5 New England Patriots Who Will Steal Starting Spots in Training Camp
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For a no-nonsense organization that prides itself on "ignoring the noise," hearing about murder charges, forearm surgeries and third-string quarterbacks throughout the offseason was surely not what head coach Bill Belichick had in mind.
Nonetheless, training camp's commencement has allowed the Patriots and their fans to mercifully shift the focus back to football. Now that the players are on the field, there is considerably less doom-and-gloom talk surrounding the team.
That is not to belittle the Patriots' challenges. This offseason has seen transition unlike any other in the Belichick era. But with that transition comes opportunity and the Pats' personnel still has enough talent to fulfill New England's lofty annual expectations.
Though training camp is less than a week old, here's an early look at five Patriots players who could steal starting spots by the end of summer.
*Unless cited, all stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com
5. Jamie Collins
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Jamie Collins embodies the recent shift in the Patriots' front-seven philosophy towards smaller, but quicker, players in response towards the league's increasing emphasis on passing.
Brimming with athleticism, Collins stands in contrast to the typically reliable, but far-from-flashy prototypical Patriots linebacker, such as Tedy Bruschi or Jerod Mayo.
If Collins starts, it may be because he benefits from the Patriots' potential shift back to a 3-4 base defense. There is not much depth in the interior line behind stalwart Vince Wilfork, especially given Armond Armstead's unexpected illness.
It's clear the Patriots' personnel is currently better suited to play the 3-4, which shouldn't be that huge of an adjustment given the team's hybrid concepts anyways.
Regardless of the base defense, Collins' greatest value will come in sub packages and passing downs. Though Mayo will play nearly every snap, the Patriots have not had a reliable linebacker to pair with him on passing downs.
In 2013, the Patriots will have to face running backs like Spiller, Darren Sproles and Ray Rice. Fortunately, Collins' greatest strength is playing in space where he can utilize his uncommon athleticism quite impressively.
If he can help neutralize that aspect of the opposing passing game, that would go a long ways towards the Patriots' perpetual struggles to improve their abysmal third-down defense.
Considering the Pats lined up in their sub package about 57 percent of the time last season, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston, Collins will not go unused even if he doesn't play much in the base package. In that sense, he may end up a lot like Kyle Arrington, a cornerback who technically isn't designated as a "starter," but whose snap counts signify an important role nonetheless.
4. Daniel Fells
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Of all the tight ends behind Rob Gronkowski, Fells might draw the least excitement from Patriots fans.
He was not a former starter like Jake Ballard. He does not come with the promise and intrigue of a rookie like Zach Sudfeld. His name is not even particularly fun to say, like Michael Hoomanawanui.
However, Fells is certainly the most polished receiver of the group, and comes closest to replicating Aaron Hernandez's role as an F ("flex") tight end.
Despite playing sparingly last year, Fells still has 92 career receptions since coming into the league in 2008 and his 11.8 yards/catch average is 20th among tight ends with at least 80 receptions in that span. Even with Tim Tebow as his quarterback two years ago, Fells was still the 12th most-effective tight end on a per-play basis, according to AdvancedNFLStats.com
Granted, Fells' starting role would only be temporary, and that's assuming Gronk misses any time at all. But with the extra reps in camp so far, Fells has stood out more than any other tight end.
In fact, the writers at Patriots.com have even taken to calling him "The Big Smooth" because of his precise route-running and fluid movements.
When Gronkowski comes back, Fells will not see as much time as Hernandez did, as the Pats only used multiple tight end sets about 50 percent of the time when either Gronk or Hernandez was missing, according to ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss.
Hoomanawanui will probably be on the field for his run-blocking, but that might still leave room for another tight end in passing situations, depending on the development of the young wide receivers.
Fells may not be the athlete that Hernandez was, but his skill set can offer a reasonable facsimile, making him the best complement to Gronk.
3. Marcus Cannon
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The Patriots return all five starters on an offensive line that was a top-five unit in both run-blocking and pass-blocking in 2012, according to Football Outsiders.com.
But despite that continuity, some have called for third-year guard Marcus Cannon to displace Dan Connolly at right guard. Though Connolly hasn't been a real liability, his lengthy injury history makes him a bit unreliable in the long term.
This year, the injury bug has bit Connolly again, as he has missed the beginning of camp with a shoulder injury. Subsequently, the door has been open for Cannon to take first-team reps.
Prior to being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Cannon was projected as a second- or third-round pick before falling to the Patriots in the fifth round. Now fully recovered, Cannon has impressed in camp, rewarding the Pats for their risk.
Cannon has only started one game, but that came at tackle in last year's Thanksgiving massacre of the Jets. Per Pro Football Focus, Cannon graded out a solid +3.2 in that game, well above Connolly's overall neutral grade of +0.2. Indeed, Cannon's consistent work that night against Calvin Pace and Mike DeVito highlighted his upside.
It doesn't seem likely Cannon will stick at tackle, as he may not have the quickness to stick with top AFC speed-rushers like Von Miller and Cameron Wake. Plus, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are both locked in at the bookend slots for the foreseeable future, meaning Cannon will have to slide inside to see any real playing time.
Cannon is still relatively unproven and let's not forget his struggles last preseason. But with two years to sit and learn from offensive line wizard Dante Scarnecchia, it will be a bit disappointing if Cannon does not take a more decisive step forward in 2013.
2. Tavon Wilson
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The competition for the Patriots' strong safety spot is one of the closest in training camp.
What makes the battle intriguing is the wide range of body types and playing styles. Adrian Wilson's linebacker-like 230-pound frame has allowed him to play comfortably in the box throughout his career while Steve Gregory's 200-pound body allows him to move like a free safety.
At 6'0" and 210 pounds, Tavon Wilson represents the middle ground. Of course, that alone won't earn him the starting spot, but per Paul Perillo of Patriots.com, it appears Wilson earned some early first-team reps:
Also of note, McCourty worked with Tavon Wilson at safety during a team period while Adrian Wilson and Steve Gregory were paired on the opposite field. Rookie Duron Harmon replaced Tavon Wilson at one point, but it was interesting to see the second-year safety lining up with McCourty.
Though Wilson played 42.5 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps last year, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston, most of those came before Devin McCourty's shift to safety.
Nevertheless, AdvancedNFLStats.com still graded Wilson as one of New England's better defensive backs, though some of that may have been due to his four interceptions.
Even if Wilson does not start in the base package, as Reiss suspects, he may step in for Adrian Wilson in sub packages. One possibility might be playing the elder Wilson as a kind of hybrid linebacker to cover tight ends while sliding the younger Wilson back at safety in those situations.
Wilson has already demonstrated solid tackling ability and a knack for generating turnovers. If experience bolsters his coverage instincts, the second-rounder may end up seeing a boost in playing time.
1. Aaron Dobson
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After so much went wrong with the Patriots' receiving core this offseason, it appears the Patriots finally caught a break.
Aaron Dobson has arguably been the most improved player from spring, earning first-team reps and constantly dazzling with his grasp of the offense and daily sideline catches.
Dobson's 6'3", 203-pound frame is eerily reminiscent of another ex-Marshall receiver, Randy Moss. Like Moss, Dobson's long strides give him deceptive speed.
Even though draft pundits didn't necessarily portray Dobson as a pure burner, he still ran a 4.43 time in the 40 at the NFL combine. Watch Dobson run deep and you might recognize the same easy gallop that Moss used to zip past defensive backs in his prime.
It is extremely premature to expect Dobson to approach what Moss did in Foxboro, but the Patriots do not really need that kind of production from the rookie. Since Moss' departure, the Patriots have only used Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd at the X receiver slot, excluding the regrettable stints of Chad Ochocinco and Brandon Tate.
Dobson merely needs to draw that coverage away from the strong side and allow the Patriots to attack the middle of the field. Remember, Dobson may only be the fourth or fifth option in the offense. If all of Brady's options are healthy, the Patriots' offense will run through Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Stevan Ridley and even Shane Vereen first.
Dobson's importance heightens against teams with the unique personnel to cover all of those options, like the Ravens. On the occasions when the Patriots' usually impervious Plan A has failed, they have not been able to respond with a backup plan
Dobson is the only receiver who can provide them with that reliable counterpunch, making him a likely candidate to see ample playing time this season.