FOXBOROUGH, MASS. >> In many ways, the New England Patriots enter their 2016 training camp as close as they've been in 19 months to ridding themselves of the cloud that has trailed them since the "Deflategate" saga began.
They got a respite last season after Tom Brady was allowed to play when his appeal of a four-game suspension handed down by the league for his involvement in a scheme to underinflate footballs during the 2015 AFC championship game was overturned.
The NFL challenged that ruling, and the league's punishment was reinstated by an appeals court in April. That same court denied Brady's petition for a rehearing of its decision July 13, and Brady — who will turn 39 on Aug. 3 — finally decided to end his legal fight by announcing he would accept his suspension.
It means the Patriots will open camp July 27 knowing the cornerstone of their franchise won't be available for the first quarter of the season. But it will allow them to use the unfavorable outcome to get a meaningful evaluation of Brady understudy Jimmy Garoppolo.
The 24-year-old has Brady's 100-watt smile and similarly entered the NFL with an underrated college resume. But he has completed just 20 passes as a backup the past two years — hardly the sample size the Patriots need to know whether he can be Brady's replacement long term.
So what Garoppolo shows in camp, and during his upcoming four-game audition, will go a long way toward dictating that.
"Obviously experience always helps, but to be honest it really doesn't change much for me," Garoppolo said last month when asked if having gone through uncertainly last season surrounding Brady helped prepare him for this offseason. "Whether it happened last year or didn't happen, I'm pretty much going about it the same way, so just enjoying the process right now."
Toss in preseason questions about New England's running game as starter Dion Lewis works his way back from knee surgery, the offensive line's ability to bounce back following its own injury-plagued season, plus the addition of free agents like tight end Martellus Bennett, and it adds to the intrigue for a franchise that has made it to at least the AFC title game in each of the last five seasons.
Here are some other things to watch for during Patriots training camp:
ROOKIE WATCH: New England already has a solid core at cornerback in Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. But the addition of rookie and former Alabama standout Cyrus Jones is huge in two key areas. Jones proved he had the skillset of a cover cornerback during his final college season, but look for Bill Belichick to take a long look at him on special teams. Jones shined as a punt returner in 2015, returning four for touchdowns on just 42 attempts.
TWEAKING THE O-LINE: One of the lasting images of the Patriots' AFC title game loss was Brady repeatedly having to pick himself up after enduring a barrage of Broncos' knockdowns or sacks. The Patriots are hoping help has arrived via the draft with the additions of North Carolina State lineman Joe Thuney and Illinois guard Ted Karras. Thuney didn't allow a sack in an Atlantic Coast Conference game his entire senior year. Karras enters his first NFL training camp with lengthy football pedigree that includes seven members of his family that played football in the Big Ten, with four going on to NFL careers.
GRONK GETS SOME COMPANY: New England has leaned on Rob Gronkowski over the past two years, and it's at times taken its toll on the freewheeling tight end. The Patriots got him some company by trading for eight-year veteran Martellus Bennett. Bennett said he's adapting to New England, but hasn't lost the big personality he's become known for in various NFL locker rooms. "Dr. Seuss said no one can be youer than you," Bennett said. "So I can only be one person, so I just try to be who I am and don't change there."
LEWIS RETURNS: This will be a big camp for the backfield. Not only is Lewis coming back from knee surgery, but LeGarrette Blount is coming back from a hip injury. After his first workout last month since his November surgery, Lewis said he's taking nothing for granted. "Just cherish football," Lewis said. "I love football and when I'm away from it, it (stunk). So I told myself I'm gonna work as hard as possible to be back as fast as possible, and I'm just still trying to get better and stronger every day."