Brady is one of many questions


For years in Boston, there has been a debate about whether Bill Belichick is truly a football genius, or whether he simply stumbled into late-career greatness by selecting Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. After last year's 11-5 bailing-wire-and-Elmer's season without Brady, I tend to think that quandary has been resolved. The Patriots probably had no business even thinking about the playoffs with Matt Cassel at their helm, but they fooled all Pats fans into believing that the team's season didn't end 20 minutes into the '08 season when Brady's knee went snap.

Now Brady is back, and certainly the lead story of New England's training camp -- and probably the lead story of any training camp in the NFL in 2009 -- is whether he can return from torn knee ligaments to be the same offensive machine he was when he threw 50 touchdowns in '07. But there will be subplots, too. What will the franchise make of its incredibly jumbled backfield situation? How will the team replace departed pass-rush specialist Mike Vrabel? And can a newly imported crew of cornerbacks wipe out the rancid taste left by Deltha O'Neal? Most of the stars you know are still in place, and they figure to pick right back up where they left off. Whether or not that adds up to another Super Bowl, though, almost certainly depends on Mr. Brady's much-speculated-upon left knee.

What to look for in camp

Key position battles: Drafting a Patriots running back in a fantasy league has been a dicey proposition for a few years, and that doesn't figure to change in '09. The team brought in Fred Taylor, adding him to a crew that includes Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. It'll be interesting to see what the team does with these guys in training camp, but the truth is that we probably already know how this story ends: Different guys will lead the squad in different weeks, and it all winds up being pretty unpredictable for fantasy purposes. My best guess is that Taylor leads the team in carries and yards, Morris scores the most touchdowns, Faulk gets the most receptions and Maroney gets hurt. But we shall see.

Benjamin Watson has been a fantasy disappointment at tight end for several seasons, and the Pats may finally be doing something about it. They signed Alex Smith, late of the Buccaneers, to provide some camp competition. Former Jet Chris Baker is also on hand, but he's more of a blocker who figures to play in running situations. Observers seem to believe there's only one roster spot available for Watson and Smith.

But perhaps the most important battle in terms of the team's on-field success will take place at outside linebacker opposite Adalius Thomas. Vrabel was relatively spotty in '08 and was banished to Kansas City this winter, and there were all sorts of rumors about Julius Peppers or Derrick Burgess coming to New England as a pass-rush specialist. Since that hasn't happened so far, for now Pierre Woods, Tully Banta-Cain and Shawn Crable figure to battle for this starting gig, which could very well be split among all three players depending on down and situation.

Fitting in: Joey Galloway is now 38 and couldn't get on the field much for the Bucs last season, but the Patriots think they can get at least one more good season out of him as their third receiver. I'm somewhat skeptical about this; Galloway is an outside, downfield receiver who seems ill-suited to the Jabar Gaffney role in the New England offense. But camp may resolve those concerns. Remember, though, that the Pats also signed Greg Lewis from Philadelphia, a player whose skills fit that Gaffney role a bit better.

With Ellis Hobbs gone to Philly and Deltha O'Neal banished for poor play, the Patriots will have a new set of starting cornerbacks in '09, and not a moment too soon. Shawn Springs is 34 now and has battled injury for a few years, and Leigh Bodden suffered through a nightmarish season in Detroit last year. Almost by default they'll be better than what New England had back there in '08, but I still don't see a true No. 1 corner in the group (Springs will reportedly take that role nominally, at least in the beginning of camp). One wonders whether team history might've been different if the Pats had simply paid Asante Samuel. Anyway, rookies Pat Chung and Darius Butler will also have to blend into a secondary that's gotten fair but sometimes inconsistent play from starting safeties James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather.

At inside linebacker, the team hoped rookie Tyrone McKenzie would be able to battle Tedy Bruschi for the right to start next to one of the league's brightest 3-4 lights, Jerod Mayo, but McKenzie tore an ACL in minicamp. That means Bruschi is probably the starter again, but ex-Lion Paris Lenon should also get into the mix. He was an underrated player in that Detroit morass, and will be worth watching in camp.

On the line: The cast remains the same. The tackles, Matt Light and Nick Kaczur, represent one of the league's top-5 tandems, and stayed stout even without Brady (and with Matt Cassel holding onto the ball too long) in '08. Logan Mankins is also very good at left guard. But both center Dan Koppen and right guard Stephen Neal struggled last season, and the reserves the Patriots have along the interior line are average at best. Brady's quicker release may solve this problem, but too many defenses were able to get too great a push up the middle all last year. That will be an early-season story worth tracking.

The bottom line

Brady, Brady, Brady. That's all anyone will talk about around New England's training camp, and rightly so. If Brady doesn't miss a beat, we're still talking about one of the NFL's most prolific offenses, and between Randy Moss and Wes Welker, a fantasy gold mine. Of course, the team is also missing Josh McDaniels, its offensive coordinator the past couple years, so there will be a few questions regarding the team's overall play-calling philosophy. Will the Pats zig when everyone in the league expects them to zag, and suddenly go back to a more balanced rushing attack? And can any of the myriad Pats running backs emerge? Yeah, all that's fine, but you know what? It really does come down to Brady, Brady, Brady.