The Patriots hit the field Tuesday for a mandatory minicamp that promises to be quite exciting.
Well, as exciting as football can be without tackling, pads, fans, a score, or an opponent.
Yep, we're talking about practice. But since it is the first time the team has been seen on the field since getting pounded at Denver in January, there are many things to watch for during the three days of half-dressed rehearsals. The top 10:
1. Deion Branch. Maybe he's saving up his carryover minutes, but the usually accessible Branch has not been taking or returning calls from the media this offseason. Will he make an appearance this week? It's about time for him to come out and admit that he is dissatisfied with the progress (or lack thereof) of his contract negotiations.
Hint: The forthcoming posturing by both sides, which we are obligated to chronicle over the next six weeks, eventually will be rendered meaningless. A deal will get done and Branch will come to training camp (maybe after a short holdout) and say how happy he is that he is remaining a Patriot.
2. Corey Dillon. Speaking of unseen and unheard from players, Dillon has been the Invisible Man this offseason. After grueling workouts in Southern California, he'll presumably show up in great shape and declare that he is ready to return to his pre-senior citizenship form of 2004. (And he'll tell us that the Patriots' drafting of Laurence Maroney in the first round didn't bother him at all. And his close, warm, personal friends and running buddies in the media won't believe him.)
3. Chad Jackson. It is clear that the explosive rookie from Florida will be in the offensive mix from Day 1. Pass catchers don't easily impress Tom Brady, so Jackson will have to earn opportunities. Young wideouts often spend so much time focused on remembering their assignments that they forget to get open. When open, Jackson will make catches, and he can turn short grabs into quick sixes. This week, we'll see how he does against veteran defensive backs (albeit an average crop).
4. The secondary. As stated above, there is an abundance of average here. Channeling Bill Belichick: ``It's very competitive." It'll be difficult to guess the individual standing of many in the secondary because we'll see a host of combinations, and Belichick will dance around questions about starters and backups. Are Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs still the starting corners? Who are the backups? Who is running first-team at Rodney Harrison's safety spot?
Harrison, coming off knee surgery, probably will not be on the field for drills, but an update on his status should come when he makes an appearance at the Patriots' Charitable Foundation golf tournament tomorrow. More Belichick: ``What knee surgery?"
5. The offensive line. Another group with which Belichick will serve a number of combo platters to the media. (The workouts are closed to the public . . . way to go, fourth estate.) With the veteran depth, this could grow into a team strength. We should see whether Matt Light (broken leg) and Dan Koppen (shoulder) are ready to go, and possibly get a glimpse at who is leading the race to start at right tackle (probably Nick Kaczur over Brandon Gorin).
6. Tom Brady. The perfectionist continues to improve, and since he didn't get a new ring this past year (unless we missed something in the gossip pages), he says he is more driven to return the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
With the turnover at receiver (four of the six wideouts on the 2005 opening day roster are gone) the Patriots have to work extra hard on the timing that is critical to the offense's success. This week we'll get a glimpse at Brady and his top new targets: Reche Caldwell, Jackson, and No. 3 tight end David Thomas.
7. Laurence Maroney. The tailback of the future, who should run second-team behind Dillon, looked fluid when the rookies worked out a month ago. The rookie's presence, and speed, should bring an added oomph to the workouts.
8. Monty Beisel. After a disappointing season, Beisel hopes to prove he can be a starter in this defense. If that is the case, Mike Vrabel can return to the outside where he belongs. We'll get our first look at the lineup under new defensive coordinator Dean Pees, formerly the linebackers coach.
9. Matt Cassel. In only his second year, and having played little in college, the backup quarterback is trying to show enough that if the Patriots add a veteran to the mix (likely), the newcomer will be the clear No. 3.
10. Martin Gramatica vs. Stephen Gostkowski. At least we know the Patriots will have a kicker whose last name ends in a vowel. Will it be the excitable veteran Gramatica, who is attempting a comeback after missing an entire season? Or will fourth-round draft pick Gostkowski take on the almost can't-win position of following the best kicker in franchise history? This off-to-the-side battle could be more interesting than anything that happens on the field.
Holmes willing; is he able?
Priest Holmes says he isn't done yet. The Chiefs running back, whose season ended last year after a helmet-to-helmet collision with the Chargers' Shawne Merriman, plans to return.
``Why wouldn't I?" Holmes said. ``It's one thing that's been ingrained in me. I know exactly what to do. I'm a professional, so I could actually go out there with no practice at all and still be able to mentally be ready to go play.
``Now, will I make a mistake? Yes, because I'll be rusty. Haven't been practicing. But being a professional, I could go back out there and score touchdowns."
That is what Holmes, the Chiefs' all-time rushing leader, did better than anyone in league history with 27 rushing scores in 2003. (Seattle's Shaun Alexander tied the mark last season.)
Larry Johnson took over when Holmes went down last season, and had a Pro Bowl season with 1,750 rushing yards and 20 TDs. Kansas City's new head coach, Herman Edwards, has said Johnson would be the starter this season.
Holmes isn't worrying so much about starting as he is about whether doctors will tell him his career is over.
``Ultimately, I believe at the end of the day, it is my final say, my final decision," he said. ``Will I take what they say to heart and really think about it? I will once the time comes.
``I feel great. Now, medically, what I've been told is that I need to wait and not make a quick decision based on the excitement and feeling as though I feel great and I can get out there."
Saban thinks Culpepper is positioned for comeback
Miami coach Nick Saban says Daunte Culpepper is ahead of schedule with his knee injury rehab, and that the quarterback looked good in drills at the team's minicamp over the weekend.
Culpepper moved with no apparent problems, even scrambling out of the pocket at times (though not at full speed), and he threw the ball well.
Saban wouldn't say whether Culpepper would be ready for the season opener (Sept. 7 at Pittsburgh).
``The doctors have told us that what he needs to do right now is things that he needs to do at his position," Saban said. ``That he has the strength and stability to do everything that he needs to do at his position and the best part, the next step of his rehab, would be to do things that he does at his position and play his position.
``Even if he may not be 100 percent in terms of his mobility or movement, it's still the best rehab for him right now."
Culpepper tore three ligaments in his right knee and had surgery in November.
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. Jerome Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org