FOXBORO - It all begins anew this week. The cheering crowds, the athleticism on the field, the desperate battle for jobs and the high hopes that the hard work under the sweltering skies of July and August will result in a raised Vince Lombardi Trophy in February.
The first signs of an advancing autumn always come at this juncture of the summer, as 32 teams in the National Football League open their training camps - all with 0-0 records and a firm belief that there are no limits to the success they can achieve over the next seven months.
The New England Patriots came close to their ultimate goal again last year, advancing to their third straight AFC Championship Game. But the ledger has no Super Bowl victories on it since the 2005 season, and the time is growing short for coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady to add to their legacies before the doors swing open for them at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The team-building process starts on Wednesday, when players are scheduled to report to Gillette Stadium - the host site for training camp since 2003 - for physicals and fitness testing. The first practice open to the public will begin 9:15 a.m. Thursday, although recent restrictions on preseason contact prescribed by the last collective bargaining agreement will keep the Patriots out of full pads until the weekend.
But the concept of "training camp" has been ongoing since March, when players started showing up for "voluntary" conditioning workouts or "organized team activities." The mandatory June minicamp pushed the process along, and now the Patriots will have 15 days of high-intensity preparation before their preseason opener Aug. 7 at FedEx Field against the Washington Redskins.
Although the number of local practices will be reduced by the Patriots' joint practices with the Redskins in Richmond, Va., the week of Aug. 4, there will still be plenty of activities for Patriots' fans to enjoy at the practice complex adjacent to the Dana-Farber Field House - including the induction of cornerback Ty Law into the Patriots Hall of Fame on Aug. 1, and two days of joint practices (Aug 12-13) with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Also included for those less enraptured with the action on the field is the "Patriots Fan Zone," an interactive theme park open on most days of practice. Fans can get the latest practice schedule and times for the Fan Zone activities and autograph sessions by calling the training camp information number at 508-549-0001.
As always, the main reason for fans to go to training camp is to see their favorite team in the process of being built. There will be interesting stories to follow at every position, but here are five particularly intriguing issues for the Patriots to resolve on the practice fields before the season opener at Miami on Sept. 7:
1. Who'll play center?
And why is this so extremely important? Because last year, especially late in the season, opposing teams bull-rushed again future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady by sending someone directly over center Ryan Wendell - and with Brady's sack numbers having risen steadily over the past few years (up to 40 in 2013), that's a hole that has to be plugged.
Wendell has been a serviceable center, but the Patriots have had a revolving door at the position after they let go of Dan Koppen. Hence, no rookie has a better chance of taking a starting job in his first year as a pro than Bryan Stork, the 6-foot-4, 313-pound behemoth from Florida State. Stork was a fourth-round pick (105th overall), and if the Patriots spent a pick in the general vicinity of the top 100 on an offensive lineman (especially a center), then you know they expect him to be a contributor in short order.
The good thing is that Wendell won't be out of a job. He has enough experience and can play multiple positions well enough to stick around as depth. Others (Dan Connolly, for instance) may not be as lucky as new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo takes over from the retired Dante Scarnecchia and makes his own evaluations of the existing talent.
2. Whither Ryan Mallett?
What would you do with the fourth-year backup quarterback? He's tall, he's got a strong arm and he was seen as the perfect size-and-style replacement to Brady if needed, but he's thrown only four passes in three seasons, completing one for 17 yards and being intercepted once, and he didn't try a single throw in 2013. And on top of that, his rookie contract expires this year.
It seems pretty clear that rookie Jimmy Garoppolo is going to get the grooming to be Brady's eventual replacement, so the wisest course would seem to be to deal Mallett to a team with a dire need for a traditional drop-back quarterback, and to pick up a low-cost veteran from among everyone else's discards who could hold the fort in case Brady is injured.
In any event, it doesn't seem likely that Garoppolo will be ready soon enough for Belichick to keep just two quarterbacks on the roster. That could be the factor that saves Mallett's bacon for one more season as a Patriot - unless he shows something in the preseason games that he hasn't shown in his previous three years on the team, of course.
3. Who'll catch the ball?
OK, it's true that for at least a short while, Brady had two of the best wide receivers in the solar system (Randy Moss and Wes Welker). He won a slew of games with them and set all sorts of records, but they didn't raise an "18-1" banner at Gillette Stadium to celebrate a 2007 season in which the Patriots won every game except the most important one.
Perhaps someday, we'll all sit back and wonder why Belichick didn't make a more concerted effort over a 15-year period to give one of the best quarterbacks in the game some of the best receivers available to complement his talents. In the meantime, Brady must be content with a receiving corps consisting of an extremely talented (and extremely breakable) tight end, a lot of slot receivers and a few guys that might be able to do interesting things out of the backfield.
The pressure will be on a few of the younger guys to make quick steps up.
Aaron Dobson (who was still rehabbing his broken foot in the minicamp), Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce really have no choice but to make the second-year jump that separates promising receivers from unemployed ones. The Patriots may not be able to expect another 105-catch season from Julian Edelman, they shouldn't expect much more from oft-injured Danny Amendola (54 catches for 633 yards) than they got last year, and ex-Panther Brandon LaFell is going to have to get a grasp of the terminology a lot quicker than it seemed in the minicamp.
Tight end? Who knows? Rob Gronkowski's health has to be an ongoing concern, and no one else in that position group can come even close to Gronk's potential productivity if he disappears again.
There's a lot to like about what the Patriots can do out of the backfield; Shane Vereen has proven skills in the third-down role, and there are high hopes for rookie James White. But the bottom line is that no team's secondary is going to look at the Patriots' pass catchers, throw up their hands and walk off the field believing they don't have a chance to stop them. Even Brady might have trouble making chicken salad out of this group.
4. How about that secondary?
It may not be the finished product just yet - Brandon Browner still has to serve a four-game suspension at the start of the regular season - but if everything is as advertised, fans may be seeing one of the best secondaries in the NFL from the very first day of practice.
Darrelle Revis is, well, Darrelle Revis. The only question is whether his surgically repaired knee, upon which he still played a full 16 games last year in Tampa, is restored enough to let him be the same playmaker he was in his years with the Jets.
Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington return, and there are high hopes for Logan Ryan's second season. Devin McCourty returns as one of the AFC's top safeties, leaving to coaching staff to settle the question of who's playing the other safety position.
One very good sign came to light a couple of weeks before the opening of camp, when it was revealed that several members of the Patriots' secondary (including Revis, who organized it) were working out on their own at the Fischer Institute in Phoenix, going through camp-like drills and fitness training totally on their own when most NFL players are trying to enjoy their last two weeks away from football. If that isn't commitment, what is?
5. Who are the linebackers, and do the Patriots even need them?
If you're a training camp junkie and you enjoy observing position battles that don't have "SportsCenter Highlights" written all over them, the Patriots' linebacking situation may be right in your wheelhouse.
There's not a lot that could be called "sexy" or even remotely suspenseful about the battle for starting jobs. There is none. About the only drama will be seeing how Jerod Mayo recovered from a pectoral muscle injury; otherwise, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower are pretty much penciled in as the early-down lineup.
After that, however, it's a mystery.
The departures of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher through free agency seriously reduced the veteran depth available in the position group. What's left is a potpourri of youngsters, rookies and free agents that may be added to and subtracted from several times during the course of camp - and maybe well into the season.
The addition of ex-Panther and Bear James Anderson should provide a bump up in experience if he's got something left. Otherwise, it's uncertain if Chris White, Steve Beauharnais, Ja'Gared Davis, Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Taylor McCuller or Deontae Skinner will become household names, of if others will glide through training camp until the coaches are satisfied with what's left standing on the first week of September.
Truthfully, there may not be a pressing need.
Rob Ninkovich, a stalwart as a pass-rushing defensive end, could transition into an outside linebacker's role if needed. And the trend on some passing downs is to load up on defensive linemen and defensive backs, taking coverage-challenged linebackers off the field.
It may not be stop-the-presses intrigue, but what the Patriots do with their linebackers will be interesting nonetheless.
MARK FARINELLA, entering his 38th season of covering the New England Patriots, may be reached at 508-236-0315 or via email at email@example.com.