When the New England Patriots open training camp this Friday, it will mark the start of the countdown to football—real football!
Sure, we’ve had the draft and minicamps, but those were just a taste of what’s to come. The preseason is just around the corner, and the regular season comes after that.
In the meantime, though, we get training camp—a grueling, hot and fiercely competitive series of practices and scrimmages aimed at forcing the cream of a roster to rise to the top. The rest—aka "the milk"—spoils in the summer sun and either settles at the bottom of the depth chart or gets thrown aside entirely.
The Patriots had a wild offseason that was littered with controversy, injuries and new faces. Most teams tend to stir the pot a bit, but the Patriots may as well have thrown theirs into a centrifuge. Now, we have no idea how long it will take the cream to rise back up to the top or what it will look like when it gets there.
It’s unusual for a team in New England’s position to have many starting roles available, but this year, these roles are up for grabs like clear cards in a drinking game.
With just days before camp begins, we still have no idea which players the Patriots will trot out at wide receiver or tight end, two key positions in their high-octane offense. Their secondary is largely a work in progress as well, and of course, adding Tim Tebow to any roster tends to complicate things, too.
Here’s a closer look at exactly which positions will feature the most intriguing battles in the coming weeks and which players will win them.
The Candidates: Tim Tebow, Ryan Mallett
For all the attention he gets, Tebow is still a backup quarterback, and this Tom Brady character seems pretty entrenched as New England’s starter. So, like all backups, Tebow will need to earn his roster spot.
It’s been quite a fall from grace for the former first-round pick, who just two years ago led the Denver Broncos to a playoff upset of the big, bad Pittsburgh Steelers. Tebowing was all the rage, and the quarterback himself approached the legendary status Bill Swerski’s Superfans bestowed on a certain Coach Ditka: “Who would win in a fight, Tebow or God? Trick question—Tebow is God!”
Sure, his passing left much to be desired, but with diligent hard work and John Elway’s tutelage, he could refine his game. After a miraculous season in which the fan favorite gutted out win after win, he’d at least earned the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.
Then Peyton Manning happened.
The Broncos landed the future Hall of Fame quarterback and sent Tebow to the New York Jets and ultimately his professional demise.
The Jets unconscionably stuck with Mark Sanchez and his assured mediocrity, leaving Tebow to rot on the bench. Even when their season dissolved into a Benny Hill-style comedy, they eschewed Tebow in favor of Sanchez’s astounding ineptitude.
Even on the rare occasions when Tebow saw the field, the Jets limited him to quarterback draws and doomed gimmick plays. They mishandled the situation so badly that by the time they cut him loose this offseason, nobody in the NFL thought he was fit to play quarterback.
Nobody, that is, besides Bill Belichick.
So here Tebow stands, warming Christian hearts and New England’s bench, fighting for a roster spot and quite possibly his football life.
Ryan Mallett, on the other hand, entered this offseason as Tom Brady’s unquestioned backup and eventual heir apparent.
Since the Patriots drafted him in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft, Mallett has spent the past two years learning New England’s offense and watching Brady run it to perfection. He hasn’t seen much action during that time, but the last time Mallett played regularly—at Arkansas—he was outstanding.
An arrest for public intoxication torpedoed his draft stock, but he was one of the most productive quarterbacks in his draft class. Purely from a statistical standpoint, he deserved every bit as much draft consideration as Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker, all of whom went in the first 12 picks.
Gabbert was forced to start as a rookie for a woeful Jaguars team and hasn’t been allowed to develop. He must now fend off Chad Henne for his starting job and appears completely overmatched at the professional level.
Locker and Ponder were brought along more slowly, although both eventually saw in-game action—for the Titans and Vikings, respectively—as rookies. Both have experienced varying degrees of professional success and shown flashes of quality quarterback play.
Both are also at a career crossroads, with their respective organizations counting on them to take the next step in their development. In Ponder’s case, the Vikings are relying on him to help fulfill their Super Bowl aspirations.
Mallett, however, has been allowed to grow at his own pace with no undue pressure to perform. He hasn’t led a team to the playoffs like Ponder did last season. He also hasn’t been overexposed and fed to the wolves like Gabbert.
He’s an unknown.
With that, he carries the promise of great potential as well as the risk of abject failure. The Patriots can’t know which one will surface unless he’s actually forced into action.
My Prediction: Mallett
In two seasons at Arkansas, Mallett threw for 7,493 yards, 62 touchdowns and only 19 interceptions. He has first-round arm talent and presumably has a firm handle on the Patriots’ offense by now, two skills that are well-suited to New England’s fast-paced passing attack.
Tebow, on the other hand, isn’t a very good fit for their offense. His limited passing ability makes him unlikely to succeed in a full-time role for the Patriots. He may sneak his way into the playbook here and there, but neither quarterback will see significant playing time unless Brady goes down.
If that happens, Mallet will get the first opportunity, giving the team their only chance to win without completely overhauling their offense.
The Candidates: Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld
Unlike the quarterback position, whoever wins this battle will actually start for the Patriots. Of course they might just be keeping Rob Gronkowski’s spot warm, but if the Patriots once again employ a two-tight end set, at least one of these three will play a significant role even once Gronk returns.
I omitted Jake Ballard, who looks to have lost what little burst he had when he tore his ACL, and undrafted rookie Brandon Ford, who hasn’t set foot on the practice field yet due to injury. Aside from them, though, I think each of Hoomanawanui, Fells and Sudfeld enters training camp with the opportunity to prove what he can do.
Hoomanawanui was used primarily as a blocker in 2012 and caught just five passes despite suiting up for 14 games, including six starts. Not all of his snaps came at tight end, though, as he also lined up in the backfield, acting as the team’s de facto fullback.
Don’t expect his role to change much this season, even if he does earn more starts. He’s never caught more than 13 passes in a single season, and he may be even more important as a blocker this season if the Patriots are forced to rely more heavily on their running game.
Like the Hoo-man, Fells operated mostly as an extra blocker last season. He saw action in 13 contests, started four of them and yet managed a paltry four receptions.
Fells, however, totaled as many as 41 receptions during a season before, so he’s capable of contributing as a receiver, even if he wasn’t asked to do so last season. His game lacks sizzle, but as an accomplished blocking tight end with receiving competence, he could occupy the traditional spot in the lineup while Hoomanawanui reprises his role as fullback.
Sudfeld offers the most intriguing upside of the trio. Like the aforementioned pair, he flashes exceptional blocking ability but also carries the potential to make a significant impact as a receiver as well.
An undrafted rookie from Nevada, Sudfeld often functioned as an offensive lineman in the pistol offense. He can pull like a guard or lead the way as a fullback, then go out and make a nimble catch the very next play.
He caught eight touchdowns and ran for another in 2012, and at 6’7”, he makes for a formidable red-zone target.
An extraordinary athlete given his size, Sudfeld’s extensive injury history pushed him out of the draft entirely, but his workout results tell a much different story. At Nevada’s pro day, he performed at a level more befitting an early round selection.
His dual-threat skill set makes him the closest thing the Patriots have to a healthy Gronkowski. Sudfeld ran with the first-team offense during organized team activities, even spending time alone with Brady to catch extra passes.
My Prediction: Sudfeld
The Patriots will rotate all three in Gronkowski’s absence, but Sudfeld will distance himself from the pack with a strong preseason and earn the starting job. Fells will join him in most two-tight end sets, while Hoomanawanui will step in to keep them fresh and occasionally join them as a fullback to give New England a power-blocking personnel grouping.
Once Gronk makes his way back to the field, he and Sudfeld will team up to give the Patriots a devastating combination of size, speed, athleticism and blocking prowess.
The Candidates: Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington
This wasn’t much of a battle until projected starter Alfonzo Dennard set himself up for a likely suspension and possible jail time stemming from an arrest for suspicion of DUI. Suddenly, the race is on to start opposite Aqib Talib.
Arrington has the early edge mostly because he’s done it before. Despite being a lightning rod for fan vitriol, he actually led the NFL in interceptions two years ago.
The knock on Arrington is also his greatest asset. He plays the nickel corner spot better than anyone on the roster. Belichick might be loathe to let him stop doing what he does best and ask him to start doing what he doesn’t do particularly well, which is match up on the outside.
Dowling is an interesting case. He would have already grabbed hold of a starting role were it not for a rash of injuries. Since being drafted 33rd overall in 2011, Dowling has only played in nine games for the Patriots.
Still, he was drafted to be a starter, and that’s exactly what he was for the first two games of his career before landing on injured reserve. At 6’1”, he has the size to match up with bigger receivers and could develop into an Antonio Cromartie-type if he makes good on his potential.
According to NESN’s Luke Hughes, he looked like “the best player out there on the corner” during OTAs. As encouraging as that sounds, he’ll need to avoid his annual trip to the IR to put his talents to good use.
My Prediction: Dowling
Dowling rises from the ashes to reclaim the starting job he last held as a rookie in 2011, while Arrington covers the slot. With a little luck, Dowling will even stay healthy long enough to share playing time with a returning Dennard, teaming with him, Talib and Arrington to quietly give the Patriots one of the best cornerback units in the NFL.
Rookie Logan Ryan will rotate in as well, but don’t expect him to start.
The Candidates: Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon
Connolly has seen action at left guard, right guard and center during the past three seasons. Bill Belichick loves versatility in his linemen, and he might elect to use Connolly as insurance for all three spots on the line.
He’s performed well recently, starting 14 games at right guard last season after starting 11 games at center in 2011. He’s never made it through a full season, though, and entering this season at age 31, his body isn’t getting any younger.
According to spotrac.com, Connolly will count for more than $4 million against the salary cap next season before becoming a free agent in 2015. The Patriots could use this season to judge how Cannon fares as a starter, knowing that they can always fall back on Connolly if they need him before fully committing to the younger Cannon next season and letting Connolly go and freeing up a few million dollars.
Or Belichick could simply stick with his proven veteran.
Even if Cannon doesn’t unseat Connolly, his future with the team remains bright. The 2011 fifth-round pick received second-round draft grades before his diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The Patriots scooped him up, and he overcame his illness to the point where the former All-Mountain West offensive tackle now has a legitimate chance to earn a starting role in New England. Cannon’s development throughout training camp will be the key to determining his long-term position.
He played in all 16 games last season, including one start, at tackle. He’s been working at right guard this offseason but hasn’t played that position in a game yet. If he can handle the switch, he may indeed unseat Connolly as the starter.
If not, the experience will only make him more versatile, likely making him the first man up should any misfortune befall Connolly or Sebastian Vollmer.
My Prediction: Connolly
Connolly keeps the job but Cannon acquits himself well, earning significant playing time and putting himself in a position to seize the job outright in 2014.
The Candidates: Michael Jenkins, Aaron Dobson
Here’s what we know about the Patriots’ wide receiver depth chart: Danny Amendola is at the top.
Kamar Aiken and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins opened a few eyes at OTAs, but the Patriots can only carry so many receivers. Amendola, Julian Edelman, Dobson and special teams ace Matthew Slater are virtual locks to make the roster.
Promising rookie Josh Boyce out of TCU will likely make the cut as well, but he’ll need to really wow the Patriots to have any shot at starting, since he missed all of rookie minicamps and OTAs with a broken bone in his foot.
Jenkins is slow but sure-handed and experienced. Even if it’s just a stopgap measure, I expect him to make the team, which brings the total number of wide receivers to six. That doesn’t leave much room for any other projects, so Aiken and Thompkins will likely land on the practice squad initially.
New England cut Donald Jones and Julian Edelman is slated to begin camp on the PUP list, which means the battle to start opposite Amendola essentially boils down to Jenkins versus Dobson.
The Patriots undoubtedly want Dobson to win the battle, but they won’t hand him a starting gig unless he proves ready for the challenge.
A second-round pick from Marshall, Dobson profiles as an ideal “X” receiver who can add a legitimate downfield presence to the offense. At 6’3” and 200 pounds, he has the size and speed—he runs the 40-yard dash in the low-4.4 range—to stretch defenses and reignite New England’s vertical passing attack.
He also possesses outstanding hands, famously playing the entire 2012 season without registering a single drop.
In a perfect world, he’d win the starting role hands down. I’d also look like a more muscular version of Brad Pitt. Alas, this isn’t a perfect world, Dobson hasn’t really established himself and I’ve yet to be mistaken for one of the world’s best-looking celebrities.
He made a few highlight-reel catches at OTAs, according to ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss, but also suffered through mental lapses and dropped easy passes.
Maybe he was simply overwhelmed by his first taste of NFL practice. Maybe he was forced out of his instinctive reactions by thinking about his new playbook. Whatever the case, he needs to improve his consistency during camp to claim a starting role.
Jenkins is everything Dobson is not. He’s slow, for starters. They don’t call him “Molasses Mike” for nothing.
He’s also an established professional entering his 10th NFL season. His experience alone will serve him well during camp, but he hasn’t caught more than 50 passes since 2007, and he’s never had 1,000 yards in a season.
In that same mystical world, Jenkins would probably be their fourth or fifth wideout. But in this David Tyree and Bernard Pollard infested, Orwellian dystopia, he’s in the running to start while the more talented Dobson is the one playing catch up.
Jenkins somewhat mitigates this perversion of nature with his size—6’4”, 215 lbs—and excellent hands. Still, his winning the starting role would be more an indictment of his competition than a validation of Jenkins himself.
My Prediction: Jenkins
Jenkins wins the starting role by default, before being overtaken by Dobson, Edelman and eventually Boyce as the season wears on.
To spice things up a bit I’m going to get a little bold with this one—fortune favors the bold after all—and say Jenkins is even surpassed by a player who isn’t even on the roster yet. I recently profiled free-agent Laurent Robinson as a player who could really help the Patriots. Patriots.com just reported the team is currently working him out in Foxboro.