While most things appear to be hunky-dory around Foxboro, here are 10 questions that the Patriots will have to answer if they want to live up to the expectations.
Who’s Now?” ESPN keeps asking us.
“Who cares?” is the correct response.
Sure, it’s annoying and sophomoric, bottom-of-the-creative-barrel, made-for-TV gunk.
But if the Worldwide Leader in Sports really needs an answer – and the crew in Bristol seems adamant about it – we have the answer.
The Patriots are about as “now” as it gets.
They already had Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Ellis Hobbs, three Super Bowl rings and four straight AFC East crowns. Now they have Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas and Donte’ Stallworth and Wes Welker. Not to mention 412-year-old Junior Seau (again). OK, we kid – Junior’s really only 306.
Can you get any more star power than that?
Sure, they haven’t lifted a Lombardi Trophy since February 2005, and long-time arch-nemesis Peyton Manning and the Colts are the defending champions now. But the Patriots are loaded and – if you believe all the self-styled experts – primed to get fitted for more impossibly gaudy Super Bowl bling.
Training camp kicks off Friday. While most things appear to be hunky-dory around Foxboro, here are 10 questions that the Patriots will have to answer this summer (and fall and winter) if they want to live up to the expectations:
1) Where’s Asante?
One clarification on franchise-tagged cornerback Asante Samuel and his contract snit. Now that the deadline for signing a long-term deal has passed, we were under the assumption that Samuel only could play for his one-year tender offer of $7.79 million. Technically, the CBA extension stipulates that players in Samuel’s boat can sign for only one year, at any price. (Thanks to profootballtalk.com for pointing that out, in a story on fellow disgruntled franchisee Lance Briggs, who finally made nice with the Bears Wednesday.) Samuel’s agent, Alonzo Shavers, confirmed the nuance. He also said there was no update on Samuel’s in-limbo status – he can sit out as much as the first 10 weeks of the regular season before reporting. He wouldn’t be fined during his boycott, but he wouldn’t get paid either. A trade is possible, too. Or he can just ink that one-year deal and get to work.
We’re assuming Samuel won’t be there for Friday’s first practice, at least, giving the Patriots their third straight high-profile camp no-show (Seymour in 2005, Deion Branch in 2006). That means much scrutiny for the rest of the corners. Hobbs has the demeanor of a No. 1, shutdown guy, and he gets kudos for playing through a busted wrist last season. After him, though, it gets a little murky with veteran free agent Tory James joining Chad Scott, Randall Gay and rookies Mike Richardson and Larry Anam (of Boston College). On the plus side, the Patriots have a long history of success with patched-together secondaries.
2) Can Laurence Maroney shoulder the load?
Yes, that’s a cheap play on words because Maroney, who was injury plagued as a rookie last year (knee, ribs), underwent offseason shoulder surgery and was nothing more than a uniformed spectator at the June minicamp. Both he and Belichick have been vague (imagine that!) about his availability for the start of camp, but Maroney reportedly won’t be on the physically-unable-to-perform list Friday. That’s a good sign. Without the retired Corey Dillon, there’s no real every-down Plan B on the roster that we can see, unless you’re high on veteran free agent Sammy Morris or rookie sixth-rounder Justise Hairston. The Patriots appear to have plenty of firepower in the passing game, but they need a running game to balance it out. In other words, they need the Maroney who shredded the Bengals in Week 4, not the one who averaged 2.8 yards per carry in the playoffs.
3) Will Randy Moss fit in?
You’d like to think so. He’s on a one-year, prove-it deal, and if he behaves and wins a ring, he could present himself as a changed man to deep-pocketed free-agent suitors come the spring. The 6-4 Moss’ skill set is unique in recent Patriots annals. As Troy Brown told a Maine radio station this offseason, his fellow Marshall alum “can go up and make some plays on the football – something we haven’t had in a while around here.” Moss, 30, and Brady seem to be on good terms – Brady reportedly picked up his new buddy’s dinner tab when the two found themselves at the same Vegas restaurant in the offseason – and you know Brady must be drooling over the possibility of letting it fly deep, a la Daunte Culpepper a few years ago. Of course, no one knows how Moss will react to the Patriots’ share-the-wealth approach to offense, although it must be noted that Branch caught a robust 78 passes in 2005. There’s enough to go around here, as long as Moss doesn’t pout when Brady checks down and hits Kevin Faulk in the flat.
4) How will the receivers shake out?
With 12 contenders for, we assume, no more than six spots, this will be the most-watched group this summer. Moss, Stallworth and Welker are the top three and therefore are locks. It would be hard to part with Reche Caldwell, given how he carried the unit on his back last season. And Jabar Gaffney had a tantalizing playoff run. OK, that’s five, and we’re left with a two-tier remainder of Brown, second-year enigma Chad Jackson and free agent Kelley Washington, followed by long shots Bam Childress, Chris Dunlap, C.J. Jones and Kelvin Kight. Brown (offseason knee surgery) and Jackson (rehabbing a torn ACL) are expected to start camp on PUP, which means we might have to wait a while to get a good read on this steel-cage match. The Pats could stash Jackson on PUP for the first six games of the regular season, so it could come down to the 36-year-old Brown’s veteran savvy against the soon-to-be 28-year-old Washington’s size (6-3, 215) and potential. That is, unless the Patriots consider Gaffney a flash in the pan.
5) Where will Adalius Thomas play?
We’ll rule out quarterback, kicker and punt returner. Everything else is on the table. As Tedy Bruschi explained to WEEI this offseason, the coaches have told the linebackers to “be ready for anything.” Belichick and his staff got a good view of Thomas, 29, at the Pro Bowl, and the Patriots struck with stunning swiftness in getting his name on a contract once free agency began. The 6-2, 270-pound marvel did just about everything in Baltimore, including earning a 2003 Pro Bowl nod as a special teamer and notching more sacks (28) than any other NFL linebacker from 2004-06. His hookup with Belichick and defensive coordinator Dean Pees seems like the perfect union of versatile player and creative masterminds. Thomas played mostly inside linebacker during the June minicamp, but he was up on the line in sub packages, too, and also dropped deep in coverage. The latter is a skill that was sorely lacking in the AFC championship game loss in Indy. Let’s see Dallas Clark try to run away from Mr. Thomas, shall we?
6) Can the safeties stay healthy?
Not seeing first-round rookie Brandon Meriweather on the field at the minicamp (he was rumored to be nursing a bad hammy) conjured up memories of the last two seasons, when Harrison and Eugene Wilson missed a combined 39 games, playoffs included. Harrison, who turns 35 in December, fought back from his three-ligament knee blowout in 2005 but was laid low by a fractured shoulder blade in November and a knee injury (courtesy of a low block by former Titans receiver Bobby Wade) on New Year’s Eve. The latter knocked him out of the playoffs. Wilson was healthy, albeit ineffective, in 2005 but wound up on injured reserve with groin and hamstring problems last season. This is a big year for Wilson, whose contract is expiring at the same time his game has hit a rut at age 26. Would the Pats give him time at corner to compensate for Samuel’s absence? There’s decent depth here with veteran Artrell Hawkins, youngster James Sanders and Meriweather, provided, of course, that the rook doesn’t become this year’s Jackson. (He also was unsigned as of Wednesday night.)
7) Are these oldies goodies?
Whenever he gets around to actually signing on for another year, third-string QB hopeful Vinny Testaverde, 43, will be the roster’s elder statesman. Yet linebacker is where the real graybeards reside. Seau, 38, and recently signed Chad Brown, 37, have combined for 33 NFL seasons. They project as backups – Brown is no lock to make the roster – but the starting unit is long in the tooth, too. It’s a safe bet that Thomas (who turns 30 in August), Vrabel (32 the same month) and Rosevelt Colvin (30 in September) haven’t lost a step. But there’s no denying that there’s some mileage on their treads. As for Tedy Bruschi, 34, he’s suffered a stroke, a calf injury and a broken wrist the last two years, and the big plays were fewer and far between from him in 2006, even though he led the team with 124 tackles. By all means pick up his new book (“Never Give Up: My Stroke, My Recovery and My Return to the NFL”) but look for him to be spotted more than usual this year, either by Seau (who has been injury hexed himself lately) or third-year man Eric Alexander.
8) Will the Patriots miss Dan Graham?
When the Pats drafted Benjamin Watson in the first round in 2004, wasn’t it inevitable that Graham would wind up playing for his hometown Broncos when his contract expired? Now it’s come to pass, depriving the Patriots of perhaps the best blocking tight end in the game. Luckily, they snagged Kyle Brady, 35, in free agency. His pass-catching days might be over, but he’s so big (6-6, 280) he ought to wear a license plate instead of a number. Tight end is an interesting mix this year. Watson still has jaw-dropping physical tools – remember his rundown of Champ Bailey in the playoffs two years ago? – and he’s coming off a career-best season (49 catches, 643 yards). Still, he might never be Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, at least in this offense, and he had some dropsies last season. Plus, there’s intriguing competition from second-year guys David Thomas and Garrett Mills.
9) Can Josh McDaniels push the right buttons?
In 2005, his first (unofficial) year as offensive coordinator, McDaniels was hamstrung by injuries that crippled the running game. Last year, Maroney got dinged up at times, Dillon was on his last legs, and the re-made passing game (minus Branch and David Givens) came in fits and starts. Remember the stories of Brady running patterns to try to demonstrate the offense to Caldwell and Gaffney? Still, the offense ranked 11th in yards, and the Pats were seventh in scoring. Now McDaniels, still only 31, looks to have all his ducks in a row. (Assuming that Maroney is healthy, of course.) So how does the OC deal with prosperity? Can he keep everybody happy? OK, that’s not really a big priority in Foxboro, but the first 17-14 loss might bring some heat in his direction. An added twist – this season the NFL is mandating greater media access to assistants, so we might actually get to hear what McDaniels thinks.
10) What are the position battles?
If you want sexy summer fights, sorry, you’ve come to the wrong team. No Stephen Gostkowski-Martin Gramatica showdown this time. The receiver free-for-all will be fun, and the secondary bears watching, but everyone who makes the roster at those spots will get plenty of playing time. For more traditional camp mano-a-manos, we direct your attention to punter (where veteran Josh Miller will try to fend off kids Danny Baugher and Tom Malone), right tackle (Ryan O’Callaghan and Nick Kaczur should slug it out) and maybe quarterback (where the question is whether Testaverde can convince the Pats to burn a roster spot for a third-stringer who could double as an unofficial assistant QB coach). There should be competition at punt- and kick-returner, too. Welker has mad skills there, but Hobbs (36-yard average, including a 93-yard touchdown) and Maroney (28.0, 77-yard runback) showed promise on kickoffs last season.
Eric McHugh of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.