- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Analyzing the New England Patriots' roster at Thursday's first training camp practice will be fascinating. The most interesting part just might be which players are on the field.
Teams have had just two days to negotiate with draft picks, so there is a strong possibility that some of the club's nine selections won't be signed in time to practice.
With free-agent contracts unable to be completed until Friday, there will be holes that coaches envision being filled by a player not officially under contract, not to mention some players who didn't pass the conditioning test.
So it will be a significantly incomplete picture.
Furthermore, unlike past years when it was a given that the Patriots would be opening with a full-pad practice, they won't Thursday. The opening practices should instead have the feel of an organized team activity or possibly even a walkthrough.
With this in mind, here are some areas of interest:
Left tackle. The Patriots drafted Nate Solder in the first round (17th overall), but there is a question of how quickly he'll be able to step in without having been part of the team's offseason program. Solder has yet to sign a contract and veteran Matt Light remains a free agent, so who will the Patriots line up at that spot? They could flip Sebastian Vollmer from right tackle to left tackle, or turn to someone like Mark LeVoir. This will give an initial indication of what the coaching staff might be thinking as a backup plan, and if it includes Nick Kaczur, who projects as a potential salary-cap casualty.
Right defensive end. With Vince Wilfork at nose tackle and veteran Ty Warren potentially ready to return at left defensive end after missing the 2010 season with a hip injury, there is uncertainty at the right end spot. Seven-year veteran Mike Wright, free-agent signee Marcus Stroud and rookie Brandon Deaderick are among the top candidates to play on the right side, with no clear-cut No. 1 option.
Brady entering 12th season. Quarterback Tom Brady had surgery on his right foot in January and the recovery has gone as expected, putting Brady in position to lead players onto the field Thursday. Watching Brady work his craft during camp is one of the annual highlights for this observer.
Bodden and Crumpler shouldering the load. Veteran Leigh Bodden, who was the team's best cornerback in 2009, missed last season with a torn rotator cuff. Meanwhile, veteran tight end Alge Crumpler, a key cog in the running game as a blocker, underwent offseason shoulder surgery. This will be a chance to see how far along both are in the rehab process. A source said Crumpler needs more time as part of his rehab, so it would be a surprise to see him.
Spikes at inside linebacker. A 2010 second-round draft choice, Brandon Spikes played an early-down role as a rookie before serving a four-game suspension in December. While he returned in the playoffs, the suspension stunted some of the momentum he had generated. Can he get it started again?
Young receivers answering the call. As Wes Welker said on Tuesday, now we'll find out who put in the work. The lockout tested the professionalism of every player and we'll get a better idea of how third-year receivers Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman, and second-year receiver Taylor Price, handled it. Their continued development is important for the future, with Welker and Deion Branch, the top receivers on the depth chart, entering the final year of their contracts.
Outside linebacker/rush end spot. A topic of discussion entering the last few years of training camp, the Patriots look a bit thin with Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Eric Moore, Marques Murrell and 2011 sixth-round pick Markell Carter atop the depth chart. The Patriots experimented with Derrick Burgess last year but that didn't work out. Watching the personnel and how this position unfolds will be one of the big storylines of camp.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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