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Patriots set to open camp, even without Gronkowski

The countdown is just about over.

It’s that time again.

New England Patriots players do the same thing most kids do this time of year: head to camp.

And so will their fans, beginning Thursday morning with the first practice session. Unlike some NFL teams, the Patriots open their practice sessions, as many of you know, to the public.

Here are some questions you might like answered:

WHEN AND WHERE ARE THE PRACTICES?

Ok, we’ll get the logistical info out of the way first. They are at the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, and the gates will open at 8 a.m., with sessions set to begin Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 9:15 a.m. Additional practice times beyond Saturday will be announced and updated on patriots.com. Remember, practice admissions are free and there will be concessions available. Most fans sit in the bleachers on the side of the field. Also, these are single sessions, likely to go about two hours.

OK, now for the meat and potatoes:

WHAT WILL BE THE BIGGEST CAMP TOPIC?

Most likely tight end and Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Really, the rumors just keep circulating on a possible return and it’s getting pretty ridiculous. He doesn’t look anywhere near in football shape, allegedly having lost a lot of weight. Meanwhile, you’ll see old friend Ben Watson all through camp, but then he disappears for four weeks thanks to a PED suspension.

Hello Matt LaCosse. Yawn.

WHAT’S ISSUE NUMBER TWO?

Well, if it isn’t taken care of before camp or prior to this writing, it would be Tom Brady’s contract, set to expire at the end of the season. The Patriots have never let Brady be a free agent, so it’s assumed an extension will be announced sometime this summer. If it has been done by the time you read this, Brady will always be the center of attention so he’ll get the most attention.

WHO PLAYS LEFT TACKLE?

For the first time we can remember, the Patriots have a vacancy at left tackle for the second consecutive year. Second-year man Isiah Wynn would be the guy they would love to insert in there, but he missed all of last year after suffering a torn Achilles in the preseason and is basically still a rookie. He did work in OTAs and individual but not team drills, so we’ll see what his status is at the start of camp. The backup plan? We’d say current left guard Joe Thuney, who has been remarkably resilient during his time in a Patriot uniform. The Patriots could put someone like Ted Karras (yes, he’s still here) into Thuney’s spot. All this until Wynn proves he’s ready.

WHO IS THE NUMBER ONE RECEIVER IN CAMP?

Otherwise known as Brady’s favorite target. It’s still Julian Edelman, but keep an eye on rookie N’Keal Harry’s development. And you know, there’s a guy from the injury depleted 2018 draft, Braxton Berrios. Plus don’t forget about veteran Dontrelle Inman, formerly of the Colts.

WHAT RECEIVERS WON’T BE IN CAMP BUT COULD EVENTUALLY PLAY?

The list right now is two: the suspended Josh Gordan (substance abuse) and the injured free agent signee Demaryius Thomas (tore achilles in December). The jury is still out when either would join the team. Thomas probably wouldn’t be until late, given the injury, but Gordon’s status is completely up to the NFL. If Thomas doesn’t look like he can play at all, the Patriots will waive him, one would think.

WHAT ROOKIES MAY BE FLYING UNDER THE RADAR?

There’s two you’d have to want to keep an eye on – QB Jarrett Stidham, and Alabama running back Damien Harris. Sony Michel had another knee procedure so Harris could get some ample time. And don’t be surprised if he shows something that the Patriots could gamble and give the backup job to Stidham and cut Brian Hoyer. Brady wouldn’t be happy about that.

WHAT’S A TRAINING CAMP JOB BATTLE WE HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT?

That’s easy – punter. Remember, the Patriots, although Ryan Allen has been superb, for some reason drafted Stanford punter Jake Bailey in the fifth round. In fact, they traded up to get him at No. 163 overall. Even stranger, Bailey is a right-footed punter, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick has always used lefties. This could be interesting.

WHAT VETERANS ARE RETURNING FROM SEASONS PAST?

Welcome back linebacker Jamie Collins and running back/special teamer Brandon Bolden. Collins, of course, was shockingly traded three years ago at the deadline to Cleveland, and Bolden was cut last year and played last season with Miami. Collins should add depth at linebcker and be a factor; Bolden will help out special teams as he’s always done. Of course, both could not show enough in camp and get themselves cut by September.

WHO ARE THE TWO BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYERS HEADING INTO CAMP?

It’s the same two from a year ago – safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has shown why he was an upgrade at corner when he signed two years ago and McCourty just keeps making steady plays. The wild card may be free agent pass rusher Michael Bennett.

WHO WILL THE PATRIOTS MISS THE MOST AS CAMP OPENS?

We say current Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. He made a big difference with the team’s defensive play and as the unofficial defensive coordinator, he should get a lot of credit. You have to wonder if the team has enough assistants to get the job done. However, with the offense in coordinator Josh McDaniels’ capable hands, Belichick will no doubt be in charge of the defense, and this defense appears to be deeper than we’ve seen in a while. But Flores was good.

WHEN DOES THE PRESEASON BEGIN?

August 8 at the Detroit Lions, and during that week the Patriots will be on the road for joint practice sessions with the Lions. The first preseason game at Gillette isn’t unitl Thursday, Aug. 22 vs. the Carolina Panthers at 7:30 p.m.

Until then, happy camping.

Tom King may be reached at 594-1251,tking@nashuatelegraph.com, or@Telegraph _TomK.