Forget 2017, Patriots Have No Shortage Of Goals This Training Camp

Plenty of issues to address to get ready for season opener Sept. 9 against Texans

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Bill Belichick with a smile for reporters Wednesday during his opening press conference of 2018 training camp. (New England Patriots)

The offseason of hype, hyperbole and endless Tom Brady Instagram posting is finally over.

The Patriots take the field on Thursday for the first time as a full team during real training camp. The first padded practice takes place Saturday. The first preseason game is Aug. 9 at Gillette against Washington and the first regular season contest is Sept. 9 against Bill O’Brien’s Texans at Gillette.

As we were reminded Wednesday morning in no uncertain terms by Bill Belichick in his shutdown of Dan Shaughnessy, there will be no looking back on Jimmy Garoppolo, Malcolm Butler, Super Bowl LII or Alex Guerrero.

“I’m focused on doing the best that I can for the 2018 New England Patriots,” Belichick said. “That’s my job. That’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I’ve always done in the past. Every day that I’ve coached here, I’ve done the best that I could for this football team. I’ll continue to do that.

“Right now my focus is on the 2018 season,” Belichick continued. “Not 2017, not 2014, not 2007, not 2004, not 2001, not 2000. I’m not focused on any of those seasons. They’re done… It’s important for me to have a good season in 2018. I’m going to do everything I can to do that. Because that’s what I can do for our football team. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s what I’m going to try to do. Hopefully you can respect that, but maybe not.”

Yes, Brady and Rob Gronkowski were with the team for three short days in June for mandatory minicamp. But now the real competition for spots and six-week grind begins in preparation for the opener against the Texans begins in earnest.

There is no shortage of tasks to be accomplished as the team tries to work its way back to Atlanta and a third straight Super Bowl appearance and 11th overall:

1. Get Tom Brady in sync with his receivers. The one thing critics could legitimately point to as a possible negative impact of the Patriots starting quarterback choosing to stay away from OTAs this spring is the lack of reps on the field with fresh faces such as Jordan Matthews, Braxton Berrios and Cordarrelle Patterson. It will be of utmost importance to the offense that Brady find out sooner than later just how much he’ll be able to trust these receivers. Danny Amendola is in Miami. Julian Edelman will begin the season on a 4-game suspension and Malcolm Mitchell is reportedly not going to be in the picture as he rehabs (and is possibly not on the roster) following another procedure to identify what’s causing knee pain.

2. Find receiving depth behind Chris Hogan. To point No. 1, the Patriots have the names above and they also brought back Devin Lucien, their seventh-rounder from Arizona State in 2016, to go with Riley McCarron and the speedy Phillip Dorsett. The depth chart is likely to be Hogan and Matthews to start and then let the mad scramble begin. Berrios, Lucien, Dorsett and Patterson could be interesting to watch in the preseason.

3. Find a back-up to Gronk. This has, for the most part, gone under the radar. But given Gronk’s health history combined with his not-so hilarious Monster Energy press conference, the thought of a Gronk-less lead tight end position on the team should be of more concern. Right now, you have Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister, Troy Niklas and Will Tye. The tight end has always been a huge part of what the Patriots do. It’s the threat of Gronk that opens up other routes or helps in the run game. Allen struggled at the start of last season and Hollister had his moments last season. This is a position to keep a close eye on during camp and the preseason.

4. Stabilize the left tackle spot quickly. With Nate Solder gone to the Giants, the Patriots feel they have quality candidates to battle to fill this vacancy, starting with LaAdrian Waddle, Trent Brown and rookie Isaiah Wynn. John Ulrick and Matt Tobin are also candidates to get some time during camp.

5. Determine how much Sony Michel and Isaiah Wynn can contribute. By all indications, the Patriots have high hopes for both of their first-round picks out of Georgia, and there’s the sense that both could have significant roles right out of the gate for the Patriots if they have good camps. Both have impressed so far in OTAs and mini-camp. Michel will be the most-watched offensive rookie in camp, as the sense is that he could be a huge part of the offense running and receiving right out of the gate. He’s the candidate to replace the reps of Dion Lewis. It’s Rex Burkhead, James White and Michel to start, with Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill doing battle for the short-yardage/goal line role.

6. Determine the state of the secondary. This has traditionally been an area that the Patriots have developed over the course of a season, taking their time to let players get a grip on the intricacies of the schemes. Look no further than Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore for examples of this. In 2014 and last year, Revis and Gilmore respectively, started slow, struggled with concepts before player and coaching adjustments made them shut-down caliber players in the Patriots secondary. How will Jason McCourty play alongside his twin Devin in a secondary that mixes and matches man coverage? How will Eric Rowe and rookies Duke Dawson and J.C. Jackson fit in. There are plenty of bodies to make a run at filling the void of Malcolm Butler. It will be fascinating to watch how it all plays out.

7. Please, no drama. Usually this isn’t even up for discussion. But after the offseason the Patriots just went through, it’s worth pointing out that the Patriots have always been masters at putting all the off-the-field issues aside once they step on the practice field. The rest of the NFL is hoping and praying that this whole Kraft-Belichick-Brady drama will finally spill over this year. Don’t count on it. Look for Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to make their statements early in camp that they will be all business and ready to dominate again once they step on the field.

8. Something different, something new. Bill Belichick hinted in his opening press conference of camp that he’s always learning new ways to coach up his team, prepare them for the season. He even said there are things he needs to work on to have this Patriots team ready for 2018. There might be hints of that in the open training camp practices this year. How will players get their reps? Which coaches will be in charge of which drills? How different will the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills be? How much practice time will be spent on the new kickoff rules and how will Cordarrelle Patterson fit in?