Patriots entering camp with all eyes on Brady's surgically repaired knee

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady's comeback is entering its next phase.

The New England Patriots open training camp Thursday on the practice fields next to Gillette Stadium, where Brady's 2008 season ended in the first quarter of the first game.

Now, after surgery, optional team activities and minicamp, the Patriots' quarterback takes his next steps on a surgically repaired left knee, looking toward this year's opener in less than seven weeks against the Buffalo Bills.

In late May, Brady said he wasn't limited in what he could do on the field. But shaking off the rust could be another matter.

"It remains to be seen," Brady said in early June. "I hope there's not a lot of rust at all, but the preseason games will be good for that. And we have a long time till we play our first regular-season game."

Brady usually sees little action in exhibition games, and it's too early to tell if that will change. But late in June, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker seemed optimistic about Brady's comeback.

"It's been good, as far as I can see," Welker said. "... He's making all the right reads, all the right throws. He's excited and he's ready to be back, and he's hungry."

The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years from 2002 to 2005. But they have reached only one of the four Super Bowls since -- and lost that one in 2008 to the New York Giants, 17-14, on Plaxico Burress' 13-yard touchdown catch with 35 seconds left. That ended New England's perfect season.

Last season, the Patriots tied the Miami Dolphins for first place in the AFC East at 11-5, but missed the playoffs for the first time in six years on a tiebreaker. Matt Cassel did so well as Brady's replacement that he signed a lucrative long-term contract with the Kansas City Chiefs -- the team Brady was hurt against -- after being traded to them.

Kevin O'Connell, a 2008 third-round draft pick out of San Diego State, could have the inside track on becoming Brady's backup. The Patriots also have third-year pro Matt Gutierrez and rookie free agent Brian Hoyer at quarterback.

The receiving corps remains potent with Randy Moss and Welker and the addition of Joey Galloway as the No. 3 wideout to replace Jabar Gaffney, who signed with the Denver Broncos. The Broncos also have Josh McDaniels, who became their head coach after serving as Brady's well-respected quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in New England.

"That's part of the NFL: Things change every year," Brady said two months ago at minicamp at his first news conference since tearing ligaments in his right knee. "It doesn't stop for anybody around here. You leave, and someone else fills your spot and they're anxious for the opportunity."

The Patriots beefed up their running back corps by signing free agent Fred Taylor from the Jacksonville Jaguars to join veterans Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Laurence Maroney, who has been slowed by injuries in his three seasons since being drafted in the first round.

The competition at tight end got tougher with the additions of free agent Chris Baker from the New York Jets and Alex Smith in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Patriots have holdovers Ben Watson and David Thomas, but, with no blocking back on the roster, could use a tight end for that role.

The offensive and defensive lines remain intact, but the Patriots will have a new look at linebacker and defensive back.

Outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, a team leader who spent eight years with New England, went to Kansas City in the Cassel trade. In the secondary, the Patriots lost safety Rodney Harrison, who retired, and cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. But New England brought in a crowd of defensive backs: veteran cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden, and second-round draft picks Patrick Chung, a safety, and Darius Butler, a cornerback.

Defense is a greater concern than offense, especially if Brady plays close to the level that made him the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2007 and a two-time Super Bowl MVP. The Patriots were vulnerable in third-down situations and in the red zone last season, but the development of inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, should help.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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