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 organized team activities (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. 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 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.
3. BELICHICK AND BRADY
Players come and go, even stars. But as long as Belichick and Brady are around, the Patriots should have realistic Super Bowl aspirations.
The longest tenured current NFL coach, Belichick led the Patriots to the postseason in 10 of his 13 seasons and to five Super Bowls. They’ve won three titles, although none in the last eight seasons.
Brady leads one of the NFL’s best offenses every year, no matter who surrounds him. When a knee injury ended his season in the 2008 opener, the Patriots missed the playoffs.
4. YOUNG DEFENSE
The youth movement on defense that began last year continues. End Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower — and maybe Dennard — head into their second season as starters.
This year, linebacker Jamie Collins was drafted in the first round and cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon in the third.
The Patriots led the AFC with 41 takeaways, but were only tied for 15th with 37 sacks.
While youngsters develop, tackle Vince Wilfork, end Rob Ninkovich, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive backs Devin McCourty and Aqib Talib form a solid veteran core.
5. SIMPLE DIVISION
Sure, the Miami Dolphins added wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker Dannell Ellerbee. And that gives them an edge over their AFC East foes — for second place.
The New York Jets and Buffalo Bills did little to improve their chances. So look for the Patriots to win the division for the 10th time in 11 years.
Against AFC East opponents, they’ve won their last 10 games and 20 of their last 24.