The Patriots open training camp at Gillette Stadium eight days from today on Thursday, July 30. The defending Super Bowl champions have a roster built to contend for the fifth Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick era but also have many issues to address before they open their season with the Steelers on September 10.
Here is my look at the eight players to keep a close eye on in this year's camp.
8. Malcolm Brown and Dominique Easley
For the sake of the post, Brown and Easley count as one player.
Brown, the team's first round pick in 2015, and Easley, the first round pick in 2014, are tasked with becoming the leaders of the interior of the defensive line now that Vince Wilfork has moved on to the Texans.
Easley was hurt for most of his rookie season and ended the year on injured reserve as he continued to recover from a torn ACL from when he was at Florida. If healthy, he should provide a dynamic pass rush from the interior of the defense. Brown, a big body out of Texas, will be expected to be a leader of the defense against the run. High expectations for two youngsters but if the Patriots are to once again contend for Vince Lombardi's trophy, they better be ready to live up to the hype.
7. Aaron Dobson
The third-year receiver has a big camp ahead of him. A second round pick in 2013, Dobson had a decent rookie season but was a total non-factor a year ago. Dobson was drafted to be a deep threat for Tom Brady but if he has a poor camp, he could be on the chopping block by August. If he does live up to expectations, Dobson would improve an already excellent group of receivers and make Brady's life much easier.
6. Devin McCourty
An All-Pro and the owner of a new 5-year/$47.5-million contract extension, McCourty will be charged with leading a secondary that lost Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this offseason. That is a lot of responsibility for any player, including one as gifted as McCourty. It will be interesting to see how quickly McCourty can incorporate the new starters and how the secondary performs this summer.
5. Tre' Jackson
A fourth round pick out of Florida State, expect Jackson to get the opportunity to replace the retired Dan Connolly at left guard. Jackson is a massive human being, checking in at 6-4 and 330-pounds, which should help him open up lanes for the running game while also creating a passing pocket for Brady. A college teammate of second-year center Bryan Stork, expect Jackson to be a starter from day one.
4. Malcolm Butler
Fair or not, Butler's Super Bowl clinching interception puts a lot of pressure on the second-year cornerback to help fill the void left at the position by the departures of Revis and Browner. Butler showed flashes of greatness as a rookie but was inconsistent. He won't have the luxury of being inconsistent this year as he will likely be the team's top cornerback.
3. James White
The second-year running back from Wisconsin played sparingly as a rookie but with Shane Vereen now a member of the Giants, White has the chance to seize the position as Brady's go-to pass catcher out of the backfield. Travaris Cadet and Dion Lewis will offer him competition but it should be White's job to lose.
2. Jabaal Sheard
Sheard was the team's biggest free agent signing and he will be an important piece along the defensive line and at linebacker. With the secondary being a work in progress, the front seven will be expected to put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and they will need a lot of production from Sheard to achieve that goal.
1. Jimmy Garoppolo
With Tom Brady's fate from the ridiculous "Deflate-gate" controversy still not settled, the chance still remains that Garoppolo is taking snaps from Stork on opening night against Pittsburgh. Whoever is the eventual replacement for Brady when he decides to hang up his cleats will face enormous pressure but imagine having to deal with the immense pressure of being Brady's placeholder for a team with Super Bowl aspirations on a short term basis while knowing that your one or two or four starts could mean the difference between home field advantage in the playoffs or being on the road for a Wild Card game or being on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin.
Yes, Jimmy's progress in camp and the preseason is the number one thing to keep an eye on this summer.