O’Sullivan: Patriots open camp with more questions than answers

  • New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick approaches the podium before taking questions from reporters during a news conference at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday. The Patriots will open training camp for the 2016 season today in Foxborough, Mass. AP

  • Running back Dion Lewis is returning from a knee injury that ended his 2015 season with the Patriots. Can he handle a full-time load in the backfield this year? AP

  • New England Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater takes questions from reporters during a news conference at Gillette Stadium, Wednesday, July 27, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots' NFL football training camp is to begin Thursday, July 28. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

  • New England Patriots defensive end Chris Long talks with reporters following an NFL football practice Thursday, May 26, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Michael Dwyer

  • New England Patriots cornerback Cyrus Jones walks off the field following an NFL football practice Thursday, May 26, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Michael Dwyer

Monitor staff
Published: 7/27/2016 11:48:25 PM

When Bill Belichick took to the podium on Wednesday to address the media before the start of Patriots training camp, which begins today, the questions were as predictable as the answers.

The first 12 questions, and 16 of the 22 asked, were about Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, preparing backup Jimmy Garoppolo for those four games or some variation on that theme. The answers were classic Belichick: “No commentary on it.” “It’s day-by-day.” “We’ll do what we think is best.” “We’ll find out.”

Vague, passive-aggressive and condescending is how Belichick responds to most queries from the media. And there was no doubt that’s how he was going to approach this subject. Belichick is nothing if not consistent, both negatively and positively.

“I think the thing that’s remarkable about Bill is his approach. He hasn’t changed at all, and that consistency in his attitude and preparation, the things that he values and the things he tries to stress to his team. It’s really remarkable,” New England special team maven and wide receiver Matthew Slater said. “I think it would be easy for him to become complacent. It’s human nature, once you have success you kind of exhale and think you have it figured out. And if anyone has it figured out, it’s Bill Belichick. But you wouldn’t know it by the way he prepares, by the urgency with which he coaches us, the hours he puts in.”

But, believe it or not, there are non-quarterback questions to ask about the Patriots as they begin a season looking for an eighth straight AFC East crown (which would be an NFL record for consecutive divisional titles), a sixth straight AFC Championship Game appearance (which would be another record) and as the Las Vegas favorites to make, and win, Super Bowl 51. Here are a few:

What will the offensive line look like?

After injuries took their toll, the offensive line became New England’s weak link last season, a weakness Denver capitalized on in the AFC Championship Game. But the Patriots addressed the problem from all angles in the offseason.

They brought back o-line Coach and guru Dante Scarnecchia after a two-year hiatus and, “It’s almost like he never left,” Belichick said.

They traded for veteran guard Jonathan Cooper. They drafted guard Joe Thuney in the third round. They also saw tackle Nate Solder recover from the biceps injury that ended his 2015 season and center Bryan Stork heal from the concussion symptoms that forced him to the bench last year.

Stork will be competing with Dave Andrews, who played well last year filling in for Stork, for the starting center position. The loser of that battle may end up in the mix at guard, where there are already five guys jockeying for the two starting spots – Shaq Mason, Tre’ Jackson, Josh Kline, Thuney and Cooper, who will probably need to win a starting job or face getting cut because he’s the highest paid player in that group.

Who will be running behind that line?

Giving Dion Lewis a shot in the backfield last year turned out to be an inspired decision by Belichick ... until injuries slowed Lewis after the first five games and then ended his season altogether on Nov. 8. The Patriots never really found an adequate replacement for Lewis, and there’s no obvious running back solution as they head into camp.

Can Lewis, listed at a generous 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds, handle a full-time load or do the Patriots need to figure out how to better manage his involvement? Can LeGarrette Blount bounce back from the hip injury that shortened his 2015 campaign? Can Donald Brown, a seven-year veteran signed as a free agent, enjoy a Lewis-like revival?

Can rookie D.J. Foster bring his college production – 2,355 rushing yards (5.3 yards per carry), 2,458 receiving yards (9.9 yards per catch) and 32 total touchdowns at Arizona State – to the NFL?

Foster, an undrafted free agent signing, may be the most intriguing player not named Garoppolo to watch during the preseason. He has exceptional quickness, hands and route-running skills, just like Lewis. He’ll need to show that he can gain the tough yards, too, but rookie running backs usually get plenty of chances to show their stuff in the preseason.

Can Cyrus Jones contribute now?

The top draft pick is a focal point for any fan base as the preseason begins, and Jones, the No. 60 overall pick, was New England’s top choice in April. He came from a program (Alabama) that has produced plenty of NFL-ready talent, including Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Safety Devin McCourty, the de facto defensive leader, said Jones reminded him of Hightower as a rookie. McCourt said he “understands the defense, knows what he’s doing out there,” during an appearance on Quick Slants on Comcast SportsNet this week.

With Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan at the outside corner spots, Jones has been playing the slot, where his quickness and awareness is most valuable. Even if he doesn’t end up playing much on defense, Jones is still likely to contribute on special teams as a returner. That’s good news for Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, the valuable receivers who have been used as returners but really need all the help they can get staying healthy, which means avoiding the dangers of fielding kicks.

Where’s the edge?

The defensive front seven personnel was revamped in the offseason, which might mean a switch to a 3-4 base defense. Even if the Pats stay in a 4-3, the edges of that defense will take on a different look this year.

The most glaring departure is Chandler Jones, the team’s sack leader in 2015. No one player will fill Jones’s void, but as a group, the edge players may be better this season.

Defensive end Chris Long brings eight years of experience and 54.5 career sacks. Shea McClellin (like Long, a former first-round pick signed as a free agent by New England) has been used at defensive end after playing outside linebacker in Chicago for four years. Jabaal Sheard impressed with eight sacks and 37 tackles last year in a platoon roll, and those numbers should go up for him this season with a chance at more playing time and the motivation of an expiring contract. And stalwarts like Hightower, Jamie Collins (who’s on the edge of superstardom) and Rob Ninkovich (with 188 straight games played) are all back to help bring heat off the edge.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)


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