FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A training camp filled with potential pitfalls went about as smoothly as the New England Patriots could have hoped.
They addressed the Aaron Hernandez situation early, minimized the attention on Tim Tebow and found promising young wide receivers after losing their top two from last season.
And Rob Gronkowski may be ready sooner than expected after back surgery.
Now the AFC East champions in nine of the last 10 years must address on-field mistakes like those they made in a 40-9 exhibition loss to the Lions last week.
“Regardless of what happened (in Detroit,)” coach Bill Belichick said, “we still have a lot of work to do on our football team. We just have to take advantage of those opportunities to do it.”
They can do that without being distracted by off-field issues.
The Patriots cut Hernandez the day the star tight end was arrested and before he was charged with murder the afternoon of June 26. The day before training camp, Belichick discussed the matter at length on July 24. The next day, Tom Brady talked about it. And the next day Tebow, Hernandez’s teammate at Florida, discussed it and his own evolving role on the team.
Gronkowski had surgery on June 18, about five weeks before camp began, and was on the field Monday doing individual drills. It appears the tight end is likely to miss no more than a few games rather than start the season on the physically unable to perform list, which would require him to sit out the first six.
The Patriots avoided another potential health problem when Brady participated fully in practice the day after leaving the field midway through a practice with a mild left knee sprain Aug. 14.
Bring on the regular season.
Here are five things to watch as the Patriots try to break an eight-year championship drought:
SOFT SCHEDULE: The Patriots play only five of their 16 games against teams with winning records last year. None of them are in the division, so the Patriots should win the AFC East again. They should make another run at the Super Bowl after losing last season’s AFC championship game to Baltimore. And they tend to peak at the right time with a 23-1 record in the last half of the past three seasons.
THE KIDS BETTER BE ALL RIGHT: After losing Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who combined for 192 catches last year, the Patriots are counting on veteran Danny Amendola and three rookies — free agent Kenbrell Thompkins and draft choices Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Young wide receivers historically have had difficulty learning the Patriots’ offensive system. But if they go to the right spot on the field, Brady will get the ball to them. The Patriots also hope another rookie, free-agent tight end Zach Sudfeld, can continue his strong training camp in the regular season.
GETTING TO THE QUARTERBACK: The Patriots were mediocre in rattling the opposing passer with just 37 sacks, tied for 15th, last season. But with end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower having a year of experience after being drafted in the first round last year, that should improve. “This year I know the playbook 20 times better,” Hightower said. “I’m a lot more comfortable now and whenever you’re comfortable, you’re able to play the way you want to.” Jones missed nearly three full games with an ankle injury and was second on the team with six sacks. Hightower had four.
SECONDARY ISSUES: The Patriots were vulnerable to the big play last season. The secondary improved when they acquired cornerback Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1, allowing Devin McCourty to move to safety on a more permanent basis. “Aqib picked up our system very quickly when he got here last year and has been confident and very fluent in it,” Belichick said. Starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has been sidelined for part of training camp and faces a hearing Sept. 6 for a potential probation violation after his arrest in Nebraska on July 11 for first-offense drunken driving. Rookie draft picks Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon have promise but may not be ready for steady duty. Veteran safety Adrian Wilson was added as a free agent.
STEADY LEADERSHIP: Belichick is the coach on the sideline. Brady handles that job on the field. In their 13 seasons together, the Patriots have reached the playoffs 10 times and won three of their five Super Bowls. “Tom’s like a coach out there on the field,” Amendola said. “He knows every intricacy of the offense. He helps young guys out a lot. He’s a leader.” As long as Brady and Belichick are around, a long playoff run is realistic.