Training camp goals
1. The primary goal for coach Bill Belichick's team this summer will be to construct the foundation for what can be at least a competitive defense. Despite advancing to the Super Bowl last February, New England was almost historically bad on defense during the regular season. The primary weakness came against the pass. As such, the Patriots added players through both free agency (Jonathan Fanene, Steven Gregory, Trevor Scott) and the draft (Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson, Jake Bequette) with an eye on improving the overall talent on that side of the ball. Training camp will give the new veterans a chance to get acclimated to New England's varied schemes, and the rookies to prove that their potential could be an asset from the start. If the defense doesn't come together early it could be another long season on that side of the ball.
2. Figure out the running game. As long as Tom Brady stays healthy, it's clear the Patriots are once again going to have one of the best offenses in the game. They will score a lot of points, with the primary action coming through the air. But this summer the offense will be looking to define the roles of the various players in the team's backfield committee. Gone through free agency is BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons and never fumbled in his four years in New England. Former Colt Joseph Addai has been added as a veteran presence, but the biggest impact could come from second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Ridley needs to overcome a fumbling issue that developed late in his rookie season, while Vereen could be a surprise impact player after doing very little a year ago.
Player to watch
Defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones. Not only did Belichick finally take an edge pass rusher in the first round, he actually traded up to get Jones. Having lost Mark Anderson's 10 sacks to free agency and with Andre Carter and his 10 sacks from a year ago currently still a free agent, the Patriots will look for the potential-filled Jones to have an immediate impact on the edge of the front seven. Even with Anderson and Carter combining for 20 sacks, New England had the NFL's 31st-ranked pass defense a year ago. If there is to be improvement in this area some of it will have to come in the pass rush and that will have to come, in part, from Jones.
On the hot seat
Linebacker Brandon Spikes. During two seasons in New England, the former second-round pick Spikes has proven two things. First, is that he struggles to stay on the field. Last fall Spikes missed eight games to injury. As a rookie he missed four games to an NFL suspension. Second, Spikes has proven if he's on the field, he can be a contagious, emotional, impact player on the inside of the Patriots' front seven. Spikes will be pushed to be on the field and play with more consistency thanks to the addition of versatile first-round linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Spikes could either become a key figure on the Patriots' defense or see his playing time diminish in 2012 if he can't prove himself a reliable option for Belichick.
Strategy and personnel
The Patriots and wide receiver Wes Welker were unable to reach agreement on a long-term contract by the July 16 deadline, and, as a result, Welker will play the 2012 season under a $9.515 million franchise tag.
The failure to reach an agreement did not come as a surprise, because the two sides reportedly were about $6 million apart.
Whether the inability to reach a long-term deal will mean Welker will leave the Patriots after the 2012 season remains to be seen.
Welker, 31, led the NFL with 122 catches in 2011, the third time in the past five seasons he has led the league in that category.
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