In just a few short weeks the New England Patriots will open training camp as defending Super Bowl champions for the first time in the last decade. But it's been far from a status quo offseason for the Pats, and really, should we expect anything else?
The top four cornerbacks and top two running backs have departed, long-time stalwart offensive lineman Dan Connolly appears ready to retire and Tom Brady's appeal of his four-game suspension continues to hang over the team. However Bill Belichick has never been one to blink. It will be "next man up" and no matter who's on the field, the well-coached Pats will be a beast for every opponent they face.
Here are the five biggest questions that the Pats will face as they start to form their 2015 version in the early days of training camp.
1. Brady's Suspension
Tom Brady's appeal of his four-game Deflategate suspension is the first major piece of the puzzle to fall into place. This will directly affect how the snaps in training camp and preseason must be allotted between Brady and second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. If Brady's punishment is reduced to only one or two games, and he accepts that, there should be close to an even split of snaps in August. Perhaps more interesting will be if Brady doesn't accept whatever Commissioner Roger Goodell comes back with and decides to take the fight to court. That could put the entire suspension on the shelf until it's ruled on next year. And if that's the case, Brady will be a full go for 2015.
The Patriots stayed healthy for the most part last season aside from the loss of linebacker Jerod Mayo. However after the season ended a litany of surgeries were revealed, putting many key players' start to the season in jeopardy. The headline is the linebacker corps, with Mayo (torn patellar tendon), Dont'a Hightower (labrum surgery) and Jamie Collins (unknown) all in some phase of recovery. Mayo and Hightower seem like locks to open on the PUP list, while Collins was in and out of OTAs and is a much-needed presence for the defense in training camp.
The defensive line has questions as well with Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Chandler Jones all coming off surgeries of their own. Add in Dominique Easley, who was shut down in late 2014 to get over his back-to-back ACL tears, and that's a significant chunk of key front seven players who might be unavailable at the start of camp.
3. Starting Over at Cornerback
Turnover is a fact of life in the NFL, but rarely do you see a near-complete purge of an entire position like the Patriots had this offseason at corner. Part of it is the fact that the Pats just don't value long-term deals for corners, while another is the upcoming need to pay their high-round, talented front seven players like Collins, Hightower and Chandler Jones. But now the Patriots must find their starting cornerbacks from a mix of devalued veterans like Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain, and unproven youngsters like Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. With 10 corners on the roster there will be plenty of competition, and injuries will likely play a role in determining who plays, but rarely in Belichick's tenure has a position battle been more wide open. Every snap will be vital.
4. Almost Starting Over at Running Back
The presence of Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount doesn't make the running back position quite as wide open as the cornerback one, but there are at least two significant roles up for grabs and a number of unproven faces who could step into them. James White had a redshirt year in 2014 after being selected in the fourth round. He'll compete with free agent Travaris Cadet for the primary receiving back duties, a very important role in the Patriots offense. Meanwhile, second-year player Tyler Gaffney is an unknown commodity in the early-down role. His direct competition will be Jonas Gray, who ran all over the Colts in the middle of last season and was then barely heard from again after arriving late to a meeting because he overslept.
With Blount being suspended for Week 1, the Pats will open the season with a new look in their backfield regardless, but we can expect the new players will bring a new season-long twist to the offense that can't be predicted.
5. On Guard
The Patriots had plenty of experimentation along the interior of their offensive line early last season. It was settled once Ryan Wendell showed he was more than just a center and did a solid job at right guard. Dan Connolly was a captain at left guard, but upgrading the interior offensive line has been a priority ever since Brian Waters left after just one year. The Pats drafted two rookie guards - Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason - but would they really be comfortable starting two rookies? Wendell is there as an insurance policy, but his starting spot is not etched in stone. Unknowns like Josh Klein, Caylin Hauptmann and Cameron Fleming could also be in the mix, but the uncertainty at the position is the biggest concern on the offensive side of the ball, and one that might not be resolved until a few games into the season.