|Tom Brady still has zip, but if anything happens, Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer are capable backups. (AP)|
The New England Patriots are coming off a heart-breaking Super Bowl loss to the Giants, but you would never know it after spending a day with them at camp.
In my opinion, the Pats are a better team today than the team that lost in the Super Bowl back in February. On top of the improvements in personnel, they only play four games against teams that had winning records last year.
As Bill Belichick said, "We are just trying to get a little better each day and make sure we keep the right 53-man roster."
There is enough roster depth that the Pats will have some tough decisions to make when the end of August rolls around. Organizing multiday scrimmages with the Saints and Buccaneers is a brilliant idea to evaluate his personnel.
Here are five critical questions the franchise has to answer this summer:
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Five questions about the Patriots
1. Can the Patriots improve their pass rush?
Last year New England got 20 of its 40 sacks from Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, and neither player is on the 2012 roster. The pass rush at this point looks like a "by committee" approach, and much is expected of rookies Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and even Jake Bequette. Jones is a work in progress and needs time to develop his skills and strength. Hightower will pick up a few sacks on pressure calls. Bequette was an interesting guy to watch in practice and appeared more advanced than the other two in rush techniques. Veteran additions Jonathan Fanene and Trevor Scott will create pressure but it may not show up in the sack column. It's really impossible to judge a group off one practice but I didn't get the feeling the five men mentioned above could duplicate the Anderson/Carter production. I wouldn't be surprised if Belichick re-signs Carter right after the season starts.
2. Can New England overcome the loss of RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis and build a better running game?
The Patriots were the 20th-ranked run team in the NFL last year. Green-Ellis accounted for 11 of the 13 rushing touchdowns by backs. Tom Brady was quick to point out to me that the Pats need a better four-minute offense, and need to take the run when the defense is playing the pass. New England is determined to improve in all run areas over last year, when the Patriots passed on 54 percent of first downs. At practice it was clear Stevan Ridley will be the workhorse on early downs and was much better catching the ball than advertised. Look for Ridley to carry the ball 12-14 times a game and be close to a 700-yard rusher. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead will handle the third-down situations and both looked solid in the draw and screen game, but both still need some work in the physical aspect of the pass-protection game.
3. What impact will Brandon Lloyd have on the offense?
The Patriots' passing game in 2011 featured a short, inside attack with slot receiver Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combining to catch 291 passes. That aspect will still be very much a factor in 2012, but Lloyd brings another dimension. He is going to keep defenses on alert for the deep outside passing game, forcing them to not overplay the short inside game. It was funny to me that a few people I respect bought into the notion that Brady had lost his deep ball and the 2011 offense was really about his diminishing arm strength. I don't buy into that notion after watching practice. Brady threw three balls over 55 yards in the air during the team period, he completed a dozen balls from the far hash mark to the deep out on the wide side of the field and after practice ran a deep ball drill and no receiver could outrun his passes. I talked with Brady about his deep game and Lloyd and he said, "We are preparing to take what defenses give us and Lloyd as well as other outside receivers will get the ball when the coverages dictate we should go there." Lloyd told me, "Tom is so precise about my route running even on the deep stuff and even on a deep corner route that I dove for and made a great catch Tom told me to change that route ever so slightly and I wouldn't have to dive for it again."
4. What if Brady gets injured?
There's no doubt the Patriots go as Brady goes but this camp visit revealed something else to me: Ryan Mallett is really starting to look the part. As Belichick told me, "It will be interesting to see the competition between [veteran backup QB Brian] Hoyer and Mallett for the second spot now that Ryan has had a whole offseason to learn the offense." Let me start by saying that Mallett was impressive in the padded practice I watched. I can confirm that Mallett didn't throw a bad pass in practice and spread the ball around with exceptional accuracy. The defensive players warned me before practice that Mallett was starting to stick the ball into tight spots with great velocity, accuracy and he understood where to go with the ball. Hoyer doesn't have the same natural physical gifts that Mallett has but he can run this team if need be. It is safe to say the Patriots are better off at quarterback than most teams in the NFL.
5. Can the Patriots solidify their offensive line?
The Patriots have two starting linemen on the PUP list (Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer). The starting five at camp on Saturday didn't have one player in the same position as the starting five in the Super Bowl and it was a different combination on Sunday. I talked with new starting left tackle Nate Solder and he emphasized how much work has to be done to be ready for the season. Solder's pass blocking was coming along just fine but he needs to work on his run blocking, specifically staying lower and winning the leverage game. Robert Gallery is more than an adequate replacement at left guard while Mankins is out and looked very good in the short pull aspect of the run scheme. He looks fully recovered from groin surgery. Brady and Belichick both spoke about last season's problems at center, with four guys rotating through the position. As Belichick said, "They all graded out pretty good considering the circumstances." Brady talked about the consistency of the shotgun snap and the ball coming back in the right spot so he could execute the "fast pass" game with little hesitation trying to get the laces in the proper spot. On the right side, Marcus Cannon looked solid working in place of Vollmer, which tells me when Vollmer is back the Patriots will use their three-tackle offense once again. Brady will protect any line combination the Patriots put on the field with his quick decision making. It was clear in practice the team wants the quick pass out of the shotgun to be a big part of the offense.