July 26, 2017

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Entering last season, much of the intrigue that surrounded the New England Patriots centered on the players who wouldn't be on the field.

Not only was Tom Brady on the verge of serving his four-game ''Deflategate'' suspension, but several players were dealing with injuries.

That's was then.

The Patriots will open training camp Thursday both healthy and retooled after capturing the franchise's fifth Super Bowl title.

''New year, starting all over again, a lot of new challenges,'' coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday as veterans reported to the team facility.

For Belichick, the preparations for 2017 began the day after his team's historic comeback win against Atlanta in February's Super Bowl. Veteran safety Devin McCourty said it makes it very easy to get into the ''start from scratch'' mentality that Belichick demands.

''If you get a chance to walk in on one of Bill Belichick's meetings, you won't have hard time figuring that out,'' he said.

Both McCourty and fellow Pro Bowler Matt Slater said it's also why they scoff at the lofty preseason expectations being heaped on the Patriots, which have included predictions of an undefeated season.

''I don't subscribe to the Twitters and the Instagrams,'' Slater said. ''But I watch a little stuff from time to time ... I think it's quite foolish some of the things being said.''

The productivity of Brady is one of the biggest reasons many believe the Patriots could become the first back-to-back champion since they did so in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Brady enters camp just a week shy of his 40th birthday, and is the oldest player on New England's roster. Yet, he is still easily its most important piece.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who turned 40 last year, says he doesn't plan to have any jokes for the reigning Super Bowl MVP as he marks the milestone.

''We have a competitive room. I don't really talk about age in there a whole lot,'' McDaniels said. ''There's a wide variety of that across our team, so that's really a nonfactor for us.''

Even still, as Brady prepares for his 18th NFL season he will be protected by five returning starters on the offensive line. That group was in disarray only two years ago as injuries and constant shuffling culminated in Brady being sacked 38 times and taking a generally high amount of contact in the pocket.

But the return of Dante Scarnecchia as offensive line coach, combined with the installation of David Andrews and Marcus Cannon as full-time starters and addition of rookie Joe Thuney, were stabilizing. Brady was sacked 15 times in 2016.

It's why Slater said no one discounts Brady when he says he'd like to play until his mid-40s, if not longer.

Said Slater: ''Kevin Garnett said, `Anything is possible,' right?''

NOTES: McCourty was one of several players around the NFL last year to engage in pregame demonstrations after Colin Kaepernick's initial series of national anthem protests. The Patriots safety said after the uproar Kaepernick's kneel-downs caused, he's ''not that surprised'' the quarterback enters 2017 without a NFL job. ''The guy's a successful player, has done some special things in this league. But it's just how things shake out,'' McCourty said. ''But I think he was kind of aware of what he did and the effect it would have on his career ... Hopefully he still gets picked up and has a chance to still play.'' ... Following the retirement of receiver Andrew Hawkins, the roster stands at 88 out of a maximum 90 players. The six-year NFL veteran signed with New England in May as a free agent. But he said in a video on uninterrupted.com that his body wasn't responding as he prepared for training camp. The Concussion Foundation said Hawkins has pledged his brain for research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

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Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

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