NFL camp preview: Patriots shift focus to football

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After this offseason, the New England Patriots may view pro football as simply a game, albeit a tough one, as they report to training camp Thursday and begin full-squad workouts Friday.
Coach Bill Belichick almost vowed he will make sure they focus on training camp as a very serious and tough business, but something that cannot be compared to some of the dramatic events of the offseason.
Most remarkable among them was that star tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and sits in a Massachusetts jail awaiting trial on murder charges.
In his first public comments since the Hernandez arrest, Belichick Wednesday discussed his general perspective on that tragedy and how he perceives the team moving on.
"It's really a sad day on so many levels," Belichick said at a press conference that happened to occur simultaneous to Hernandez taking part in his own hearing elsewhere. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the victim."
Belichick, often aloof and elusive during press conferences, revealed a very straight-forward and serious side in discussing his perspective on the Hernandez situation.
"This case involves an individual who happened to be a New England Patriot," he said. "We certainly do not condone that type of behavior and it certainly doesn't represent the way we want to do things. As the head coach, I'm ultimately responsible for the players on this team. Overall, I'm proud of the hundreds of players that have come through this program, but I'm personally disappointed and hurt."
Belichick avoided detailed discussion of the Hernandez issue, citing it was inappropriate to do so as the legal process continues.
With training camp looming, Belichick did eventually respond to a question about how the team will handle these distractions.
"It is time for the New England Patriots to move on; that is what our job is," he said. "Our goal is the same, to have a winning football team. That is what our direction is. That is what we are going to do."
And even compared to the horrible offseason news, that will be no easy feat.
The free-agent departure of Pro Bowl wide receiver Wes Welker to join Peyton Manning and the rival Denver Broncos would be the biggest news of the offseason. But obviously this offseason has been anything but normal.
In addition to the Hernandez arrest, projected cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was sentenced to probation this spring from an incident prior to last year's draft, and then in early July put his football future and personal freedom in jeopardy by getting arrested on suspicion of DUI.
And All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski underwent multiple surgeries, first on his arm and then on his back and it is unknown if, when or how much he may contribute.
Against that background, even the signing of lightning-rod quarterback Tim Tebow seemed like somewhat of a footnote in this offseason.
Quarterback Tom Brady must spend the summer finding new weapons to throw to as he will likely enter 2013 without his top five pass-catchers from a year ago.
With the loss of wide receivers Welker (UFA Chargers) and Brandon Lloyd (released), while Gronkowski is sidelined, Brady will be without his top four targets from a year ago, who combined for 298 receptions, 3,538 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Add the free agent loss of running back Danny Woodhead (UFA, Chargers), the loss of wide receiver Deion Branch (not re-signed) and an injury to wide receiver Julian Edelman and Brady will be missing seven receivers from last year.
Into this void steps little Danny Amendola, who will need to earn every penny of that five-year, $31 million contract.
Amendola was brought aboard to replace Welker in the slot and has looked quick and maybe even more explosive than his predecessor in spring practice. If he can stay healthy -- an issue for him over his first four seasons in which he's played 42 of a possible 64 games -- he will be the top target for Brady.
Beyond that, the wide receiver position is a question mark, even in the framework of Belichick's militaristic next-man-up approach.
Michael Jenkins was brought aboard to be a solid veteran possession guy on the outside, but he really struggled catching the ball in spring action. Behind him, for now, is second-round rookie Aaron Dobson. He has impressive hands and big-play ability.
Edelman's main role will be as a punt returner, but is a backup option. Fourth-round draftee Josh Boyce is a potential big-play guy out of the slot, but he is recovering from a foot injury.
The New England defense needs to go through a significant maturation in the hopes of becoming a more complementary aspect of what's been an offense-first team in recent years.
With Belichick and Brady leading the way, and the Patriots residing in the otherwise lackluster AFC East, New England is likely to be in the post-season mix once again. But given what's gone on in recent months, it's anything but status quo as training camp opens.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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