9 unanswered questions after Patriots minicamp


FOXBORO -- While New England has two more days of OTA workouts scheduled for next week, the bulk of the Patriots offseason practice is in the books following the team’s three-day mandatory veteran minicamp this week.

Soon, Bill Belichick and his players will disperse from Gillette Stadium for some final time off heading into the opening of training camp in the last week of July. Belichick said his team “got a lot of work done” during minicamp, but even so there remain plenty of unanswered questions regarding how the Patriots will be built in 2019 as they look to defend their Super Bowl title.

Here’s a look at some of the many details the still need to be ironed out by Belichick and his staff between now and the Sept. 8 Sunday Night Football opener against the Steelers.

1 – Will Tom Brady ever start to look old?: TB12’s 2019 debut on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium was an impressive one. From the bounce in his step as he took his cheery first stride onto the practice surface to his efficient production in the three-day camp, Brady looked every bit the part of the clear franchise QB that he is. Sooner or later he may start to look old as he approaches his 42nd birthday, but it’s not happening yet. If you did a blind taste test of passers on the practice field you would never guess that the guy in the No. 12 jersey is, according to some, on the verge of falling off the cliff while two of the other guys were young, upstart, strong-armed passers. Not surprising but also worth noting, Brady looked great.

2 – What’s up with Sony Michel?: Last winter the rookie running back capped a solid first season in New England by being a key cog in the offense on the way to a Super Bowl ring. And while he was at Robert Kraft’s house Thursday night to collect that ring, Michel was not seen on the field during minicamp. He missed time on multiple occasions last summer and fall to knee issues, a problem that dates back to earlier in his career at Georgia. The exact reason for Michel’s absence is unknown, but it’s not good for a young player looking to take a big Year 2 Jump that ideally would include an increased role in the passing game. If Michel misses more time this summer in training camp it not only could hurt his chance to have that increased role but would open the door for third-round teammate Damien Harris to be an impact rookie.

3 – Is rookie Jarrett Stidham going to be backup-ready in 2019?: There were four quarterbacks on the field for minicamp. Brady is obviously a lock to be the starter. As a fourth-round pick, Stidham is pretty much a lock to stick with the team in some fashion. And based on the way things played in minicamp, second-year practice squader Danny Etling appears just as likely to be cut before training camp even opens as he is to make it to the fall. So, will the Patriots keep three quarterbacks in 2019? Jimmy Garoppolo won the backup job in his rookie season. And if Brian Hoyer is cut, there is a decent chance he could be re-signed later if needed. But based on Stidham looking very much like a raw rookie in minicamp action, Hoyer may be needed as the backup for at least one more season and Belichick will need to dedicate three roster spots to the quarterback position this fall.

4 – What’s the plan on the left side of the offensive line?: Much of the attention has been focused this week on three-year left guard Joe Thuney taking reps at left tackle. That’s certainly worth noting as Brady’s blindside goes through a transition for the second straight offseason. Thuney was an All-ACC left tackle at N.C. State, so it’s not hard to think he can do the job if last year’s top pick Isaiah Wynn can’t or isn’t recovered enough from his torn Achilles to even compete. But, if Thuney plays left tackle the bigger question might be whether someone like Ted Karras or Brian Schwenke is capable of being a reliable starter at left guard. There’s lots of work left to do on the left side of the New England line this summer.

5 – Is Jerod Mayo really going to be the defensive playcaller in his first season as an NFL coach?: Just a few months ago the former All-Pro linebacker Mayo was splitting his time between the business world and working as a host/analyst for a regional sports network talking Patriots. This week he was using a walkie-talkie to call in defensive plays to whichever linebacker was relaying them to the huddle. Was that just a case of someone having to do the job as the team works to replace now-Dolphins head coach Brian Flores or a test run at a role Mayo might fill on game day this fall? On a totally retooled New England defensive staff Mayo has as much experience dealing with Patriots game plans and playcalls as anyone not named Bill Belichick. Maybe Belichick will call plays for the first time since 2000. Maybe first-year defensive line coach and former Arkansas/Wisconsin boss Bret Bielema will do it. Right now, though, Mayo looks like the early favorite to do the job.

6 -- Can top pick N’Keal Harry get up to speed enough to be a top-3 receiver?: One thing is quite certain, minicamp showed that Josh McDaniels, Brady and the Patriots are investing plenty of time, energy and reps into getting their first-round wide receiver as acclimated as possible as quickly as possible to life in the New England offense. Harry had an up-and-down camp. He had some nice plays and some ugly drops. He got plenty of route running advice, including from Deion Branch. In an ideal situation Harry will be a top-3 target from day one in his Patriots career, but young receivers almost never work out in ideal fashion in the New England passing attack.

7 -- Will draft pick Jake Bailey find enough consistency to win the punting job?: For the second straight summer veteran punter Ryan Allen has competition, this time in the form of fifth-round pick Jake Bailey. The Stanford rookie showed in minicamp that he has the much stronger leg and elite hang-time potential. He was also inconsistent and spent a lot of time working on plus-50 and situational boots. If leg strength were all that mattered, Bailey would win the job come September. But Belichick puts a great focus on all the other aspects of the job and that means the left-footed Allen has a chance to hold onto it.

8 – How will the wide receiver position shake out behind Julian Edelman?: Beyond the Super Bowl MVP, there’s nothing but questions on the wide receiver depth chart in New England. Harry will get his chances as a No. 1 pick. Phillip Dorsett is back and has a comfort level with Brady if seemingly limited impact upside. Newcomer Maurice Harris was impressive in shorts and t-shirts. Conversely, Dontrelle Inman did little to stand out. Braxton Berrios is clearly in the mix in his second season after a year on IR. Demaryius Thomas never got on the field. Who knows what the future holds for Josh Gordon? Beyond Edelman, much is to be decided in terms of roster spots and roles at receiver.

9 – What is the post-Gronk (maybe?) tight end position going to look like?: Ben Watson looked like his veteran, athletic self in minicamp, but he’ll be suspended to open the season. Newcomer Matt LaCosse showed soft hands and decent route running. Ryan Izzo could surprise after a year on IR and veteran Austin Seferian-Jenkins was released. Certainly no one looked anything like the future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski. Assuming recent reports of the Patriots confidence in Gronk’s return are speculation at best, New England has a long way to go to figure out how it’s going to get production out of the key tight end spot.