161 days after the Patriots executed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history over the Falcons, a win that cemented the legacies of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the best ever, the Patriots officially open training camp today in Foxboro.
Belichick loaded up this off-season. He traded for receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive end Kony Ealy and signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore and running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. They retained cornerback Malcolm Butler despite rumors he was so unhappy with his contract that he wanted to be traded. They also added veteran linebacker David Harris when the Jets decided to cut him recently.
Both locally and nationally there is a lot of chatter that the Patriots are better than their 2007 team that was undefeated up until their stunning loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. USA Today already predicted an undefeated season for the Patriots and they will not be the last media outlet to do so.
The talk from within the Patriots facility is obviously down playing those predictions. Matthew Slater called the undefeated talk "disrespectful" and the players that have spoken to the media have said that their focus is on improving one day at a time. Belichick's first evil glare at the media this summer is expected to be a reply to the first questions relating to 19-0 speculation.
While keeping the team focused on day-to-day improvement and taking the season one game at a time is likely to be the biggest challenge for Belichick and the other coaches, here are three other areas of concern for training camp and the 2017 season:
1. How will Belichick split reps at quarterback between Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jacoby Brisset?
Brady is still the man but with Garoppolo not used as trade bait, the expectation is that he is the presumed heir at quarterback and with his rookie contract up at the end of this season he could be in line to take over a year from now. Watching how many reps Garoppolo is able to get this summer will aid the speculation about his future and Brady's.
Garoppolo and Brisset were both pressed into duty in 2016 so having them prepared for action in 2017, especially considering they are backing up a 40-year-old quarterback, will likely be a priority.
2. How will the defense get to opposing quarterbacks?
While the defense looks great on paper, one area of concern is the pass rush.
Facing the likes of Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is going to have to find a way to manufacture pressure.
Trey Flowers looked like a budding superstar in the second half of last season and in the Super Bowl but he alone will not be enough to pressure the passer. Rob Ninkovich is getting close to the end of his career - and could possibly be a surprise cut in August due to the depth on the team's roster - and can't be expected to post double-digit sack totals.
Ealy will hopefully help out in this area. If Geneo Grissom finally lives up to his status as a third round pick it would also be helpful. Rookies Derek Rivers Deatrich Wise will also have a chance to earn minutes if they can get to the quarterback.
3. Can Dwayne Allen replace Martellus Bennett as Rob Gronkowski's backup?
The Gronk is on the short list when the topic of "who is the best tight end in NFL history?" is discussed but due to his long list of health issues, there's no guarantee that #87 will be on the field come January and February.
Last year, Bennett filled in (despite playing with a cracked bone in his ankle) and played an important role on the way to winning his first Super Bowl. Bennett then cashed in during free agency and signed a lucrative deal to join the Packers.
Allen was then brought in from Indianapolis to become the top backup to Gronkowski. If Gronk stays healthy all year and Allen can play a complimentary role than this is not an serious concern. The issue will be if Gronkowski sustains another serious injury and the team has to rely on Allen to produce. He's a fine player but he's not on Gronk or Bennett's level and the Patriots offense relies heavily on the tight end position.
The Red Sox decision to call up top prospect Rafael Devers and trade for Eduardo Nunez offers them improved roster flexibility as well as (hopefully) more production at the plate.
Devers, even at age 20, can be expected to offer more production than any of the other third baseman the Red Sox have employed in 2017. A left handed slugger, Devers should be able to add much needed pop to the bottom of John Farrell's lineup. He should stay in Boston as long as he does not seem completely overwhelmed.
Nunez can also help out at third base and has the added benefit of being able to play both shortstop and second base. With Xander Bogaerts struggling at the plate after getting hit on the hand with a pitch before the All-Star Game and Dustin Pedroia dealing with a sore knee, Nunez' flexibility in the field should allow Farrell to give Bogaerts and Pedroia days off as well as to make sure Devers doesn't have to play every day.
The roster victim of these moves will likely be Devin Marrero. Marrero filled in admirably when Pablo Sandoval's last chance ended as a failure and when Brock Holt was out with vertigo. However, Marrero is not a good enough player to play an every day role on a playoff team.
The Kyrie Irving trade rumors have caught my attention.
Danny Ainge has the assets necessary to trade for the 25-year-old All-Star. The question is, if Cleveland was willing to deal him to an Eastern Conference rival, is he worth adding?
To me, this all comes down to Isaiah Thomas' health. It was reported yesterday that Thomas' hip injury that knocked him out of the Eastern Conference Finals will not require surgery.
If Thomas is expected to be at full strength, Ainge should not deal for Irving and should instead hold on to his assets for another trade down the road.
If Thomas' hip is not going to allow him to return to full strength or if there is a legitimate concern that it will be a long term issue - Thomas will be a free agent next summer and is going to command a maximum-level contract - then this is a trade worth making for the Celtics.
Irving is an exceptional scorer with a championship pedigree. If the Celtics do not trust the health of Thomas' hip moving forward and the Cavaliers are willing to do business with Boston, adding Irving is the right move.
While I have a financial interest in the Red Sox making the playoffs - please, stop by The Baseball Tavern if you're in the Fenway neighborhood - I am starting to root against this team.
The story about David Price bullying Dennis Eckersley on a team flight - an incident that was applauded by several of his teammates, including Dustin Pedroia - is outrageous and the fact that Farrell, Dave Dombrowski, or any of the ownership has not publicly ripped into Price and the supporting players is disgusting.
I'd hate to see the great seasons of Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel be wasted but the actions of Price and some of his teammates and the lack of action by management would be justly rewarded with a collapse on par with that of 2011 and missing out on the playoffs.
Enjoy Belichick's press conference today.