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Some bigger issues

Focus on more than the Giants

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / September 2, 2010

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Most of the players in uniform tonight will be focused on the Giants. Many of them will be fighting for jobs.

But the rest already have started work on the Bengals.

The NFL’s Opening Night is just seven days away, and the league’s first Sunday is 10 days from now. That means, as Bill Belichick likes to say, there are “a lot of balls in the air’’ for every team.

There might not be another period on the league calendar where focus is more splintered.

The prime-timers have to get ready for the season. The coaches have to balance working on Week 1 and getting a good enough evaluation on the bottom of the roster. The personnel folks have to make those evaluations and shape the structure of the 53-man group they’ll pick on Saturday. And then, there are the contract issues surrounding the team.

Here are the most important on- and off-field issues facing the Patriots as (some of) the players take the field at New Meadowlands Stadium tonight:

1. Tom Brady’s contract — The shocking thing about Belichick’s response to a series of questions Tuesday about negotiations wasn’t the dodging. It was the fact that it was the first time he’d been asked about it in a news conference all summer.

Apparently the memo hasn’t been passed out properly. This is the most important contract negotiation in the history of the franchise. And from a business standpoint, it is Issue No. 1 facing the team over the next seven months, considering Brady’s place as the greatest and most recognizable player in franchise history, the dollars that will be invested, and the role the NFL’s labor unrest plays.

NFL sources have indicated that while the doors are not closed on anything, once the whistle blows Sept. 12, if a contract isn’t done there’s a pretty good chance that Brady and the team won’t come to an agreement before 2011.

Will it affect the 2010 season? Because of Brady’s approach, probably not. But it is something that hangs over the franchise until it gets done, and it’s an awfully big loose end to have to worry about.

2. Logan Mankins’s status — The Pro Bowl guard hasn’t set foot in the team facility in nearly eight months, and there is some risk to keeping the restricted free agent tender — a one-year, $1.54 million offer that binds him to the club — on him.

Mankins signing and reporting in midseason in order to get the six games he needs to accrue the year toward free agency could make for a serious disruption in the locker room. The issue could boil over if the relationship between player and club remains acrimonious at that point, which figures to be just when the team is finding out what it is.

The Patriots have moved forward with Dan Connolly at left guard, and if they’re resolute in sticking to that, actively shopping Mankins next week or granting him permission to seek a trade could be what’s best for the team.

This team has always been good at tuning out these kinds of problems, but it’s worth at least exploring nipping this one in the bud, rather than walking through midseason wondering if a landmine is underneath your feet.

3. The secondary — Leigh Bodden landing on injured reserve leaves the Patriots thin and young at cornerback. Jonathan Wilhite is now the dean, and the oft-targeted third-year pro is one player whose job will change as a result.

Devin McCourty becomes a starter on the left side, Darius Butler goes to Bodden’s spot on the right, and Wilhite presumably plays in the slot — an arrangement that has been intact most of the preseason. Last week, the team started working Butler inside in an effort to get he, McCourty, and Bodden out there at the same time, but that’s out the window now.

The primary concern becomes the growth of these players, individually and as a group, and the affect an impotent pass rush will have on their confidence. The Patriots have spent preseason snaps working on blitz packages, and clearly will have issues getting to the quarterback with the standard four rushers.

The bottom line is that if the Patriots want to send extra players at the quarterback, they need to be solid on the back end. And losing Bodden is a big blow.

4. The running game — The first-team offense certainly has had a different look through three preseason games. Over the last three years New England’s offense has become a spread-em-out, pass-happy group that has employed the shotgun more than any team in league history.

Things are changing, with Bill O’Brien getting his footing as de facto offensive coordinator. On the first offense’s final possession last week against the Rams, the Patriots lined up in the shotgun and threw on 10 straight plays, chewing up 98 yards and scoring a touchdown, as they worked on their hurry-up offense.

But prior to that, Brady took 62 preseason snaps and was under center for 44. And the play selection (28 runs, 34 passes) was remarkably balanced.

The ability of Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris to stay healthy, and Laurence Maroney to deliver in some manner, is vital to a running game that has added girth in tackle Sebastian Vollmer, a first-time, full-time starter, and tight end Rob Gronkowski on the right side. But sticking to all of that will be more of a challenge, with the temptation of falling back on Brady and his passing weapons.

5. The locker room — The problems last year were well-documented and by now have been acknowledged by players and coaches, in actions if not in words.

One interesting sight from the first few weeks of the preseason has been inside linebacker Jerod Mayo going to midfield by himself, serving as the lone captain. It’s clear that Mayo and several other young players are being positioned by the coaches to take leadership roles.

When will we find out how they’re doing? Well, young teams typically go through bouts of inconsistency, and the Patriots are young on defense. The most telling signs will likely come when the team struggles and needs to find a way to stop the bleeding.

Against the Rams, Brady and the offense handled such a situation in-game, turning it on late in the second quarter and racking up touchdowns on three straight possessions. The defense, in a similar circumstance, yielded a long scoring drive to an offense made up of backups and piloted by an undrafted rookie free agent quarterback.

The problem isn’t impossible to fix. But its existence underscores that the Patriots still have a lot left to address.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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