New England Patriots: Updating Patriots' Biggest Training Camp Battles to Watch

Aaron DodgeAnalyst IJuly 27, 2012

New England Patriots: Updating Patriots' Biggest Training Camp Battles to Watch

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    The New England Patriots completed their second day of training camp on Friday and will be permitted to begin practicing with full pads and contact on Saturday. The offseason is officially over and its conclusion will finally allow us to get a look at this newly designed roster in action. 

    Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft reloaded their roster and revamped their coaching staff in hopes of avoiding a fate similar to that of the 2011 season. There are a lot of fresh faces joining a team already stocked with talent from top to bottom, creating healthy competition nearly everywhere.  

    Here's a gander at some of the top training camp battles to keep an eye on moving forward. 

Return Units

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    2011 Starters: Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead

    2012 Contenders: Shane Vereen, Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, Kyle Arrington, Deion Branch, Danny Woodhead, Matthew Slater, Stevan Ridley and Jeremy Ebert

    Projection: Through the first two days of camp the return squads have gotten plenty of work. A few new names have joined the ranks of competition which should come as no surprise this early on.

    ESPNBoston's Mike Rodak spotted the combination of Arrington and Ridley working behind the top grouping of Edelman and Woodhead. 

    Hernadez, who hasn't been involved in the return game since high school, was also given a look, as noted by ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss:

    I love being able to have the ball in my hands and make plays. That’s another opportunity," he said. "Hopefully I get another opportunity to be back there, but Julian Edelman does a great job. We have other people like Wes [Welker] to step in. I just love football and love making plays. If they put me back there, hopefully I can do something.

    With the release of Joseph Addai and the absence of Kevin Faulk, Woodhead stands a fantastic chance of retaining his special teams responsibilities. Edelman's spot on the final roster is a bit tougher to guarantee, but his value in the return game is really too valuable to let go. 

    The top returners from 2011 should retain their roles moving forward. 

Offensive Line

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    2011 Starters: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, Nate Solder

    2012 Contenders: Solder, Mankins, Connolly, Waters, Sebastian Vollmer, Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon and Robert Gallery 

    Projections: It appears only two positions can be safely locked in and thankfully they're on the left side of the line. Solder and Mankins (when healthy) will assume their respective positions at left tackle and guard. 

    Center is a toss up at this point with Koppen attempting to regain his role from Connolly. Both players will have to hold off 26-year-old Wendell, who graded out very well last year in spot duty. 

    Connolly and Wendell are also in contention for the right guard role along with Gallery and Waters who remains MIA from camp. 

    With Vollmer somehow still nursing foot and back injuries, Cannon has been working with the first-team units at right tackle. Not only is Cannon capable of taking and keeping that job, but the oft-injured Vollmer is also scheduled for free agency after the season. If the Patriots see Cannon as their long-term option it might make Vollmer expendable, or even tradable.  

    Versatility and athleticism will be imperative for this unit as the re-implementation of the screen game is very likely with Josh McDaniels back at the helm of the offense. 

    My very early prediction for the starters when camp breaks goes as follows (from left to right): Solder, Mankins, Koppen, Waters, Cannon 

Backup Tight End

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    As a backup position the team didn't possess "starters" in this category last season. In fact, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon often filled in as swing tackles and extra blockers like one might expect a tight end to do. 

    New England's reliance on their dominant tight end duo was taken advantage of when both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez missed time last year. The season-ending loss in the Super Bowl can largely be blamed on Gronkowski's relative absence from the game plan. 

    To address those concerns the Patriots have brought in both Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe.

    Fells looked to have the inside track to the job as a favorite of Josh McDaniels from their time in Denver together, but with his inability to get on the field to this point Shiancoe has the spotlight. 

    According to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com:

    Shank's a good football player," said Bill Belichick. "He's had a good career. He's been productive in two different organizations, for several different quarterbacks. He'll be competitive on our team. We'll see how it all turns out.

    The last sentence being key, these two will have to prove their worth, and health for that matter. It's a toss up, but like Belichick noted, Shiancoe has quite the resume posting 42 or more receptions in three out of the last four years. He's clearly got the edge. 

Safety Slots

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    2011 Starters: Pat Chung, Josh Barrett, James Ihedigbo

    2012 Contenders: Pat Chung, Will Allen, Tavon Wilson, Steve Gregory, James Ihedigbo

    Projection: Pencil Chung in as one of the starting safeties regardless of what the others do in camp, he's proved time and again to be an asset when healthy. The depth at the position does suggest hesitance with regards to Chung's history of missing games, but this is his contract year and he's got every reason to work hard maintaining his body in 2012. 

    The Patriots are paying free-agent addition Gregory like a starter and he's got ample experience on special teams, so I do not doubt one bit that he'll find a niche and role moving forward. He will have to hold off some talent, however. 

    That talent comes from two very different areas on the age spectrum. Wilson, New England's second-round pick in April's draft will be competing with Allen, a veteran of 12 NFL seasons. Allen appears to be making the transition from cornerback to safety this offseason, working exclusively with that group.

    If he can't break camp as a starter in the back end I would expect the team to try and find some snaps for him in the cornerback department.

    Chung and Gregory should see the most starts with Wilson nipping at their heels.  

Defensive End

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    2011 Starters: Andre Carter, Brandon Deaderick, Mark Anderson, Shaun Ellis

    2012 Contenders: Rob Ninkovich, Trevor Scott, Chandler Jones, Andre Carter and Brandon Deaderick 

    Ninkovich chipped in 6.5 sacks last year, which was good enough for third on the team. He's got 10.5 over the last two years and is likely to be put in a position to terrorize the quarterback again this year. It looks as if he's making the full-time transition to end, where he played while at Purdue. 

    He's one heck of a versatile player, in the mold of former No. 50 Mike Vrabel who also played defensive end in college. With Ellis and Anderson out of the picture, I'd expect Ninkovich to pick up a lot of the slack at end.

    Deaderick and free-agent acquisition Jonathan Fanene appear to be ticketed for defensive tackle duties, but there's a lot of time left in camp for things to change. 

    At this point, though, it looks like Scott, another free-agent addition, is most likely to handle the other side of the defensive front.

    Jones, the Patriots' first-rounder, is only 22 and will likely need some time to adjust to this level of play. While his prospects are sky high, it's way too early to project him starting over other proven commodities. 

    If Carter and New England agree on a reunion, this grouping gets even more dangerous, to the point of looking like a Super Bowl-caliber squad.