New England Patriots Players Facing Make or Break Training Camps
Vacation time is over for the New England Patriots. Come July 25, all 90 men on the roster will be within the confines of Gillette Stadium for training camp.
For the better part of a month, each player will absorb themselves in the playbook, in meetings and in on-field contact. The days will start early and end late. There will be joint practices with other teams and even four exhibition games thrown into the mix.
And by Sept. 1, 37 Patriots will find themselves either on the the physically unable to perform list, injured reserve, the practice squad or looking for work.
While training camp is pivotal for every player, it is especially pivotal for the incumbents on the roster fringe. Some of whom haven't hit on all cylinders yet. None of whom want to be one of those 37.
So the question is: Which returning Patriots are facing make or break summers?
Let's take a closer look.
Marcus Cannon, Offensive Guard
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The Patriots selected touted Texas Christian offensive lineman Marcus Cannon in the fifth round of the 2011 draft.
A 6’5”, 335-pounder, Cannon was decorated with an array of college accolades and seemed well on his way to being a high-round pick that April. But leading up to the draft, Cannon was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and his stock fell into the Patriots' hands.
In 2012, Cannon played in all 16 games and provided New England with a No. 2 option behind starter Sebastian Vollmer. He started one game against the New York Jets, but played sparingly for the most part. As Pro Football Focus's premium statistics explain, Cannon registered a grand total of just 166 snaps and graded out as the 40th-overall tackle in the league. That said, he allowed just one sack and three quarterback hurries.
While Cannon is agile enough to play on the edge of the line, his massive frame has him in consideration to see more work at offensive guard, where he spent select snaps last season.
The 25-year-old has potential. However, it will be up to offensive line coach Dante Scanecchia to put that potential to use. During organized team activities this spring, Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com reported that Cannon worked closely with his positional coach at guard.
Cannon isn't a violent blocker. He's not going to maul as much as his size may suggest, either. Those factors are what have limited him in the pros. But perhaps as he practices more steadily inside, he'll find a role as large as he is.
For now, he's vying for a gig behind right guard Dan Connolly and Vollmer at right tackle.
Steve Gregory, Safety
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In his first campaign with the Patriots, the former undrafted special teamer started all 12 contests he appeared in, notching 37 tackles, three interceptions, five pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
The 5'11", 200-pound Syracuse product provided New England's center field with an experienced presence. He was productive, but he also had momentary lapses in terms of both coverage and tackling.
In all, the 30-year-old Gregory is a quality defensive back; he just doesn't appear to be a long-term answer at strong safety. According to SI.com's Greg A. Bedard, formerly of The Boston Globe, Gregory's best fit in New England comes as a sub-package defender who can play a nickel or dime role when the situation calls for it.
The only issue there is that the Patriots have some other candidates who could also fill those responsibilities.
New England has invested a second- and third-round draft pick in safeties Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon over the last two years. And on top of that youth movement, the team also inked five-time Pro Bowler and ex-Arizona Cardinal Adrian Wilson.
Someone will fill the "Money" position versus tight ends and running backs. Someone will fill the starting position next to free safety Devin McCourty. Will Gregory be able to secure one of those niches? Time will tell.
Regardless, it will be a crucial training camp and preseason for Gregory.
Jermaine Cunningham, Defensive End
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A second-round draft choice out of Florida in 2010, defensive end Jermaine Cunningham has flashed an ability to get to the quarterback.
He just hasn't been able to do so consistently, and for a variety of reasons.
The 6’3”, 255-pounder started 11 of 15 games as an outside linebacker in the New England's 3-4 base defense as a rookie. In the process, he racked up 34 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup.
Then in 2011, the Patriots shifted more to a 4-3 front seven, which pushed Cunningham back to his college position at defensive end. But with Cunningham built more like a situational pass-rusher than the prototypical 6'6", 265-pound Patriots bookend, No. 96 found himself on special teams. Cunningham’s 2011 season came to a quiet close after nine contests when he was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
In 2012, Cunningham was on the bubble heading into training camp, but shined in workouts and in preseason games. In turn, he made the cut and found a role early as a undersized defensive tackle and edge-rusher on passing downs. He totaled 23 tackles and 2.5 sacks through his first 11 games before being suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. He played sparingly once reactivated, finishing with one tackle in Week 17.
Now, entering the final year of his rookie contract, Cunningham finds himself on a crowded depth chart behind starting ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Per NESN.com's Doug Kyed, Cunningham looked like he added some weight over the offseason.
Bulking up could very well expand Cunningham's utilization, although his battle for a roster spot should be a tight one nonetheless.
Julian Edelman, Wide Reciever
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A former Kent State quarterback and seventh-round draft choice, Julian Edelman has outlasted the likes of Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd at the Patriots wide receiver position.
And for the 27-year-old, 2013 is his biggest chance yet.
Edelman emerged onto the scene as a rookie in 2009, starting seven games en route to 37 receptions for 359 yards and one touchdown. When Welker tore his ACL in the final game of the regular season versus the Houston Texans, Edelman was the go-to replacement in New England's Wild Card playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. In that tilt, Edelman caught six passes for 44 yards and two touchdowns.
His success as a receiver in 2009 was not indicative of the 5'10", 198-pounder's next two seasons, though. In 2010 and 2011, Edelman combined for 11 grabs, 120 receiving yards. His biggest triumphs were seen on special teams, where he netted two punt return touchdowns and filtered in as a kick returner.
In 2012, Edelman re-carved a place in the offense, reeling in 21 passes for 235 yards and three TDs. He continued to provide a spark as a punt returner, recording another score. Yet after nine games, the slot receiver broke his foot and landed on injured reserve.
Durability has been an issue for Edelman. He has yet to play a full 16-game season through four years in the league. That uncertainty might explain why the talented utility man didn't find a long-term deal in free agency this winter. As ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates cited, Edelman signed a one-year, incentive-laden, non-guaranteed contract worth $715,000 in base salary with a max value of $1.015 million.
Edelman's "prove-it" pact with the Patriots makes him an interesting player to monitor in training camp. When healthy, he's tough to halt.
Daniel Fells, Tight End
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The 6'4", 260-pound tight end proved to be viable a viable asset in 2012, despite catching only four passes for 85 yards. He ranked seventh among NFL tight ends as a pass-blocker and sixth as a run-blocker, based on Pro Football Focus's analytics.
While he may not stand out as a receiver, it's clear that Fells is a factor in terms of moving the chains.
For all intents and purposes, Fells is serviceable depth at the position. But considering the 29-year-old is due a total $3 million in base salaries over the next two years, according to Spotrac.com, he's not as affordable as fellow Patriots tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard, Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford.
From a value standpoint, time will determine is worth. It's no argument that Fells can help the New England offense. He just needs an impressive training camp to continue to do so, given the other tight end candidates aiming at the same goal.
Last year, the Patriots carried four tight ends on the final roster. So the upcoming month will be make or break time for several men at the position.
Jake Bequette, Defensive End
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A third-round pick in the 2012 draft, Arkansas Razorback defensive end Jake Bequette essentially "redshirted" as a Patriots rookie.
For a 6'5", 265-pound pass-rusher who tallied 23.5 sacks in college, it was surprising to see Bequette play so scarcely in the defensive line rotation. By the time his first year in Foxborough had finished, Bequette had gotten on the field for a mere 29 snaps in three games, per Football Outsiders.
Bequette found himself surpassed on the depth chart by undrafted rookie Justin Francis and veteran Trevor Scott. He saw notable reps in some unique three-man fronts, yet was unable to get in the stat book.
As Bequette heads into Year 2 of his NFL development, the task of cracking the defensive end depth chart remains a tough one. There is the aforementioned Francis and Cunningham, as well as 2013 second-rounder Jamie Collins, 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan, along with free-agent acquisitions Marcus Benard and Jason Vega.
The 24-year-old could certainly make a second-year leap. But the room for error is minimal at such a stockpiled position.
Nate Ebner, Safety
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A rugby player first, Nate Ebner never played a down of high school football.
But in 2009, Ebner decided to walk onto the Ohio State football team as a reserve safety and special teamer. Soon after, he became somewhat of an unheralded hero for his high-effort, full-bore approach to the game's most under-appreciated component.
His playing style caught the eyes of his teammates and coaches. But after finishing his college career in Columbus, Ebner never expected to hear his name drafted. Yet in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, that was exactly what happened.
Ebner's impact as a Patriots rookie was felt on special teams. He finished with 14 tackles in 15 games, primarily making stops on kick and punt coverage units. And with a neckroll strapped atop his shoulder pads, he looked the part of throwback, lunch-and-pail football player to boot.
With that said, Ebner faces a tall climb in 2013. Still new to the sport—and the safety position—Ebner is one of seven men on the current safety depth chart. A position in which, according to Pro Football Focus, Ebner played just 36 snaps at last season.
Can Ebner make the team once again as a core special teams player? Absolutely. Then again, it should take a strong camp to solidify his roster spot.
Ras-I Dowling, Cornerback
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Cornerback Ras-I Dowling has been unable to find continuity at the NFL level since the Patriots selected him with the 33rd overall pick in the 2011 draft.
He has been unable to do so for reasons other than ability.
Dowling has played in just nine games in his first two professional seasons, starting two, and totaling 10 tackles to go with one pass deflection. As a rookie, Dowling tore his hip tendon in Week 2 and fell to injured reserve. In his second season, Dowling tore his quadriceps muscle in Week 7 and was sent to injured reserve once again.
Two years, a cumulative total of 176 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 6'1", 215-pound Virginia Cavalier is a physical man-coverage defensive back who can be an imposing presence when healthy. But largely because of his medical woes, Dowling's duties in the New England secondary have ranged from starter to dimeback.
Dowling reportedly looked strong during organized team activities, as NESN.com's Luke Hughes noted. If he can keep the momentum rolling once the pads come on in training camp, then there's a good chance his promise will finally be realized.