Camp Confidential: Patriots working to get back

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The folks residing in Patriot Nation find it unfathomable their team is not returning to the Super Bowl.

Any team coached by Bill Belichick and with Tom Brady throwing passes to Randy Moss must be a Super Bowl favorite, right? There's no other conceivable prediction for fans who harbor blind faith after so many years of being rewarded.

Yet there's a different mood at Patriots training camp this year. They're not the defending champs -- league, conference or division.

The Patriots have something to prove in 2009.

There's a sense of optimism around Gillette Stadium, to be sure. But last year -- following their reality-check loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII -- was a stern reminder nothing should be taken for granted.

Key questions

How will Brady respond to a live pass rush?

This question cannot be answered as long as Brady's clothed in a red, do-not-touch practice jersey.

But the eventual answer will indicate whether the Patriots should be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Those who've crowded around the upper practice fields to watch Brady work out can't tell he underwent reconstructive surgery -- save for the black brace that clasps his left knee. His throws have the same zing. He's accurate. His command during two-minute drills is obvious.

That's all well and good, but if he gets jumpy in the pocket, there will be trouble. What has made Brady a future Hall of Famer is his pocket presence. He has been unflinchingly willing to take a hit to give his receivers one more half-second to separate.

We don't yet know how he will react when defenders start falling at his feet, lunging for his legs, dragging him down.

Brady has stated his desire to play as much as possible in the preseason. He knows he'll need to face a few live opponents to see if the mental side of his rehabilitation is on par with the physical part.

What will the revolving door at cornerback turn out next?

Seven players have started at cornerback over the past two years. The Patriots will have at least one more new starter this year, possibly two.

Before we try to get a feel for how Belichick will handle one of the game's most important positions, remember that Fernando Bryant was the first-team left cornerback throughout 2008 training camp and the preseason. Then Belichick cut him before the regular-season opener.

For now, it appears free agent Leigh Bodden is the right cornerback. The left corner could come down to a pair of second-year pros: Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley. The Patriots also added veteran free agent Shawn Springs and drafted Darius Butler in the second round.

First-team reps have gone to Wheatley while Wilhite, who replaced Deltha O'Neal for the final four games last season, has missed practices with an injury.

"Certainly, based off the offseason, both of those players have made significant progress," Belichick said, "and hopefully they'll be able to carry that onto the field and into training camp and build on it and have strong seasons. Their offseason has been good. They are way ahead of where they were last year."

Will the Patriots regret not bringing in veteran help to replace Mike Vrabel at outside linebacker?

Every edge rusher who so much as wa
s rumored to be available was supposedly headed to New England over the offseason. Julius Peppers, Jason Taylor, Derrick Burgess, Greg Ellis ... none of them came.

Radar was up because the Patriots packaged Vrabel, a Pro Bowler just two seasons ago, in the Matt Cassel trade to the Kansas City Chiefs. There clearly was a void.

Or was there? Apparently the Patriots didn't view themselves as needy as outsiders did. They declined to summon help, choosing instead to give Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable a shot to claim the job.

Neither has much experience. Woods, undrafted in 2006, has made three starts. All of them came last year in place of an injured Adalius Thomas.

Crable, a third-round pick last year, is a somewhat unknown. Crable didn't play a game last year because of a shin problem and opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Unless the Patriots eventually do bring in help, it would appear to be Woods' job to lose.

Market watch

Rodney Harrison's age and health weren't the only reasons the Patriots declined to bring him back for another season at strong safety. Brandon Meriweather's performances in Harrison's place truly nudged them forward.

Meriweather, the 24th overall draft pick in 2007, has been elevated to starting strong safety and should be ready for the job.

He started only the final 10 games after Harrison suffered a career-ending quadriceps injury. That was enough time for Meriweather to make more tackles (79) than Tedy Bruschi, record as many sacks (two) as Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren and lead the team with four interceptions.

Newcomer to watch

The Patriots welcomed back four capable running backs, but Belichick felt the need to enlist more help. Fred Taylor, with his 11,271 career rushing yards, has joined the crew.

How the 33-year-old Taylor's role develops will be an interesting storyline. There's enough depth at the position that Belichick won't need to lean heavily on Taylor, who gained the nickname "Fragile Fred" for the various injuries he endured in 11 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Taylor already has dealt with a wrist injury since signing with New England, but in all fairness, he generally has been reliable over the past seven years, missing a dozen games.

Walter O'Connell
Observation deck

Belichick has been turning over the roster since camp began a week ago. The most interesting moves have occurred at backup quarterback, where Belichick obviously isn't happy. Third-stringer Matt Gutierrez was cut and former Oakland Raider Andrew Walter brought in to compete with last year's third-round draft pick, Kevin O'Connell, who seems to have lost reps to undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer. ... Greybeard receiver Joey Galloway is running just fine. A foot injury kept him off the field for all but nine games last year with Tampa Bay. ... Mammoth offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer, viewed by many to be a reach as the 58th overall draft pick in April, has been impressive. The 6-foot-8 German émigré could push veteran Nick Kaczur to be the starting right tackle. ... Julian Edelman always seems to be on the field. The Patriots drafted the Kent State quarterback in the seventh round and are converting him into a receiver/punt returner/gadget guy. Edelman's often compared to Wes Welker, but they've been on the field together quite a bit with the first team. ... Oft-injured back Laurence Maroney is running with conviction. He's coming off a broken shoulder bone and looks powerful.