FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Training camp for the New England Patriots starts under the cloud of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on a murder charge.
His absence and the departure of their two leading receivers are the biggest on-field challenges facing coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
The Patriots lost the AFC championship game to the Baltimore Ravens last season, 28-13. Then they lost five of their top seven pass catchers from 2012.
So instead of a quarterback and his receivers having an automatic connection, Brady and his bunch have traveled step by small step through OTAs and minicamp going into training camp starting Thursday.
“You learn the most about players when it’s the hardest and training camp is a good time to develop some of that chemistry and mental toughness as a team,” Brady said during last month’s three-day minicamp.
Five things to look for at Patriots training camp:
1. DISTRACTIONS? WHAT DISTRACTIONS? If there’s one team that can keep the arrest of a star player on a murder charge from being a distraction, it’s the Patriots. They cut tight end Hernandez the day he was arrested — and before he was charged — and moved on. They allowed quarterback Tim Tebow to address reporters for just 40 seconds the day he signed last month but permitted no questions. When starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was arrested on a drunken driving charge, the club issued a brief statement saying it was “extremely disappointed” and working to gather more information. Belichick often says he talks only about players currently on the team. He explains personnel and strategy decisions by saying he does what he thinks will help his team win. His focus is on the goal line, not headlines.
2. WHERE’S THE CATCH? No one caught more passes in the NFL over the last six seasons than Wes Welker. Now he’s with the Denver Broncos. The Patriots may start the season without their seven leading receivers from last year. Five are gone, including Welker, who had 118 receptions, and Brandon Lloyd, who wasn’t re-signed after finishing second on the team with 74. Two others, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman, may not be recovered from surgery and injuries in time for the opener. If Gronkowski is healthy most of the season, the Patriots should be solid at tight end with Jake Ballard as a capable backup. At wide receiver, Danny Amendola is one starter, although he missed 20 games with the St. Louis Rams the past two seasons with injuries. The Patriots added other wide receivers — free agents Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins and draftees Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.