Postcards from camp: Patriots

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I'm probably not the only one to make note of the fact that New England's Thursday morning workout -- its first of training camp -- was forced into the Patriots indoor practice facility due to the ominous thunderstorms that hit Foxboro's Gillette Stadium. So, yes, the Patriots' 2008 season literally began under a black cloud, which some might say is entirely apt after the lingering specter of the Spygate saga last season. Me? I just thought it a piece of tailor-made symbolism that would fit nicely in our setting the scene blurb.

1. The Cornerback Contest. With Asante Samuel now an Eagle and Randall Gay a Saint, no segment of the Patriots' roster has undergone more transformation this offseason than cornerback. Returning starter Ellis Hobbs will eventually man one side, but for now he's recovering from surgery on both a hernia and a torn labrum in his left shoulder, prompting New England to play it cautious and place him on the physically unable to perform list to start camp.

The Patriots signed three veteran been-around-the-block cornerbacks, Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster and Lewis Sanders, and drafted Terrence Wheatley (second round) and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth) in April. Throw in second-year man Mike Richardson, who missed all but the preseason last year with a thumb injury, and there's your field.

Of that group, the Patriots are highest on Bryant, who has a wealth of NFL starting experience and has quickly separated himself from the pack. When Hobbs is healthy, he and Bryant will comprise the starting tandem. Until then, look for Webster to get most of the first-team work opposite Bryant, with Wheatley covering the slot receiver in a nickelback role. One potential wild card to remember is veteran Ty Law, who the team could consider signing at some point before the regular season.

Whether or not that collection of talent at cornerback offsets the loss of Samuel and Gay probably makes for the question of the year in New England.

2. Kaczur suspension? Patriots sources tell me they don't know whether starting right offensive tackle Nick Kaczur is in line for a league suspension after being arrested in April in New York for illegally being in possession of the prescription painkiller OxyContin. But you can bet they're preparing for the worst-case scenario, which would figure to be a four-game suspension to start the season.

Kaczur was on the Patriots' PUP list to start camp on Thursday, and while his physical limitation is unknown at this point, it would seem that New England is seeking to get either Ryan O'Callaghan or Wesley Britt -- both are third-year veterans -- ready in case they are needed in the lineup in September. O'Callaghan is probably first in that line, although Britt was getting some first-team snaps Thursday morning.

Given his drug arrest, Kaczur's long-term status with the Patriots remains somewhat in doubt. During mini-camp in May, Kaczur was being worked some at right guard, which was not interpreted as a sign that he has a rock-solid hold on the right tackle slot indefinitely.

3. No spot for Brady. Quarterback Tom Brady has always prided himself on winning one of the prized parking spots in the team's player lot, which is awarded annually to the Patriots who have the best attendance records during the offseason workout program. But Brady revealed Thursday that he didn't earn one of the coveted spots this year, indirectly admitting that he was in Foxboro less this year than other offseasons.

That should come as no real surprise if you're predisposed to following Brady's off-field, globe-trotting exploits with his supermodel girlfriend, Giselle Bundchen, and remember that his young son, John, lives in California with his celebrity mom, Bridget Moynihan.

"No, I gave it up,'' Brady said, of the close parking spot. "I didn't compete for it this year. If I would have competed for it, I'm sure I would have won. But there are other things that have come up in my life that I had to make choices on.''

I chatted up the Patriots' new special assistant/secondary coach Thursday. Guy by the name of Dom Capers. Now working for his seventh NFL team over a span of 23 seasons, Capers has been a head coach in the league twice (expansion clubs Carolina and Houston) and a defensive coordinator three times (Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Miami). But he cut his teeth in NFL coaching as a defensive backs coach, and his first priority with the Patriots is to lead a secondary that has a few new faces of its own (see above).

"We've got a lot of young players back there, and he brings a lot of experience,'' head coach Bill Belichick said. "He's been in a number of 3-4 systems. The Pittsburgh system. Nick (Saban's) system in Miami. The one he ran in Houston. He adds a lot of quality experience. I'm not sure exactly all the ways we'll use him, but we'll figure those out.''

A 16-0 record is a distinct possibility. Wait a minute, that was last year. No way the Pats run the table again in the regular season. Right? Right. But 13-3 sounds about right to me. Who beats 'em? How about at San Diego in Week 6 (the Chargers are due against New England), at Indianapolis in Week 9 and let's say at Seattle in Week 14 (in an upset).

As for home games, the Patriots' schedule is amazingly soft, with just one lousy opponent that made the playoffs last season: Pittsburgh, in Week 13. And the Steelers never beat New England. Let's face it, Patriots-haters, Belichick and the boys are going to be right there knocking on the door of the Super Bowl once again.

It's not a memorable image per se, unless you include under that heading things or people not seen in Patriots camp. Such as a sizable portion of the team's roster. The Patriots traditionally are very liberal with their use of the PUP list at the start of camp, stashing players on it unless they're 100 percent ready for the start of workouts.

But when camp opened Thursday, 12 players were PUP-ed, including some key players like Hobbs, Kaczur, Rodney Harrison, Jarvis Green, Stephen Neal, Mike Vrabel and Wes Welker. (Don't even ask what each specific injury might entail. We have a better chance of divining Iran's nuclear intentions than getting a late-July injury report out of the Patriots).

In addition, tight end Benjamin Watson wasn't at Thursday morning's practice, although the team declined to explain his absence. With first-round rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo having signed but not yet reported, New England practiced with just 66 available bodies on Thursday, which is another example of the impact that the new 80-man camp roster limit is going to have on teams this summer.

Belichick wasn't in the mood to whine about his lack of numbers Thursday, telling me he would take no new steps in this year's camp to counter the effects of the 80-man roster.

"I think every year you run into problems somewhere along the line at some position,'' he said. "You're thinner in one spot than another. You deal with it one way or another. We'll see how it goes. Our plans are to start pretty much the same way as last year in terms of how we practice. But you always have to make some adjustments in camp.''

• For the first time since 1992, a Patriots training camp has begun and there's no Troy Brown on hand. That just doesn't seem right, although the team decided way back in March to move on without one of their all-time most popular players, who turned 37 in July. Brown remains unsigned but has no apparent plans to announce his retirement.

• I think it's fair to say the Patriots didn't mind seeing Miami trade its star defensive end Jason Taylor to the Redskins on Sunday. Taylor, who has sacked Tom Brady more than any other defender in the NFL, is now out of the AFC East, and out of the Patriots' conference.

"There weren't any tears shed around here,'' Belichick told me. Brady said he and Patriots left tackle Matt Light "popped a cold beer'' when they heard of Taylor's trade. "We were the two most excited players in the NFL,'' Brady said. "We were hugging each other.''

• The Patriots have a rookie running back in camp by the name of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They also have a Jarvis Green. An Ellis Hobbs. And a Ben Watson. That about covers it.

• Finding a fantasy sleeper pick on the stacked Patriots' roster isn't the easiest assignment, but a late-round flyer on third-year receiver Chad Jackson would be my best suggestion. Jackson is finally completely healthy after tearing an ACL in the January 2007 AFC title game at Indianapolis, and he has a real shot to win the No. 3 receiver job (although Jabar Gaffney might have something to say about that).

• If the first day is any indication, the versatility-loving Patriots could be getting new safety Tank Williams ready to see some playing time at linebacker. The seventh-year vet worked there some Thursday morning.