Cerullo: Ten stories to follow as Patriots set to kick off training camp

AP PhotoPatriots wide receiver N'Keal Harry catches the ball during practice this spring. The first-round pick will be one of the key players to watch as training camp begins this week.

The New England Patriots’ quest for a record seventh Super Bowl title officially begins this Thursday, when the team opens training camp. Here are 10 storylines worth following as we turn the page to 2019.

1. Can Harry be great?

The Patriots don’t have a good track record at drafting and developing wide receivers, but the team has never invested in a player like N’Keal Harry. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound receiver out of Arizona State is the first receiver drafted in the first round by Bill Belichick, and he was brought in to give Tom Brady a big, physical weapon outside, one who maybe – just maybe – could help fill the void left by Rob Gronkowski. 

Can he be that player? He was up and down in OTAs, albeit largely matched up against Stephon Gilmore, but fought for the ball and made some incredible plays against double-coverage. His growth will be one of the key factors to the Patriots’ success this year and beyond.

2. Is Wynn ready at left tackle?

Last year’s top pick Isaiah Wynn never saw his rookie season get off the ground. The left tackle out of Georgia appeared stuck behind Trent Brown on the depth chart before a ruptured Achilles in the preseason sidelined him for good. But now, with Wynn healthy and Brown now in Oakland, the job is his to lose, and the Patriots will be counting on him to step up and protect Tom Brady’s blindside.

If he can’t, Plan B isn’t very encouraging. Left guard Joe Thuney took most of the first team snaps during OTAs in his absence, and the alternative is rookie Yodny Cajuste, who has dealt with his own injury issues this offseason.

3. Lots of new blood

Wynn is one of seven 2018 draft picks who effectively redshirted their rookie seasons due to injury. Combined with the team’s 10 new draft picks and 11 undrafted free agents, that’s 28 new players with little to no NFL experience competing for roster spots this camp. Considering that last year’s Patriots were the oldest in the NFL (average age of 27.9, per Football Outsiders), an infusion of new blood will be crucial to maintaining the team’s success going forward.

4. Can Dawson break through?

The redshirt rookie with the most to prove this camp is former second-round cornerback Duke Dawson. Once a highly regarded slot corner out of Florida, the former No. 56 overall pick didn’t see the field as a rookie, starting the season on injured reserve (hamstring) before sitting out the last nine regular season and playoff games as a healthy scratch. Now Dawson will have to compete for a spot amid one of the strongest cornerback groups in the NFL, a group that includes All-Pro corner Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, JC Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Keion Crossen and rookie Joejuan Williams.

5. Is Maurice Harris for real?

While his free agent signing didn’t generate much buzz, Maurice Harris was by far the most impressive newcomer at OTAs during the spring. The 6-foot-3 wide receiver caught everything thrown his way, and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues as training camp ramps up. Best case scenario, maybe Harris becomes a reliable No. 3 or 4 option to replace Chris Hogan?

6. Tight end: Wide open

Rob Gronkowski won’t be walking through that door this season, and neither will any of the others who suited up at tight end for the Patriots last year. What’s left is a big question mark, and one of the big stories of training camp will be who steps up to fill that void. Veteran Ben Watson’s four-game PED suspension complicates matters, leaving an opening for a player like Ryan Izzo, Stephen Anderson or Andrew Beck to earn a roster spot along presumed favorite Matt LaCosse.

7. Linebackers: Sneaky competitive

Despite their consistent production and monster postseason, the Patriots’ linebackers never got much respect throughout the 2018 season. That probably had a lot to do with the fact that beyond Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, there wasn’t much depth after rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley was lost due to injury. But now? There’s a lot of talent in the linebacker room between returning veteran Jamie Collins, the now-healthy Bentley and stalwarts like Hightower, Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Is there enough room for everybody? 

8. Punters: Hottest battle?

On one hand, you have Ryan Allen, the 29-year-old veteran who had a monster showing in Super Bowl LIII and just signed a one-year, $1.55 million deal. On the other hand, you have Jake Bailey, the rookie from Stanford who the Patriots traded up to draft in the fifth round (No. 163 overall) and who also has extensive experience on kickoffs. Both players could make compelling cases, so expect this battle to go down to the wire.

9. Does undrafted streak last?

One of the keys to the Patriots’ success is their ability to find diamonds in the rough, so it’s probably no coincidence that an undrafted rookie free agent has made the team 16 straight seasons dating back to 2004. Will that streak continue? And who of this year’s class of undrafted rookies might have a chance to earn a spot on the 53-man roster? Tight end Andrew Beck seems like the best candidate, but others to watch include safety Malik Gant, linebacker Terez Hall and wide receiver Ryan Davis.

10. Tom vs. Time

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Tom Brady is getting old. Yes, the soon-to-be 42-year-old quarterback has defied the odds these past few years, becoming the oldest quarterback in league history to win a Super Bowl last year at 41, but at a certain point the end will come eventually, right? Unless you expect Brady to continue playing at a Pro Bowl level when he looks like his FaceApp portrait, there will eventually come a point when time catches up to him.

Will that be this season? My money is on no, but it’ll still be worth paying attention to see if Brady still looks like Brady as camp goes along this summer.

 

Training Camp Dates

The New England Patriots have announced six open practices for the first portion of training camp. Those dates and times are as follows:

Thurs., July 25, 9:15 a.m.

Fri., July 26, 9:15 a.m.

Sat., July 27, 9:15 a.m.

Sun., July 28, TBA

Wed., July 31, TBA

Thurs., Aug. 1, TBA

Admission is free for all practices and gates will open at 8 a.m. for each of the three practices whose times have been announced. For up to date information on all practice dates and times, visit patriots.com/trainingcamp.