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July 23. 2014 8:12PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Some early questions for Patriots


New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick before a January playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

Always measured, usually monotone, occasionally almost misanthropic, even Bill Belichick couldn’t suppress the smile that sprung to his face Wednesday morning as he stepped to the podium and began his press conference.

“Welcome to football season,” he said, the grin growing. “We’re here.”

Indeed, some 185 days since his team was unceremoniously punted from the playoffs with an underwhelming performance in the AFC Championship, and after a spring in which his Patriots reloaded for another run at the Lombardi Trophy that’s eluded them for almost a decade, it’s football season again in New England.

And Belichick is justifiably joined by many around here in his excitement.

It remains to be seen whether the Pats did enough to close the gap between themselves and the Broncos — let alone the Seahawks team that made Denver look silly in the Super Bowl. But after adding superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis, there’s a belief that they could be as balanced as they’ve been in years, finally positioned to pair an upper-echelon defense with an offense that scored more points than all but two clubs a year ago and again rank high on the league’s short list of legitimate contenders.

Here’s a touchdown’s worth of story lines, extra point included, to follow this preseason:

1. How is Gronk handled?

The biggest news of Belichick’s briefing was word that his starting tight end won’t start camp on the physically unable to perform list, which suggests Rob Gronkowski could be on the field Week 1, less than nine months after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee. That would be a huge boost for Brady and the offense, obviously, but there are six weeks worth of practice and four preseason games between now and then. Given his importance to the attack, it’ll be interesting to see how much Gronkowski participates.

2. How healthy’s the D-line?

An oft-overlooked aspect of the Patriots’ exit last season was the fact they were missing three key figures from their defensive front seven due to season-ending injuries, so logic says that the return of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly will make for an instant upgrade. This is an important camp for all three, though. Wilfork wasn’t great before tearing his Achilles last September. Kelly, 33, will begin on the PUP list while recovering from a torn ACL. And Mayo may need to take on different responsibilities with Brandon Spikes now in Buffalo. All three should help solidify the defense, but each first has to prove he’s healthy.

3. Has Jamie Collins progressed?

The team’s top draft pick of 2013 put on a tantalizing performance over the final few games of last season, creating some big expectations for himself in his sophomore season. He came along slowly but by the end emerged as a player with the size to be a hitter, the speed to be effective in coverage and the knack for making plays.

4. Who fills roles in the secondary?

Revis is New England’s no-doubt, No. 1 corner. Devin McCourty will start at one of the safety positions. But there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding the rest of the defensive backfield. At corner, free-agent signee Brandon Browner and incumbent Alfonzo Dennard have starting experience, but Browner will serve a four-game drug suspension to start the year, and Dennard is PUP-designated after sitting out the offseason program (and serving jail time). The Pats like Kyle Arrington in the slot, and Logan Ryan could get the first crack opposite Revis after making five interceptions as a rookie.

5. Where is Brandon LaFell?

The Pats passed on big-name tight ends Jermichael Finley and Dustin Keller, and didn’t seem to fortify that position. Instead, they signed LaFell, who stands 6-foot-2, and who played 63 percent of his snaps in the slot for Carolina last year. according to Pro Football Focus. Put that together, and it looks like New England might be hoping LaFell’s size, athleticism and ability to play inside enables him to do some of the things Aaron Hernandez did for them in 2011-12.

6. Garoppolo or Mallett?

By drafting a quarterback in the second round, the Patriots not only provoked questions of Brady’s football mortality but also set up a fascinating competition for the role of backup. A free-agent-to-be, Ryan Mallett might be playing for his future (either here or elsewhere), while rookie Jimmy Garoppolo’s performance could dictate whether Mallett even breaks camp as a Patriot.

7. Which rookies will play?

First-round choice Dominique Easley is on the PUP list as he rehabs his own ACL tear. Garoppolo is a long-term project. But could a couple of their classmates make an immediate impact?

Most intriguing are the team’s trio of fourth-rounders, with offensive linemen Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming potentially pressing holdovers Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly at center and guard, and running back James White looking to fit into a ground game that lost LaGarrette Blount.

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at ddonof13@gmail.com.


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