Patriots Training Camp: Top Five Position Battles
Many NFL experts predict a Patriots resurgence this year with the return of quarterback Tom Brady.
But during the hot and often repetitive days of August, position battles inevitably draw the attention of local newspapers and talk radio.
Even though it is only May, we attempt to name the top five.
Outlook: New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick believes that you can never have enough cornerbacks no matter how good or how bad.
Last year, the Patriots signed three journeymen corners in the offseason: Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster, and Lewis Sanders. Bryant was cut after he showed his inability to tackle and play press coverage. Webster was hurt and Sanders earned a roster sport because of his skills on special teams.
Just before training camp concluded, the Pats signed Deltha O'Neal to be a starter after he was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals. O'Neal was too slow out of his stance and too short to stop many of the league's tall receivers. Luckily, for Pats fans none of these corners were resigned. The Pats also traded Ellis Hobbs to Philadelphia for two fifth round selections.
The Patriots signed Shawn Springs from the Washington Redskins and Leigh Bodden from the Detroit Lions.
They also drafted Darius Butler from Connecticut who Belichick loved after working him out at Connecticut's pro day in March, as the other 31 NFL coaches were tanning at the NFL owners meeting in California. Belichick was the only coach not to attend.
Add Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, who the Patriots drafted last year, into the mix and it should be a heated competition for the two starting spots.
Starters: Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite
Many who watched Butler think he is ready to be an NFL starter. Butler, not known as a physical corner, has great speed (rarely gets burned) and is an intelligent player who didn't allow a touchdown in his last two years at UCONN.
Drafting Butler in the middle of the second round was considered a steal as many had the Pats taking Butler with their late first round pick that they eventually traded.
Butler, who had 10 interceptions in college, will be a welcome addition to the Patriots who have lacked a really good cover corner since Asante Samuel signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Interestingly enough, when the local media asked Butler which current NFL player he is most similar to, he named Samuel
Wilhite started the last four games of the season last year when the Patriots finished 4-0. It is always a good sign when a rookie plays his way into a starting role, as it indicates the coaching staff was happy with his improvements. Belichick who teaches young corners as well as any coach in the league helped Wilhite improve his man coverage skills last season.
Shawn Springs should compete for a starting spot, particularly if he can stay healthy. He adds veteran leadership to a young Patriots secondary. Wheatley, who is coming off a broken wrist, should compete with Leigh Bodden for the fourth corner spot.
Who makes the cut: All five corners should make the opening day roster. Butler, Wheatley, and Wilhite are locks. Spring has a high probability of making it and Bodden, who is the most likely to be cut, should add insurance to a secondary that has suffered its fair share of injuries in the past.
Outlook: When the Patriots drafted Laurence Maroney in the first round of the 2006 draft (18th overall), they had high hopes, but his performance has failed to live up to the hype. 12 picks later the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots arch-rival, selected Joseph Addai who ran for 1,000 yards in two of his first three years. It appears, at least for now, that the Colts made the better pick.
Last year, Maroney played in only three games after breaking a bone in his shoulder. He hurt his shoulder in week two against the Jets and sat out a week before returning against San Francisco. Maroney, however, looked tentative and was unable to lower his shoulder. Shortly thereafter, he was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
He showed flashes in his first two years when he averaged 4.3 and 4.5 yards per carry respectively. Maroney has break away speed, but often is indecisive and dances around at the line of scrimmage too much before making his cuts.
The Patriots demonstrated their concern about Maroney when they signed former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, 33, to a two-year $5 million contract that pays him $3 million in 2009 and $2 million in 2010. Taylor could compete with Maroney for the starting job. Maroney isn't likely to be cut, but the chances of that happening could increase if he performs poorly in training camp.
The consensus in today's NFL is that you need two strong running backs because one running back can't handle the load of defensive linemen who are getting bigger every year.
Sammy Morris, 32, has filled in admirably in his two years with the Patriots, rushing for more than 700 yards last year. What should help Maroney's case is that Morris and Taylor are in their early 30's, which can be considered ancient for a running back. Kevin Faulk should return once again as the Pats third down back.
Starters: Maroney and Taylor will receive the bulk of the carries, as they are the Patriots most talented duo. Taylor represents an improvement over Morris as a second back because he is about 10 pounds heavier and is more durable.
Who makes the cut: The inevitable problem here is that there are three players for two spots. If Maroney and Taylor have a strong camp, Morris might be expendable. But, Belichick might be willing to keep three running backs if he is still worried about Maroney 's shoulder. Faulk should once again be a lock to make the team because of how well he blocks and catches on third down.
Outlook: For most of last season, the Patriots two starting safeties were James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather. The Pats resigned Sanders to a three-year $9 million contract in the offseason. The problem, though is that Sanders and Meriweather both play like free safeties and New England lacked a strong safety who could play near the line of scrimmage to assist with run support and help cover tight ends.
The Patriots addressed this problem in April when they selected Patrick Chung from Oregon (No. 34 overall) who was rated by many as the best strong safety in the draft. His 384 tackles are fourth all time in Oregon history. Chung was a four-year starter who started every game that he played. He should be a welcome addition to the Patriots, as he has the versatility that Bill Belichick loves.
The ex-factor is Tank Williams who the Patriots signed last year to potentially groom as a replacement for Rodney Harrison. Williams, though, tore his ACL in the Pat first exhibition game—ending any hope of having a roving safety who could play a similar role to that of inside linebacker. Williams, who has suffered multiple knee injuries in his career, is familiar with the rehab process and should be ready for the start of the 2009 season. By June 1, Harrison will announce whether he is playing in 2009.
Starters: Patrick Chung, James Sanders.
Chung who played an NFL style defense at Oregon, which was more complicated than most college defenses should have an easier time learning the Patriots exotic playbook. The Patriots love his intelligence and athleticism. Chung, as Jerod Mayo did last year, should contribute right away.
Sanders is probably the Pats best free safety, as his coverage skills have improved drastically in recent years.
How it shakes out: The Patriots should find a role for Meriweather in sub-packages when they bring in five or six defensive backs. He might be used in a lot of safety blitzes or potentially as a third corner. New England has failed to find a solidified role for their 2007 first round pick. It's anybody's guess as to how the Patriots use Williams. A fan favorite or bench-warmer depending on the health of his knee.
Offensive Right Tackle
Outlook: With their fourth pick in the second round, the Patriots selected Sebastian Vollmer, a 6'7" 312 pound German nose tackle from Houston. Vollmer who lacks the speed to play left tackle should compete with last year's starter Nick Kaczur for the starting spot.
Kaczur is the weak link on the Patriots offensive line whose right side is inferior to their left side which has Matt Light and Logan Mankins. Vollmer could be a valuable asset for the Patriots, because there is a shortage of good right tackles in the league at the moment.
Starter: The Patriots fall in love with Vollmer in camp after he has a chance to work with Dante Scarnecchia, one of the best offensive line coaches in football. Scarnecchia should develop Vollmer from a raw talent to a proven starter.
Who makes the cut: The Patriots will likely keep both players. Ryan O'Callaghan who missed all of last season because of injury should return and add competition to the position battle at tackle. O'Callaghan probably needs a strong training camp and preseason to make the roster.
Outlook: No conspiracy theories here. With a team as good as the Patriots, there are position battles that will have little impact on the actual team's performance, but are fun to watch. Tom Brady is obviously set at quarterback and Kevin O'Connell who was selected in the third round of the 2008 draft should be his backup.
In the sixth round of the 2009 draft, the Pats selected Julian Edelman from Kent State who could play in different packages, particularly if the Pats are willing to run the Wildcat formation like Miami did a year ago. The coaches might script three or four plays a game for Edelman.
Starter: Tom Brady
Who makes the cut: Edelman, given his versatility, should beat out Matt Gutierrez for the third quarterback spot. Though, Gutierrez has aspirations of being the Patriots backup.