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Postcard from camp: Patriots

Like 16 other NFL teams, the Patriots stay at home for training camp, and that means a trip to Gillette Stadium in the dead of summer rather than the dead of winter -- a very nice change indeed. I didn't make a stop here last season, so this was my first chance to see the fully completed Patriot Place retail and entertainment complex that has been up and running adjacent to the stadium for more than a year. Kudos to the Krafts for getting that Marriott Renaissance Hotel built as part of the project, because I don't believe I've ever spent the night closer to my next training camp site as I did Friday night.

1. I showed up in camp Saturday morning just in time to catch receiver David Patten's retirement news conference, which was apparently so quickly convened that Patten said he hadn't even had a chance to inform his family of his decision yet. As strange as that sounds, the bigger picture was that yet another member of New England's three Super Bowl teams has left the organization, joining the likes of Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel in recent years.

Patten, who'll turn 37 next month, was considered a long-shot candidate to make the team's receiver depth chart this season, so it's not a major loss. But he was having a strong camp through the first two days, making the move somewhat surprising in that it came just four practices into the summer. Patten was one of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's favorite players and he gave the receiver a very warm introduction at the news conference, even turning to thank him personally for all he had done.

Patten said it hit him Friday that it was time to retire, and more than anything it was the mental part of the game he longer had the energy for. "When you lose it mentally, you can't play at this level,'' he said. "Once you begin to think about it (retirement) mentally and you're not 100 percent in it mentally-wise, it's tough to play this game. I always felt like when I got to that point, it would just be in my best interest to walk away.''

Now six years removed from the most recent Patriots Super Bowl team of 2004, a little more of the New England dynasty seems to slip away every year.

2. Speaking of surprise moves that the Patriots really didn't see coming, starting outside linebacker Derrick Burgess remains missing from camp while he reportedly contemplates retirement. New England probably wouldn't have released 2008 third-round pick Shawn Crable on Wednesday if they knew Burgess wasn't going to show, and now the team's outside linebacker position is thinner than the Pats would like.

Burgess could still change his mind and report, but it's not sounding likely as the 10th-year veteran reportedly is telling his peers he has played his last game. That's a potential blow for New England, which didn't get all that much from Burgess last season after trading third and fifth-round draft choices to Oakland early last August. (Imagine that, the Raiders fleecing the Patriots for a change.)

With Burgess out of the picture for now, the Patriots' options at his slot appear to be trying to get second-round rookie Jermaine Cunningham into the lineup on an accelerated timetable, or going to fallback options like veterans Pierre Woods, a special teams cog, or Rob Ninkovich. None of those represent the best-case scenario for a Patriots linebacking corps that already looked like the team's defensive weak link.

3. And then there's the absence of Patriots Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins to deal with in New England (sensing any particular trend here, Pats fans?) Mankins isn't here because he isn't under contract and didn't sign his one-year restricted free-agent tender. In June he demanded a trade after alleging that New England has failed to keep promises to him in terms of a new long-term contract.

How will this one end? Potentially, not well. Don't expect to see Mankins any time soon, and many Patriots observers believe he's just stubborn/principled enough to sit out the whole season before re-canting his stance that New England lied to him. Mankins would lose a whole season of NFL service if he doesn't sign by the 10th week of the regular season, so that's probably the deadline that matters most.

It's hard to imagine the stand-off going on that long, but both sides are dug in pretty deep at this point, and there's some fence-mending that has to be done by both player and club. Mankins believes the Patriots didn't deal honestly with him and has to be able to get past that issue to strike a deal. But Mankins has angered team owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft, who believe some of his comments challenging their integrity went over the line, and he's got to try and do some damage control on that front if he wants to ever play for the Patriots again.

In the meantime, while waiting on Mankins, the team has been working sixth-year offensive tackle Nick Kaczur in the left guard slot, even though Kaczur has never appeared at guard in an NFL game.

I suppose it speaks well of the Patriots improved receiving depth chart that a guy with more than 900 catches and 13,000 receiving yards in his career faces a potential fight for a roster spot, but that's where Torry Holt finds himself this summer. Holt, who signed with New England in April after spending 2009 with Jacksonville, may need the Patriots to keep six receivers in order to be safe. He's had a rough first few days in camp, and continued to struggle at times Saturday catching the ball.

Randy Moss and Wes Welker are givens, and second-year men Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate look like sure bets to make the roster. (Tate especially has sparkled early on.) That leaves Holt, 34, and third-round pick Taylor Price, who the Patriots liken to a young David Givens.

"I'm just working, man,'' Holt told me Saturday morning, when I asked him where he thinks he fits into the Patriots depth chart. "I'm excited to be on the football field having an opportunity to play again this year. I have to convince them that I'm even worthy of a role.

"I could get real ego-ish and say, 'Forget about it. I've done my thing. Check the record books.' Or I can take the approach I've always taken. I've always been humble and came in with the approach I've got to make the squad every year. I don't see it any different being here. I'm in a new organization. They don't know anything about me.''

Rookies in New England are seen and not heard, so I didn't get the opportunity to chat up new Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez after Saturday morning's workout, but from early indications he's the pass-catching option the team thought he would be.

After struggling in the red zone in 2009, the Patriots totally revamped their tight end position, drafting University of Arizona's Rob Gronkowski in the second round, Florida's Hernandez in the fourth, and signing veteran Alge Crumpler in free agency. They intend to use them all, and have thrown to tight ends often so far in camp. I asked Crumpler, the former Falcon and Titan, for the scouting report on Hernandez:

"What Aaron has is a good knowledge of football, and that probably started with his coaching in college,'' Crumpler said. "Those (Florida) guys are successful for a reason. He's very inquisitive and asks a lot of questions, because he wants to be a very good player. But he still has a long way to go. As a group, us tight ends are the only position in the building that hasn't had any chance to be a part of this team before, so we're all still trying to prove ourselves.''

The snap shot I chose didn't unfold on the field in one of Saturday's two Patriots practices, but instead took place inside the Gillette Stadium press box as the media listened to Belichick talk fondly of the retiring Patten. Not known for his people skills or emotional displays, the Patriots head coach spoke about Patten as warmly and from the heart as any player I've heard him salute, Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown included.

"It's a sad moment, but it's also a happy one to celebrate a truly great career,'' Belichick said, with Patten standing off to his right about 20 feet away. "It's just a tremendous story and very deserving of the type of person and the type of player David was for the New England Patriots and throughout his career in the league.

"So we say goodbye, we wish him well, and from the bottom of my heart, thank him for his contributions to our football team, this organization, this community. And on a personal note (with Belichick turning to face Patten), my sincere personal thanks for all you've done for me and for our football team.''

At that point, Belichick introduced Patten, and then the two men shared an embrace. Apparently inside that hoodie beats a real heart. Sometimes.

1. You're probably wondering how I've gotten this far in the Patriots postcard from camp without mentioning Tom Brady and the fact he remains unsigned beyond this season. Fair enough. It's a big, stinking important story and I have no doubt that there's some frustration on Brady's part that his new contract negotiation has been tied up to some degree by the league's looming labor showdown in 2011.

But here in a nutshell is what I think about Brady's deal: It's going to get done. There are only two people who really matter in this case, and it's Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Brady. The rest are peripheral. When push comes to shove, I can't see Kraft wanting to risk being the guy who chased Brady out of New England, where he's a deity. I don't think Kraft wants that as part of his legacy, and I don't think the relationship between Brady and him will ever deteriorate to that point. Brady is going to be a tough businessman this time and get every dime he thinks he has coming. It might even get contentious, but I believe the marriage between No. 12 and New England ultimately will continue.

2. I think what Belichick did in having all the pictures of Patriots players past and present removed from the walls of the team complex this offseason sends exactly the right message. It says it's time to move on, stop living off the team's Super Bowl era of the past, and create some new glory for itself. After all, the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl in six years, and haven't won a playoff game the past two years. It's time to turn the page to a certain degree.

As for Belichick's explanation, "The walls need painting,'' that's not bad either.

3. The building consensus in Patriot-land is that second-year cornerback Darius Butler has a chance to be very good. Maybe not Revis Island good, but one of the game's better cover men. Butler has superb hands and his coverage skills are improving by the day. You're going to be hearing more about the team's 2009 second-round pick out of UConn.

4. If you ever get the chance, check out the middle finger on Torry Holt's left hand. It's the stuff of Chuck Bednarik. It goes at least 45 degrees at the middle knuckle. He told me that's what happens when you catch a lot of footballs for a living, and I told him I'll bet he can flip one bizarre-looking bird with that twisted digit. "Oh, yeah,'' he said. "I can get two people at once.''

5. I can predict some improvement for the Patriots running game-by-committee this season, but I don't see it taking a significant step even with the healthy return of Fred Taylor, 34. He and Laurence Maroney combined for 1,026 yards and 13 touchdowns last year and should again form a lead-back tandem. Obviously the Patriots need more than six games out of Taylor this season. Then there's Sammy Morris in short yardage situations, the reliable Kevin Faulk as a change of pace or third-down (or even fourth-down, remember?) back, and the wonderfully named BenJarvus Green-Ellis (i.e. "Law Firm'') waiting in the wings for a larger role.