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49ers opponents training camp preview: New England Patriots

The San Francisco 49ers face a tough schedule in 2016. They face the New England Patriots for the first time since a wild 2012 contest. Here’s what Pats Pulpit has to say about the Patriots heading into training camp.

The San Francisco 49ers have entered a dead period, with four weeks left until the team reports for training camp. Since we know the schedule, and most 90-man rosters are just about set, now seems like a good time to start previewing each of the 49ers opponents heading into training camp. With the help of the other 31 SB Nation blogs, we’ve come up with preview content breaking down where things stand for each team on a variety of issues. We’ve got a template looking at key additions and departures, big storylines and under-the-radar storylines heading into camp, and injuries to consider.

We’re going to run down the schedule, but I will be saving the divisional opponents for the end. We started with the Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, and Arizona Cardinals, and today we move on to the 49ers Week 11 opponent, the New England Patriots. The last time these two faced off was December 16, 2012. It was a wild one, with the 49ers jumping all over the Patriots, blowing a huge lead, and scoring and holding off the Patriots late. I was in attendance for this game, and it was crazy.

The Patriots made a couple notable trades this offseason to help quarterback Tom Brady. They acquired tight end Martellus Bennett and offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, giving up draft picks and pass rusher Chandler Jones in the two deals. Of course, they also are still waiting to know whether or not Brady will be playing the first four games. A 3-judge appeals court ruled in favor of the NFL, and Brady has since appealed to the entire court of appeals. That is the last stop before a potential Supreme Court appeal. How about getting Deflategate in front of the Justices?

Here is what our friends at Pats Pulpit had to say about their New England Patriots.

Notable free agent additions: DE Chris Long, LB Shea McClellin, DT Terrance Knighton, WR Chris Hogan

Notable free agent departures: DE Chandler Jones, DT Akiem Hicks

Trades: TE Martellus Bennett (acquired from Bears for 4th round pick), OG Jonathan Cooper (acquired from the Cardinals with a 2nd round pick for DE Chandler Jones)

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:

2nd round CB Cyrus Jones: looks to slot in as the immediate nickel corner, eventual replacement for CB Logan Ryan who will be an FA at the end of the season.

3rd round OG Joe Thuney: Playing with the first team unit at left guard, although the three starting guards from 2015 are all hurt.

3rd round DT Vincent Valentine: Should be the 4th defensive tackle on the field at 20% of the snaps.

4th round WR Malcolm Mitchell: Will become the top outside receiver over the coming months.

6th round LB Kamu Grugier-Hill: Projected to be a key special teams contributor.

Biggest offseason addition: TE Martellus Bennett is flying under the radar. He gives the Patriots the best tight end duo in the league and could arguably have been the biggest offensive addition of the offseason in the entire league. He should play 70% of the snaps moving forward, if not more.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp: How will the offensive line shake out? Last year, almost every single player battled serious injuries. At tackle, Nate Solder was on the IR, Sebastian Vollmer was concussed and hurt his ankle, and Marcus Cannon had turf toe. At guard, Josh Kline needed shoulder surgery, Tre Jackson needed a knee scope, and Shaq Mason also hurt his knee. Center Bryan Stork started the year on the Short-Term IR list.

Solder, Vollmer, Kline, and Jackson haven’t practiced yet. The health and ability of the line is paramount for the Patriots success.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Can the Patriots extend all of their players? If we look at the three-deep depth chart on defense, we see free agents everywhere. At edge defender, Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, and Chris Long will be free agents after the season. At defensive tackle, Alan Branch and Terrance Knighton will be free agents. At linebacker, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins will be free agents. At cornerback, Logan Ryan will be a free agent, while Malcolm Butler will be a restricted free agent. At safety, Duron Harmon will be a free agent.

The fact that the Patriots need to resign everyone is not a secret. What might be flying under the radar is the fact that New England is projected to have the most cap space in the entire NFL in 2017. The Patriots will be more able to resign their players than most believe.

Notable injuries heading into training camp: The following players didn’t participate in minicamp: RB LeGarrette Blount (hip), WR Julian Edelman (foot), WR Danny Amendola (knee), OT Nate Solder (biceps), OT Sebastian Vollmer (everything, he’s old), OG Josh Kline (shoulder), OG Tre Jackson (knee).

RB Dion Lewis returned to practice after tearing his ACL in 2015.