Finally, it's football season.
Bill Belichick will highlight the Patriots that will speak to the media today at Gillette Stadium and tomorrow practice officially begins.
As usual, the spotlight will shine bright on Foxboro. Belichick's troops are coming off their fifth straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game and are once again one of the prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl. Despite what he will say to his players and to the media about the process of team development, Belichick knows that this team is fully capable of winning the fifth Super Bowl in his tenure as head coach.
Further media attention will be focused on the Patriots due to the four-game suspension that Tom Brady will be serving to start the season. Jimmy Garoppolo, a third-year quarterback with no career starts, will be the likely starter in those games and his performance in practice and in the preseason games will be heavily scrutinized.
Garoppolo's ability to stand in for Brady for the first month of the season will have a tremendous impact on the 2016 season. If he's ready to guide the team through the games at Arizona and home against Miami, Houston, and Buffalo than the Patriots will be in an excellent position to dominate the AFC and be in prime position to have home field advantage through the playoffs and make a run at their fifth Lombradi Trophy. Even a 2-2 record in these games will put the Patriots in a good position.
Now, if Garoppolo can't at least earn a split in the first four games, the Patriots will be in for a battle to earn one of the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs and secure a first round bye and at least one home playoff game. Brady is plenty capable of running ten or eleven wins in twelve games but a slow start will erase their margin of error early in the season.
Belichick's handling of the preseason snaps is also going to be interesting to watch. Garoppolo will need as many reps as possible with the first team offense to get acclimated to leading the offense but Brady is also going to need reps because as soon as his suspension starts, he can have no contact with the coaches or his teammates so the preseason will be critical towards his preparation for his return in Week 5. Rookie quarterback Jacoby Brisset, a third round pick out of N.C. State who is the presumed backup for Garoppolo in the first four weeks, will also need as many reps as possible as he's learning a new system that he's one injury away from taking over.
The Patriots schedule should help Garoppolo. The Week 1 game in Arizona will be difficult but the Cardinals would have been a tough game even with Brady behind center. The next three games, all at home, provide Garoppolo and the Patriots with three very winnable games.
Other than at quarterback, there are several other position groups that bear watching over the next few weeks.
Considering their responsibility for protecting the quarterback, the development of the offensive line will be very important.
Dante Scarnecchia returns from his brief retirement to mold a group that the last we saw was practically invisible as the Broncos defense pounded Brady in the AFC Championship Game.
Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are back in place at the tackle position with Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle expected to make the roster as backups. Solder's season-ending torn biceps caused turmoil on the line, forcing Vollmer out of position to left tackle and exposing Cannon and Waddle at right tackle.
The interior positions are basically up for grabs. Bryan Stork and David Andrews will fight it out for the starting center position and a battle royal will take place for the two guard positions between Jonathan Cooper, Tre Jackson, Josh Kline, Shaq Mason, and Joe Thuney with Stork a possibility there as well if he's beaten out by Andrews at center.
Scarnecchia has his work cut out for him as he has short time to develop cohesiveness and depth across the line that will be charged with keeping Garoppolo upright and then with protecting Brady for the rest of the season.
Keep a close watch on rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones. The Patriots top draft pick this year, Jones will be expected to be the team's "nickel" cornerback as well as help out on punt return and kick return duties.
Jones had a prolific career at Alabama, winning national championships in 2012 and 2015, and now he enters the NFL with a team that is also a perennial title contender.
If Jones can be at least a serviceable cornerback and also take as many reps away from Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the return game as possible, than his rookie year will be deemed a success.
Enjoy Belichick's press conference today.