status seemed a bit precarious this offseason, his return as a restricted free agent and the addition of Gilmore after his Pro-Bowl season in Buffalo could give the Patriots one of the best cornerback tandems in football. Based on spring practice, Butler will retain his left corner spot, although work in the slot can't be ruled out depending on how the battle for the No. 3 job shakes out. Gilmore will settle in on the right side where he'll play under massive expectations thanks to his $65 million contract that makes him by far the biggest free-agent signing in Patriots history. Rowe was the third cornerback last fall after arriving via trade and is the favorite for that job again, although his 6-foot-1 size and matchup style mean his playing time could push Butler into the slot. Cyrus Jones was terrible in limited defensive action as a rookie, struggles that were actually overshadowed by his even worse struggles as a kick returner. Coleman and Jonathan Jones are both former undrafted players who have each had some reps this spring at the No. 3 spot and will battle for depth roles and playing time. In addition to the talent at cornerback, the Patriots' back end is also loaded at safety. McCourty is the leader coming off a Pro-Bowl season. Though not a flashy playmaker, the former cornerback and first-round pick is a solid last line of defense and the guy who keeps the whole thing running on pass defense. Chung is the physical force in the box who has remained surprisingly durable in his second tour of duty in New England starting all 16 games last fall. Harmon re-signed for $20 million this offseason, starter money for a guy who's been a reliable third safety option over the last couple years. He allows the Patriots to play many nickel packages with three safeties on the field, depending on the opposition and weekly game plan. Richards is a third-year former second-round pick the team still believes can be a contributor on defense, something he's failed to prove in two-plus seasons, ending last year as a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl. Ebner is a specialist in the kicking game, where his 19 tackles were more than double his next closest teammate. King is also a coverage specialist, one of a crowded bunch on the New England roster.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, KOR Cyrus Jones, PR Cyrus Jones.
New England's specialists very much had their ups and downs in 2016. A year after earning All-Pro honors, Gostkowski had his worst season in the NFL missing field goals and extra points with uncharacteristically alarming regularity. The four-time Pro Bowler missed three extra points and five field goals in the regular season and another two extra points in the playoffs. Allen may not have the strongest leg - his gross average ranked just 21st in the league - but his situational work is very much trusted by his coaches. Allen's 41.4 net last fall was seventh in the NFL and he'll once again go without training camp competition entering his fifth season. The same is true for Cardona, who entering his third year has juggled his commitments to the Navy while putting forth very few hiccups in his job in New England. The biggest question in the kicking game comes with the return jobs. Jones had five fumbles and even more bad decisions as a rookie in his work on both punts and kickoffs. If Jones can't take over the job he was very much drafted to fill, veterans like Edelman and Amendola may need to continue to do the work on punts, while McCourty, James White or Lewis might need to handle kickoffs, something Belichick would prefer not to have to do for all involved.