By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Tuesday isn't the first Patriots practice of the offseason. But with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski making their 2018 debuts, it sure will feel like a new beginning.
The main focus at Patriots mandatory minicamp, which kicks off Tuesday and runs for the next three days, will be on the arrivals of Brady and Gronk and how they look. Assuming they both get first team reps, will they both look as sharp as they would if they'd they been practicing with the team?
But aside from the Patriots' two most important players, there are still plenty of other narratives to think about as minicamp kicks off.
Certain positional groups have a lot to shake out. There are some intriguing names to watch for among those groupings. The Patriots also boast some potentially important rookies and key positional battles that will continue to develop over the summer. Brady and Gronk will brush up against some of these storylines, but here are five things to consider that go beyond the quarterback and tight end:
1. What's up with the receivers?
Speaking of Brady, it's quite possible that he's the one getting the most reps throwing the ball to the wideouts. Edelman will likely be on-point with Brady, considering they've been working out together. But beyond No. 11, the Pats' receiving corps is not without questions.
With Brandin Cooks gone, can Chris Hogan put a stranglehold on the No. 2 receiver spot? How will free-agent acquisition Jordan Matthews, who plays the kind of game that's conducive to Brady and the Patriots' system, factor in? Can rookie seventh-round pick Braxton Berrios make an early impact?
And of course, there's still Malcolm Mitchell. The third-year receiver missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury, and returned for the start of OTAs before going missing from those sessions since. He showed a lot of promise as a rookie, particularly in the Super Bowl - but if he's not able to go at minicamp, that would be a bad sign for his health. If he does practice, he'll have a chance to stand out among the receivers behind Edelman.
2. Linebackers behind Dont'a Hightower
Another position with a clear-cut No. 1, and a whole lot of questions after that, is linebacker. After getting torched in the playoffs without Dont'a Hightower, the Pats' linebacking corps gets its leader back in 2018. But the group still won't be without concerns.
Third-year linebacker Elandon Roberts is in a position where he's in need of a bounce-back after enduring the dreaded "sophomore slump" in 2017. He's shown enough glimpses of ability that he should still be granted a chance to take a step forward in year three, but there's no question that last season was a step back for him. Veteran Kyle Van Noy filled in admirably for Hightower after the latter was shelved with a pectoral injury, but has never shown enough to suggest he could be a long-term answer as the No. 2 'backer or a viable replacement at the top of the depth chart.
Beyond those guys, there's 2018 draft picks Ja'Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam, a pair of rookies with distinct skill sets that could help the defense immediately. Former Bengal Marquis Flowers and 2017 undrafted free agent Harvey Langi are also back. The way this particular group shakes out will be one of the major factors in determining the course of the defense this coming season.
3. Who's stepping up in the secondary?
Stephon Gilmore eventually established himself as the Patriots' No. 1 cornerback in 2017. Eric Rowe, meanwhile, will have an opportunity to emerge as the clear No. 2 after the departure of Malcolm Butler. Either way, the Patriots have a hole to fill in the secondary.
Rookie second-round pick Duke Dawson could be a player who steps up and makes an impact right away. He has the skill set to play the slot with aplomb and could man that part of the field from day one. Veteran Jason McCourty could put himself in a position of trust with the coaching staff faster than others. Third-year corner Jonathan Jones, who flashed at times in 2017 before going down with an ankle injury late in the season, lacks Rowe's size but could have the tools to play significant snaps. And 2017 seventh-rounder Keion Crossen, may peak as a special teams ace but could also be physically gifted enough to eventually play some corner.
And, sorry if this brings back bad memories, but Cyrus Jones is still on the team. He looked to be turning a corner in the return game in the 2017 preseason before tearing his ACL. Now back and healthy, he'll have another chance to be the team's punt returner - and there's enough of an opening on the defense that Jones will also have a chance to seize a role there.
4. Development of rookie draft picks
The aforementioned Dawson may have to develop quicker than other rookies. But it's still worth watching how the Patriots' 2018 picks perform as their first NFL camps progress. Unfortunately, for different reasons, first-rounders Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel have started slowly.
As noted by ESPN's Mike Reiss on Monday, Wynn has yet to be cleared to practice as he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. He could still be working on the lower practice field, away from the full team workouts. Fellow first-rounder Sony Michel, meanwhile, hasn't been a disaster but made mistakes in a recent practice that drew the ire of Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears.
Michel's response to the tongue-lashing he got last week will be worth watching as he continues to try to work his way up the depth chart. As previously mentioned, Bentley and Sam will have some eyes on them as they work with a key positional group. And the likes of Crossen, Berrios, and even third-string QB Danny Etling will have their first chances to make noise in team drills.
5. Standouts among the undrafted
The Patriots have high draft picks battling for spots at crucial positions, but there's also the chance to unearth some hidden gems among the undrafted free agents. Odds are that at least one player out of that group will make the 53-man roster.
If you were to ask NESN's Doug Kyed, cornerback J.C. Jackson is the early leader in that department. The former Maryland corner dropped off teams' draft radars mainly due to off-field issues, including an armed robbery charge. His NFL.com Draft Profile even noted that he has "eventual starter talent" as a physical press corner.
With a crowded defensive backfield behind Gilmore, Jackson looks to be in as good a position as anyone to seize a regular role at corner. He and the other UDFAs shouldn't be ignored at minicamp, because at least one of them is likely to stick around for a while.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].
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