Breaking Down Patriots' Biggest Training Camp Battles

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Breaking Down Patriots' Biggest Training Camp Battles
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The headline of New England Patriots' training camp is clear: Can Tom Brady break in an almost entirely new set of receivers after losing his top five pass-catchers from last season? 

The Patriots have gone about rebuilding their receiver corps with a combination of both rookies and veterans, and how this wide-open training camp battle will play out is the most interesting storyline of training camp. 

But what about the other positional battles? Some are lesser-known, but all could be just as impactful as the wide receiver position's result. 

Here's a look at the top positional battles to watch in Patriots training camp: 

Patriots Week One Offense?

 

1. Wide Receiver

Candidates: Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, Julian Edelman, Lavelle Hawkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Mark Harrison.

With the departure of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Woodhead and Deion Branch, Tom Brady has lost just about everyone he threw the ball to last year. The last time that happened, 2007, resulted in the dynamic ascension for the offense centered around Wes Welker, and that carried the Pats offense for the past six seasons.

The Pats are no stranger to the throw-it-all-at-the-wall approach to drive competition, but the results haven't always produced the results that were hoped for. Even last offseason, the Patriots signed and drafted a collection of wideouts such as Jabar Gaffney, Anthony Gonzalez, Donte Stallworth and Jeremy Ebert, and none made much—if any—impact.

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This year's candidates begin with veterans Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins and Donald Jones—free agents who have all flashed potential.

You can never dismiss the Brady factor, something that can turn unheralded wide receivers like Wes Welker and Gaffney into legitimate NFL players. Amendola, Jenkins, Hawkins and Jones will be the latest test of this theory.

Amendola is the favorite to take over the Wes Welker move-the-chains role, and he has enough explosion to be a deadly weapon for Brady. If there's one receiver who must produce, it's Amendola.

The rookies are the most intriguing unknowns, led by second-round pick Aaron Dobson. Dobson has the size and skill to play the outside X-receiver spot. Then there's fourth-round pick Josh Boyce, who has a maxed-out frame but elite speed in the open field. 

The Pats rounded out their rookie class with a collection of free agents, including Mark Harrison, Kenbrell Thompkins and T.J. Moe, who was recently put on IR after tearing his Achilles tendon in OTAs.

The Pats have added some intriguing talent to lone holdover Kamar Aiken, along with bringing back Julian Edelman. The competition among this group should be fantastic, with the quality of the result deciding how soon Brady has a shot at his fourth Super Bowl. 

 

2. Strong Safety

Candidates:  Adrian Wilson, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon.

The Patriots were killed by the deep ball for much of 2012 before finally calming things down once Aqib Talib arrived and Devin McCourty was shifted to free safety.

McCourty seems a lock to remain at that spot, but who is next to him remains up in the air. While McCourty helped fix the deep ball problems, the middle of the field remained a problem for the Pats' coverage. 

Enter Adrian Wilson: And although he was pulled off the field for passing downs in Arizona, it's fully expected he'll make a push to return to three-down safety status with the Pats. Wilson's size should bring an exciting new element to the defense, and even if he does have his snaps managed, his impact at an area of weakness should be significant.

But Wilson won't be without competition. Tavon Wilson was a second-round pick in 2012 and flashed some potential in the money position in the dime package. Tavon should still be the long-term developmental strong safety, but is he ready to beat out Adrian this preseason? It might be a tall order.

Steve Gregory was inconsistent or hurt for most of 2012, capping the season off with an atrocious showing in the AFC championship. His high cap number will be working against him, and in truth, he's a better fit as a free safety—the spot occupied by McCourty.

Ideally, both safeties would be interchangeable whether playing deep or in the box, but in practice, each usually favors one side or the other.

Lastly is third-round pick Duron Harmon, who the Patriots shocked everyone by selecting—just like they had done with Tavon Wilson the year before. What does head coach Bill Belichick see in these strong safety types? Clearly it's a position he wants a lot of depth at. Harmon is the wild card of the bunch, and will have his work cut out for him to beat out three veterans.

Two of the strong safeties should see significant playing time, likely with Adrian Wilson as the starting strong safety and Tavon Wilson as the dime linebacker. Gregory could be useful on the back end in sub-packages, but is that a significant enough role to win him a roster spot?

If McCourty can prevent the deep balls and the two Wilsons can improve the defense in the flat against slot receivers and tight ends, the Pats defense should take big strides forward.

 

3. Defensive End/Designated Pass-Rusher

Candidates: Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, Justin Francis, Michael Buchanan, Marcus Benard, Jason Vega

With Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones entrenched as the edge players, there are still at least a couple open spots for rotational defensive ends along with a designated pass-rusher (DPR).

The DPR spot is the most intriguing. It was filled by Mark Anderson for much of 2011 before Andre Carter's injury forced him into a full-time role. In 2012, hopes were that Trevor Scott could do the job, but he was just average at best and remains a free agent.

So now, barring another veteran free-agent acquisition such as John Abraham, the Pats collection of young in-house defensive ends will compete for a significant role on defense.

Belichick has long been a fan of Cunningham, but he has struggled to carve out a role and was thrust into an interior pass-rusher role last season out of necessity. He won't have the inside track on that role this season.

Perhaps the best fit given his skill set is Jake Bequette, who looked improved in OTAs and minicamp this offseason. He played primarily as a Wide 9 defensive end in college—effectively the same role as the designated pass-rusher in the pros. He'll need to have acquired some more NFL pass rush savvy, but overall, he has the size and speed desired for the spot.

Justin Francis was playing over both Cunningham and Bequette by the end of last season and plays with great energy, but at 6'2" and 275 pounds, he's a bit undersized for significant defensive end snaps. His best fit could be as a utility DPR, both inside and outside.

Michael Buchanan was considered a steal in the seventh round of the draft, and he is one of the great unknowns in his camp battle. Could he make an instant impact like Chandler Jones? He'll be one to watch once the pads come on.

Vet Marcus Benard had 7.5 sacks in 2010 but has battled injuries the last two seasons. If he could return to form, he could be the pass-rusher no one is talking about. He's the one veteran free agents who could surprise.

Jason Vega played in the CFL, and one CFL exec told Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe that his game compares to Ninkovich's. He's another under-the-radar pass-rusher.

The Pats have a number of options at defensive end, but none are proven NFL pass-rushers, and that is a bit scary. One will have to emerge in camp, or the Pats could be forced to overspend on a veteran insurance policy like Abraham.

 

Honorable Mentions

Coverage Linebacker

Like the need for a strong safety who can cover in the box, the Pats could also use a linebacker who can excel in coverage. Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower rotated in the role last season. Dane Fletcher, Jamie Collins and Steve Beauharnais will all compete with them for it this season.

 

Tight End 

With Gronk likely out the first six weeks of the season, there should be an open roster spot for another tight end. Jake Ballard is the only lock. Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford will all be in the mix behind him.

 

Right Guard

Dan Connolly is the one offensive lineman who could be challenged for his job, mainly by Marcus Cannon, who has unique size and movement skills. Connolly was up and down and battled injuries in 2012. Cannon, along with Nick McDonald and rookies Matt Stankiewitch and Josh Kline, could get strong consideration with solid camps.

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